WASHINGTON- As more than 600 men and women dressed in dark suits and cocktail dresses exchanged business cards and formalities,waiters and waitresses served hors d'oeuvres of salmon and reindeer. A computer projected pictures of smiling Finnish tourists on a wall.
Soon,Finnish singer Meri Siirala belted the country's national anthem. The event Monday marking 91 years of Finnish independence was roughly 6,000 miles from Finland at its Washington embassy.
It is crucial for the 186 embassies and consulates in Washington and New York,clamoring for attention during a presidential and congressional transition,to stage cultural events like this one.
As the eyes of the world fall upon a changed Washington next year,embassies are preparing for new relationships with an Obama administration.
But competition for attention in the nation's capital isn't easy.
Louis Goodman,dean of American University's School of International Service,said that a successful embassy separates itself not only from other embassies but also from a host of multilateral and nongovernmental organizations.
“The number of collective interests increases faster than the population increases,” Goodman said.
Cultural events,like a recent AU art exhibition sponsored by the embassy of the Czech Republic where patrons sipped wine and gazed upon photos of the 1968 Prague revolution,enhance a country's stature and diplomacy both in the minds of elected officials and the public,he said.
“There is an opportunity to be heard as you have not been heard before,” Goodman said.
Small countries like Finland are trying just that. Ambassador Pekka Lintu said that an Obama administration means new chances for advancement in Washington.
Finland's progressive stances on health care,education and the environment are better aligned with the incoming administration,Lintu said.
“There seem to be a lot of reforms. … Those can give us a chance to chime in. We know that there are many others who want to do the same,” Lintu said in an interview in the embassy's sound-proof conference room.
The Finnish embassy,built in 1994,is a sky lit,ultra modern,environmentally friendly structure that overlooks a wooded patch of land in city's northwest section. It hosts Finnish cultural events throughout the year and is home to the only “diplomatic sauna” in Washington,where members of Congress,journalists and other power players discuss Finnish policy.
“There's so little time for decision makers. There are so many trying to get their attention. Our story has to be good,” he said.
Lintu also understands that size differences makes it more difficult to negotiate. He has explained the Finnish system to audiences in Vermont and New Hampshire in hopes of shaping policy on a smaller level. But he emphasized that the embassy's role is to be respectful.
“We can't jump in and say,‘This is what we should do,'” he said.
Finland isn't the only country eager to increase its Washington representation. Ambassador M. Humayun Kabir of the embassy of Bangladesh flew to Denver during the Democratic National Convention and spoke with Obama's advisers. He also provided information to Sen. John McCain's staff during the Arizona Republican's post-election trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital.
Since he took over in 2007,Kabir has expanded cultural programs to show Bangladesh as more resourceful and creative than the press it receives on its poverty,frequent floods and natural disasters.
Kabir is proud that Bangladesh was the subject of two congressional resolutions in the last 18 months,one that expressed sympathy for a cyclone that struck the country in November 2007 and another encouraging the democratic process for its elections Dec. 29.
“You don't see things like that come that frequently,” Kabir said while drinking tea in his spacious embassy office. “There has to be synchronization between the interests of the United States and the interests of our country.”
That's why Kabir is hopeful Bangladesh,a country slightly smaller than Iowa,will have a more influential role next year. Its experience with floods and natural disasters make it well-versed both in disaster management and climate change,he said. Kabir also said that Bangladesh could add insight to Obama's global outlook from its struggle with rampant poverty and its predominant Muslim population.
“We have the experience you don't have because your system is different,” Kabir said.
While some countries are hopeful for more influence,others who already have plenty expect more of the same.
New Zealand Ambassador Roy Ferguson said that the embassy is the “eyes,ears and voice” for New Zealand and its agenda in Washington. A congressional caucus headed by Rep. Kevin Brady,R-Texas,and Ellen Tauscher,D-Calif.,advances New Zealand trade and agricultural issues,such as a potential South Pacific free trade agreement next year. He said New Zealand also maintains dialogue with the U.S. on global security and maintains a military presence in Afghanistan.
Like Finland and Bangladesh,its red brick embassy across the street from the vice president's residence sponsors events throughout the year,including an annual rugby tournament. It also helped coordinate the donation of whale bones to a National Geographic Museum exhibit.
The embassy is maneuvering its way through both a presidential transition in Washington and a newly elected prime minister in New Zealand. Ferguson said that he is the only one who might lose his position at the embassy during the transition.
“Both the major parties are committed to developing and strengthening the relationship with the United States. Foreign policy in New Zealand is non-partisan,” he said.
While the transition represents new opportunities for advancement,building diplomacy in Washington is a continuing process,Goodman,the AU dean,said. Relationships fostered in D.C. over the years are a significant reason why some countries have allies in Congress and others do not,he said. Those relationships often begin at embassy-sponsored events.
Regardless of each embassy's motives,the events are a treat for Washington area residents.
“What fascinates me in Washington is that everything that's local is international,” said Niini Vartia-Paukku,an intercultural consultant from McLean,Va.
Phukku had just moved to Washington from Finland for the third time in her life and was invited to the independence ceremony.
“It's important to keep your roots. For many,this might be the only connection,” she said.