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Inside Diplomacy with the Ambassadors of Serbia, Lebanon and New Zealand to Spain

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Discussing the role of diplomacy from a different lens, the ambassadors of Serbia, Lebanon and New Zealand to Spain — Katarina Lalic Smajevic, Hala Keyrouz and Nigel Fyfe, respectively — shared their personal journeys and the challenges that the profession entails, in the event “Inside Diplomacy” March 28 at Calle Maria de Molina 2. In a conversation moderated by Jaime de Aguinaga, vice dean of the IE School of Global and Public Affairs, the ambassadors steered away from talking about their institutional roles representing their countries and opened up about their experiences within the highly demanding career of a diplomat.

Smajevic started by saying that she likes to demystify the profession and that she is the same as a person as she is a diplomat. “The only difference is that when you are young you think you have to present yourself in a way, but it is more about the balance that you have within yourself,” she said. “Know yourself first, then present yourself in a true way. That’s how you gain confidence.” Keyrouz complemented that by saying that what you learn in a job can shape your personality, and vice-versa. “We start very early, and we learn to adapt to this career,” she said. “Changing countries teaches you every time that there are still things to learn.” Fyfe added that diplomats are not used to talking about themselves and that despite the formalities of important titles, at the end of the day diplomats are above all public servants. “It’s a very noble professional, something we’re very proud of, something that implies a great deal of integrity,” he said. “But that’s who I am at the end of the day. I’m a public servant, and an ambassador is just a title I am given overseas.”

They all attested to the curiosity of wanting to discover the world as one of the main driving forces in picking their career choice. While Smajevic highlighted the historical changes taking place in Yugoslavia at the time of her decision, Fyfe said he drew his motivation partly from his country’s geographical location. “New Zealand is a particularly small country, so to feel like you are part of the world back in the 1990s was quite hard, because there was a sense of isolation,” he said. “To feel like you could break through was challenging.” The ambassadors then discussed the difference between the stereotype of a diplomat and how their jobs actually are. Keyrouz said that often times the fascination and idealization of the career causes people to forget that it is a long path towards finally becoming a diplomat — she had been secretary and counselor for 23 years — and that it is important to be realistic about expectations and the pace at which those evolutions happen. Fyfe noted that the most important thing to keep in mind is integrity and the interconnectedness of several different issues, and how these dimensions interact.

Smajevic added that diplomats used to be and sometimes are still compared to movie stars, thinking that it boils down to glamour and fancy receptions when in reality there is significant hard work behind the scenes. “It is 24 hours per day, it’s far away from the glamour,” she said. “When you are sitting behind the name plaque, it’s a privilege, but also a big responsibility. It’s very fast, you now have even more items on the agenda, and technology is allowing it to increase.” She added that although one gets addicted to the adrenaline of it all, it is important, to be honest with oneself about whether or not they are still enjoying it.

Keyrouz was asked about the challenges of representing a country like Lebanon, which is rooted in its diversity of people, religion and tradition, and to what extent this multiculturalism is a limitation and an advantage in her work. She said that it is extremely important to have all the different groups represented in public life — citing the example of parliament seats and ambassador positions divided through quotas to Christians and Muslims — and that to have a fair representation strengthens democracy. “This is also reflected in our everyday life, we have to search for compromise all the time,” Keyrouz said. “For a diplomat, this could be an opportunity as it helps to deal with others, teaches you how to work in a team. You have to work together to find solutions and this makes you realistic, helps to develop a good analytic mind, and to have good communications skills – all these are very useful for a diplomat.” She also added that this constant search for compromise also helps one to adapt and that if a Muslim diplomat is sent to a Christian country, or vice-versa, such past experiences can help enhance their performance and increase cooperation. The challenges, Keyrouz said, are to what extent compromise is possible, and to overcome personal rules and beliefs in order to serve the country as a whole. “As a Lebanese diplomat, I represent the whole Lebanon in all of its diversity,” she said.

Discussing the obstacles faced in negotiation situations and how to be an effective negotiator, Fyfe highlighted that especially due to the size and geopolitical weight of New Zealand, the country relies primarily on the legitimacy of international organizations such as the United Nations as a forum for discussing and settling important issues. “My country puts tremendous faith in the UN, in multilateralism, in the rule of law and the importance of international institutions,” Fyfe said. “We do not have the power to project on the international stage. We do not have battleships or weapons of great power. We have our diplomacy, our reputation and our reliance on the UN and everything it represents.”

Reflecting on the implications of their work to their personal lives, and the work-life balance, the ambassadors agreed that it is a difficult aspect to pursue, but that this balance should always be kept in mind when difficult professional decisions approach. “It is not easy to find the balance, someone has to pay the price,” Keyrouz said. “Even if we give our kids big opportunities, they travel a lot and meet people from different countries, every time they get to a new place they have to adapt and be accepted. Sometimes we have to do some concessions, not accept important posts because of personal life, but I do think it is worth it.” Smajevic highlighted the weight of such decisions especially for women, and how parents usually feel guilty for the toll that the profession often takes on their children. “Never forget your private life,” she said. “The challenges sometimes are there, but when you finish the career it is really when you make the balance of what you have achieved. But if you have failed with your family, that price is really too high to pay.”

Concluding with a piece of advice to international relations students and a reflection on what they would do if they were 25 and about to start their career in their field again, the ambassadors shared important reflections. Noting how technology has changed the job and how much bigger and faster the access to knowledge is, Smajevic shared a cautionary suggestion: “Do not forget that you are human,” she said. “Philosophy will be very important. Play music, work on your hobbies, do not become a machine. Work on your personal activities, human activities.” Keyrouz reinforced the advice, suggesting strong emphasis on human skills and psychology in a time when everything moves extremely fast. “Stop and understand what other want to transmit,” she said.” Besides having integrity and being tolerant, which will make you capable in a career of diplomacy or any other area, Fyfe said, it is vital to connect with one another. “All knowledge is important, we do not prioritize any of them,” he added. “It’s what you do with the knowledge, whether you’re trained in language, science, or engineering. Make the connections. That’s what we need, it does not matter what area you will go in.”