A Country that Can

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The compelling and successful slogan for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was “Yes, we can!”

These words resonated strongly with the unbounded confidence and undeniable resilience of the American psyche – the unconquerable spirit of a people who believe that anything is possible in the US of A.

President Obama inherited an unparalleled political, fiscal and social quagmire. He went into this with his eyes open and in the first hundred and fifty days has shown no signs of abandoning his all-out attack on the wide range of problems confronting the nation. It is yet natural that his brave approach has evoked not only considerable admiration, but also a wave of sympathy from observers worldwide.

The current recession, though global, is attributable largely to the profligacy and shabby governance of the previous US administration and the outrageous greed of the banking community that it failed to regulate. The negative current account balance of $800 billion – the benchmark of such profligacy – is unprecedented in American fiscal history or that of any other country. The road to recovery will be long and hard, as shown in depressing economic indicators such as rising unemployment, the spate of mortgage foreclosures, bankruptcies, partial disintegration of the automobile industry and semi-paralysis of the banking system. The Economist rates the USA in 10th place among favourable business environments.

Another major headache for Obama is the poorly functioning healthcare system, in spite of spending more than any other country. Education standards are of great concern. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), instigated by the OECD, the United States languishes in 24th place. Bush left Obama a foreign policy in tatters. If two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) were not enough, the US faces ongoing embroilment in disputes between Arabs and Israelis, Taliban-infested Pakistani border areas, al-Qaeda attacks, the threat of nuclear escalations in Iran and North Korea, bitter arguments with Russia over missile defence shields, arms reductions, involvement in “orange” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and vociferous accusations from 500 million Muslims of being anti-Islamic (“the great Satan”). In terms of international relations and co-operation, America under Bush experienced friction with her allies over the conduct of the Iraq war, Guantánamo and prison torture, disappointed most major countries with her negative record on climate change and the Kyoto accords and finished up a lamentable 39th in the 2008 Environmental Performance Index.

Obama has asserted that he does not intend to shirk or ignore any of these sorrowful issues, but to tackle all of them simultaneously and advance along a broad front. Yes we can, but can he? Most of the world wishes him success, but where to begin? He might do worse than start in Helsinki, the capital of Finland.

This small pro-Western country of 5 million people is at or near the top of most league tables and offers a blueprint which scores convincingly in areas which plague Obama most. First in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) list of most competitive countries, it is second (to Singapore) in the business environment index, leads most of the world in R & D expenditure (3.5% of GDP compared with US 2.67%) and is weathering the recession comfortably, running proportionately the biggest fiscal surplus in the euro zone. Instead of bailing out ailing companies, Finland spends her money on retraining workers for technology jobs. Though spending only 7.5% of GDP on healthcare (cf. US 15.9%), Finland has, in tandem with Sweden, the most complete healthcare service in the world (twice as many hospital beds per 1000 as the US). Finland’s infant mortality rate is half that of America.

The Finns are the best educated people in the world, topping the WEF survey (41 countries) year by year in all three key subjects: mathematics, reading and science. Finnish tertiary enrolment in universities is the highest per capita in the world, their gleaming colleges of higher education being visible expressions of the link between knowledge and modernity.

Foreign policy? Finland gained her independence in 1918. In 1939-44, she earned the description “Europe’s Hero Nation”, holding off the Red Army for five years in face of huge numerical superiority, finally securing her independence. Helsinki, London and Moscow were the only belligerent European capitals not occupied during World War II. In spite of the bitter protracted struggle, Finland has maintained good relations with Russia since 1945, trades energetically with her huge neighbour and actually issued 505,000 tourist visas to Russians in 2008. Finland is regarded by the UN as the world’s super Peace-keeper. President Ahtisaari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for settlements he achieved in Namibia and Bosnia.

President Obama would find a number of other comforting facts in the Finnish blueprint for future welfare. Finland leads the world in environmental sustainability; she is also world leader in the management of water resources.

In the international sphere, Finland has an enviable reputation. In fact she has no enemies. Regarded as an ideal EU member – meeting her fiscal commitments and properly observing the union’s regulations – she is respected universally for her ready impartiality, and perhaps most of all her democratic model where flexible, medium-sized parties produce members of parliament who actually strive to carry out the policies they promised to the constituents who elected them. Finland is also admired for her absence of corruption, abhorrence of debt, minimal bureaucracy, nuclear efficiency, prowess in architecture and music, press freedom, talent for innovation, excellent macroeconomic management, observance of legality and generous aid. Obama may well marvel at how an understated society like the Finnish can achieve miraculous progress in so many fields – quickly and modestly. He would get on well with the inhabitants of this Nordic land – a country that could, and did.

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