Icelandic Aplomb


Wife Adapts, from Women’s Issues at U.N. to Economic Crisis in D.C.

For many in this town’s diplomatic circles, her reputation preceded her arrival in Washington. Anna Birgis Hannesson, wife of Iceland’s new ambassador, Hjálmar Hannesson, is the energetic first president and co-founder of the United Nations Women for Peace (WFP) project in New York. Now that she’s in Washington, she hopes to stir up some interest in the nation’s capital for her cause.

“This peace initiative is so important,” Anna told The Washington Diplomat. “We want and need the women’s perspective and I would love to start a group here in Washington just for that.”

Anna began WFP while serving as president of the U.N. Delegation’s Women’s Club during her husband’s posting as Iceland’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.

“Women don’t need to be based in New York to spread peace throughout the world,” she said. “We need … women’s voices in peace crises to negotiate between countries and within their own families. Women bring a different perspective and they can have influence on their husbands and sons; and the daughters, on their fathers and brothers.”

She added: “We need more women leaders, more women in higher positions and more women working with men, not against them. Women and men can make a bigger difference when they work together as equal partners.”

To that end, Anna helped to organize the Women for Peace Gala at the United Nations on April 17, 2009, a multicultural event celebrating International Women’s Day that followed the successful first WFP gala last year. “We filled the U.N.’s General Assembly Hall with 1,800 people and millions more viewed it on U.N. television,” Anna recalled of the 2008 fête. “We brought performers of all ages, religions and races from all over the world up on stage, but we all had the same message — the need to work for peace.”

The gala raised ,000 and helped to send four women from Uganda, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Tajikistan for graduate study at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. With the support of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his wife Ban Soon-taek, WFP has grown significantly, and this year the second April gala dinner honored Queen Noor of Jordan with a lifetime achievement award, as well as Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

“We have a simple message: Together we represent every woman in the world. We carry every woman from every part of the world in our hearts and minds,” Anna said. “We encourage and empower one another to become partners of peaceful societies around the world.”

Iceland in fact has a long history of strong and forthright women. When Iceland’s women’s party was established in 1974, it made headlines around the world. “Now the women’s party doesn’t exist because we don’t need it,” Anna said. “We have opened up the system and the political parties. In 1980, we elected our first female president, our current prime minister is a woman, and half the Cabinet is female.”

Iceland may have achieved gender equality in the political realm, but today the small volcanic island faces a problem that touches every Icelander: economic calamity. The sudden collapse of Iceland’s once-red hot banking sector and currency, the krona, last fall is the reason why Anna and her husband made the switch from New York to D.C.

Last November, the couple got word that Hjálmar Hannesson, who had been the U.N. permanent representative since 2003, would be posted to Washington. After Iceland’s financial crisis and turnover in government, the Foreign Ministry wanted a new face in the world’s most important posting. Today, the Icelandic Residence in D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood is up for sale with a price tag of .6 million, the embassy budget has been cut, and leaner times are ahead back home for this country of some 315,000 people.

In the midst of our cozy interview at the still-unsold residence, I asked Anna how she felt about moving into a home that was already up for sale. “The house was on the market before we left New York,” she said, “but it’s only been shown since we moved in. We live here as if we’re going to be here until we leave Washington. I can’t live here otherwise … I just put that problem aside.”

But Anna and her husband are confronting the crisis, and the bad habits that led to it, head on. “Iceland’s financial crisis has been more sudden, more severe and a bigger surprise than yours here. Last October, our three major banks fell in the same week,” explained Anna, who herself used to work for one of those banks before the crisis. “Iceland is also dealing with inflation to the point where a home loan may cost more than what that home is actually worth. When our Icelandic krona devalued, our loans doubled. And we’re having the worst unemployment, 10 percent, in decades.

“What’s scary is that it’s the well-educated people who are out of their jobs. And we have less construction now,” she continued. “Our first opera house is half built because it was supported by the banks. Many think that we need to change our currency to the euro or the dollar.

“As Icelanders, we are very careful with our production of energy and how it affects our land for environmental reasons,” Anna added. “Maybe we have to rethink that now, pick and choose what energy projects we’ll do. We don’t want to hurt our precious land but we have to think about our precious people. Our fisheries are still strong; we’ve had an exemplary policy of sustainable fisheries for decades now.”

