In Conversation

In Conversation with Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting

Interview and article written by Julia Vassileva, IRD Student at the College of Europe, Mario Soares Promotion

As young professionals who aspire to work in international relations, we may ask ourselves what skills are needed to tackle the challenges of our increasingly complex 21st Century, what mistakes we should avoid, and how we can make a wise and informed choice of profession which will lead us to personal accomplishment, while also contributing to “the greater good”. In the following, Amb. Thomas Mayr-Harting, Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process and Visiting Professor at the College of Europe, offers some insights into the diplomatic profession.

The interview was conducted on 21st October 2020, after Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting’s Compact Seminar for IRD students on “Challenges Facing European Diplomats: Practical Insights” in Bruges. I cannot thank Ambassador Mayr-Harting enough for the time he took to speak to me and for his sincerity during our conversation. I wish you a pleasant read about his insights and experiences drawn from a truly impressive diplomatic career!

What are the most important characteristics for a young diplomat? 

First of all, I would say a talent for networking and a willingness to engage with people. There are strong parallels between a diplomat, especially a bilateral diplomat, and a lobbyist. One specificity of these jobs is that the boundaries between professional and private life are fluid; especially if you work abroad, you are actually a diplomat all the time. If you want to build strong relations with people who are important for your country, it is very useful if you can also establish a personal – non just work-related – rapport. 

Such personalised relations will often also involve family members, on both sides. Of course, traditions have changed considerably since the time when I started; nowadays it is the rule for partners of diplomats to pursue their own professional careers, and rightly so. But if you go abroad with your family, this will have consequences for all of you. Becoming a diplomat is therefore a career decision you should make together with your partner if you are already in a partnership.

The second thing I would say is that, when working as a diplomat, you must always have a willingness to redefine and change. Most diplomatic services of small and medium-sized countries are only able to employ specialists to a limited extent, thus, most of their diplomats are generalists. “Generalists” does not mean that they have to be able to do everything at all times, but rather that they must be able to successively focus on new challenges. 

The third point I would make is that one should not be blinded by what is considered to be the more glamorous side of diplomatic life. The diplomat with a champagne glass in his or her hand no longer reflects the core realities of the diplomatic profession. On an everyday basis, a diplomat’s work and lifestyle is very comparable to that of others working in an international job, be it in business, as lawyers, or as employees of international NGOs. 

What are the biggest challenges for a diplomat? 

In small and medium-sized countries, the usefulness of a diplomatic service in the eyes of the country’s public is increasingly determined by how well diplomats and the service are able to protect the interest of their own citizens living or travelling abroad. This means that what used to be called consular assistance, and was considered “less important” than, say, political or economic work, is becoming increasingly central. This year, for example, many foreign ministries have gained additional visibility and public esteem, thanks to being able to “bring people home” during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Any young diplomat should therefore also be prepared to make a contribution in this area. You may also have a greater sense of personal achievement if you have helped a concrete person in an emergency than if you are a small wheel in a big negotiation process.

What was one of your first big challenges as a young diplomat? 

Here, perhaps, I can tell you about my first two assignments abroad. I came from the College of Europe and my first position abroad was at the Austrian Mission to the European Communities in Brussels. There I was responsible for transport issues, among other things. Transport issues were, and still are, one of the more sensitive topics for Austria in the EU, since this is primarily about the burden on the environment in particularly sensitive Alpine regions, caused by European transit traffic. Dealing with this file demanded great willingness to delve into highly technical issues, such as the permissible axle loads on freeways, and so on. This forced me to become an expert in European transport policy in the four years that I worked there. At the end of this period, the question of what to do next came up. 

For a number of reasons, including the fact that I speak Russian quite well, I was sent to Moscow as Embassy Secretary and Press Attaché. I was there between 1986 and 1990, and my main task, apart from press relations, was to follow Soviet domestic politics. So, I moved within days from axle loads to observing Gorbachev’s efforts on glasnost and perestroika. This was an incredibly fascinating experience. But the interesting challenge was also to have to change so rapidly from one topic to another.

By the way, when Austria negotiated her accession to the EU, the last issue to be resolved was transit traffic. So, in the end, this was also a topic that became highly political. 

For me, the years when I worked in the first half of the 90s for then-Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock, in his private office on EU issues during the accession negotiations, probably represent the period when I had the strongest impression that, even as a still comparatively young diplomat, I could actually participate in a process of historical significance.

How do you realise that, or should I say, how do you perceive it when you are then involved in such historically significant processes as a diplomat?