But Anna admits that hard times ahead will change the way Icelanders live. “This is a personal loss to everyone,” she said. “We are now very careful about where we put our money. Our family, our children and grandchildren are affected too. We are all on a tighter budget, even here at the embassy where we are trying to do what we can with less,” said this plucky woman who doesn’t mind cooking and doing the flower arrangements for her diplomatic receptions.

Anna and Hjálmar, in fact, are a diplomatic team who know how to carry on through adversity with great aplomb. They have always considered diplomacy “their” job. “We are two people — one diplomat and one spouse — working in diplomacy,” the ambassador said. “It can be the most rewarding teamwork of any profession. We love it.”

Certainly, Anna has always done her part. Along with rearing three children and traveling all over the world with her career diplomat husband, she has always been supportive of Hjálmar’s work and her country’s mission, whether she was president of the Diplomatic Club of Stockholm or president of the United Nations Delegation’s Women’s Club.

“My husband and I always work as a team,” said Anna. “We even say, ‘We presented our credentials.’ When Iceland was a candidate for the U.N. Security Council, we worked together, with pleasure, to do everything we could to make that happen. It was our mandate.”

Even though Iceland did not make the final selection, this couple is always philosophical about life. “We take our work seriously but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. My husband always sees the glass as half full, not empty. And within our family, we are always playing jokes on each other.”

The Hannessons first met as teenagers at a youth club dance one winter in Iceland. “It was Easter and everything else was closed,” Anna remembered. “So we all went to this dance.”

From that moment on, they were sweethearts throughout school, marrying in 1966. Then together they headed to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he studied political science at the University of North Carolina. After being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, he stayed on at North Carolina for his master’s degree.

Ambassador Hannesson joined the Foreign Ministry in 1976 after teaching for several years in Reykjavik. Their first trip abroad was to Belgium and then onto Sweden. His first posting as ambassador was to Germany (with simultaneous accreditation to Switzerland, Austria and Greece) from 1989 to 1995, after which he spent three years in China as the first Icelandic ambassador to reside in Beijing. He was also the first Icelandic ambassador to Canada to reside in Ottawa. Typical of smaller nations trying to stretch their reach around the world, ambassadors are often credentialed to multiple countries while residing in one major post. During Ambassador Hannesson’s career abroad, he was asked to watch over 23 extra nations.

Even though their life together would take them to China and back, all three of the Hannessons’ children happened to be born in Iceland. Today, 33-year-old Anna Karin, their youngest, lives in Manhattan; her two older brothers, Sveinn Kristinn and Hannes Birgir, are married and live in Reykjavik. Anna keeps in touch with their children and four grandchildren with Skype, instant messaging, regular e-mail and phone calls. “Every once in a while I like to hear their voices, especially the little ones,” she noted.

Each time back in Iceland, Anna’s husband held a more important post in the Foreign Ministry, moving up the ladder to eventually serve as permanent representative to the United Nations, where he was also vice president of the 62nd U.N. General Assembly in 2006 and of the Economic and Social Council for two years.

And with each new foreign capital, Anna has learned the local language and studied art “to keep myself creative.” After China, she became a travel agent and led six tours back to the Great Wall.

While in the United States, she’s worked to introduce Americans to the natural beauty of her homeland. “This is a perfect time for Americans to visit Iceland. Last December, just before Christmas, I took the wives of 22 U.N. representatives to Reykjavik…. I will never forget their faces when we were in the big, hot spa at the Blue Lagoon one afternoon when it was already dark and hail started to fall on our faces! It gave everyone a natural massage on our necks and shoulders,” she recalled.

“You couldn’t feel our economic downturn so much then but now we do. But the good news is that foreign tourists can have a great time in Iceland for much less money. Next summer, the prices will be unbelievable for salmon fishing in our rivers, horseback riding across our unique countryside, or snow mobiling on the top of one of our glaciers. Traveling within Iceland is such a bargain.

“As for Icelanders, I’m sure we will get through this,” Anna said. “It will be difficult for a couple of years. For us personally, my husband and I have our health and each other. We all have to go slower and not buy more than we actually need. We just have to be able to live on less — turn off the lights when we’re not in a room, put a blanket over our shoulders instead of turning up the heat, walk more and drive less. But we have lots of good books, a good TV, and a good car and we’re not big spenders. We’ll go out less to dinner but we don’t want to cut down on diplomatic entertaining and introducing our country here. “Icelanders are well-educated and trained, flexible and tough. We’ll definitely make it. I’m sure of it.”

About the Author

Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.