Well, you don’t always realise at the time that what you are doing is as significant as it then turns out to be – and sometimes matters that seemed very important at a certain point in time turn out to have been quite irrelevant in hindsight. However, negotiating Austria’s EU membership was a “once in a generation” experience, even at the time. In my opinion, there is, apart from the State Treaty of 1955, no other development of such far-reaching significance to Austrian foreign policy after the Second World War.

Later in my career, I held more “important” positions in terms of status, was entrusted with more responsible tasks and had greater opportunities to shape developments. But I did not participate in another diplomatic process of comparable importance for Austria.

What do you think has mainly changed for young diplomats in the last decades? What must one pay more attention to? Or do you believe that many things have remained the same? 

As I already said, I think that diplomacy has become more similar to other international activities. 

Furthermore, I believe that in all areas of work, including diplomacy, structures are probably “flatter” than they used to be, especially in multilateral diplomacy. Also, there is a greater understanding for the needs of family members of diplomats than there used to be. A lot has changed here. 

What do you think is a beginner’s mistake that many young diplomats make, but which one should rather avoid? 

My father once said something to me on the subject of career choices that in retrospect seems very wise to me (not only for diplomacy). You should never make a career decision based on the highest level you can reach in your career – because only a relatively limited part of your entire professional life will be spent at that level – and not all will reach it. This means that if someone wants to become a diplomat because they find the prospect of one day being an ambassador attractive, they should first consider how well they would like to work in other, less exposed diplomatic functions. You need to be sure that you will also like the initial and intermediate stages.

The second potential mistake: I said earlier that the diplomatic service is less hierarchical than it used to be – but it still remains more structured than other professional activities. This means that you have a number of levels above you and you may be asked to do work that you think is very elementary in the beginning. The more “political” the field is you work in, the more basic you may feel your contribution is. For example, if you start out in the Political Directorate-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you might spend a lot of time preparing quite repetitive information briefs for incoming or outgoing visits. At important meetings, often only the higher-ranking diplomats and perhaps a note taker will be present. If you are in a “less political” job, e.g. in the consular area, you will probably be able to take on more responsibility even as a relative beginner. Nowadays, most young diplomats have completed several postgraduate studies and/or international internships before they go into the diplomatic service, and they may feel “underchallenged” at the beginning of their careers. You have to show some patience during this early phase and understand that this is also a learning period. Otherwise, you might find life as a diplomatic beginner frustrating. 

There is often a discussion about the way in which digitalisation has changed diplomacy – what are your views on that? 

The advantage of younger people going into diplomacy is certainly that they are fully familiar with modern technology. With digitalisation, work processes have certainly changed very substantially, even for the most senior diplomats. If you asked me what I feel sorry about with regard to my training, I would say that I very much regret never having learned to type with more than two fingers. Had I ever taken a proper course on how to work with a keyboard, this would have saved me many thousands of hours of work over the years. Apart from that, I think that social media and other new forms of communication, as well as the additional time pressure this creates, have affected the job profoundly. And I think that our most recent – forced – experience with videoconferencing will also lead to very substantive changes in the way we work; although I continue to believe that diplomacy is impossible without real-life contacts. Diplomacy is very much about developing personal relations and building personal trust, and a lot of that can only be done in person.

What is the most noteworthy thing about diplomacy? What does diplomacy mean to you? 

I have already stressed a number of times how similar to other international activities diplomacy has become. But there is one big difference: diplomats have a different type of employer. I would not say that what I have had to do was necessarily more difficult, more complex, or more important than the work of my friends and colleagues who had chosen another international career. But as long as I was an Austrian diplomat, my work was simply “for Austria”, and when I became an EU diplomat, it was “for Europe”. This may sound old-fashioned, but I enjoyed working for the “common good”.

Thomas Mayr-Harting (AT) is the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process. He was Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia in the European External Action Service from November 2015 to August 2019. Before that he served as Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations in New York (October 2011 to December 2015) and as Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations (December 2008 to October 2011). In the latter capacity he represented Austria on the UN Security Council in 2009 and 2010.

Thomas Mayr-Harting joined the Austrian diplomatic service in 1979. In the course of his career he worked, inter alia, at the Austrian Mission to the European Communities in Brussels, the Austrian Embassy in Moscow, the Private Office of the Austrian Foreign Minister and as Director for Security Policy and Policy Planning. Between 2003 and 2008 Thomas Mayr-Harting served as Political Director (Director General for Political Affairs) of the Foreign Ministry of Austria. From 1999 to 2003 he was Austrian Ambassador to Belgium and Head of the Austrian Mission to NATO.

Thomas Mayr-Harting studied law at the University of Vienna. He is an alumnus of the College of Europe (Promotion Karl Renner). In 1978, he was also awarded the Diploma of The Hague Academy of International Law.

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Featured Photo from the OSCE using Creative Commons Licencing

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