Articles - January 2017

Ambassador Katalin Annamária Bogyay

By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Ambassador Katalin Annamária Bogyay (Boh-djayee) may be a Hungarian diplomat and her country’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York, but she is a true cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world and a curator of its diversity. She began her career as a communications professional specializing in the arts and became a noted television journalist and media personality first on Hungarian National Television and later as an independent London-based broadcaster. Her understanding of the power of the arts to communicate has led her to focus on the importance of cultural diplomacy, a term which she sees as disarmingly all encompassing.

Today, as a diplomat, she is insistently and persistently determined to build bridges across every kind of divide imaginable - between cultures, between countries, between religious faiths and civilizations, between governments and between peoples. She holds degrees in economics and in communications, but she merits an advanced degree in civility engineering as well.  

Through cultural diplomacy, she insists, we have the opportunity to engage in long-term bridge building that can overcome even political and ideological differences to build trust and understanding. That is why diplomacy is so exciting. Ambassador Bogyay is committed to the importance of true dialogue. “Dialogue in many countries”, she notes, “means that they speak and we listen. But that is not dialogue. Dialogue, going back to the Greek understanding, means that there are two or more people who are opening up and who are equally ready to listen as well as to speak. They are trying to understand, and they are open to changing their own views”. She recalls, with a laugh, that this kind of dialogue was the subject of her first speech before the United Nations Security Council after she arrived as Hungary’s Permanent Representative in New York in 2015. “Can you imagine”, she chuckles, “I was talking about the lack of a Greek understanding of dialogue in the Security Council.” There was notable silence in the room.  

Katalin Annamária Bogyay’s exposure to the arts began with her early training as a pianist where she learned the importance of discipline - how to concentrate, to coordinate, to be precise, to memorize. “But the main message”, she says, “was that even if the notes are played perfectly but there is not something in your heart that projects emotion, then there is no music.” That lesson has carried over to her diplomatic practice as well. She brings people together and helps to find the music that will heal their divisions. [The Ambassador also admits that she occasionally slips downstairs from her apartment to play the glorious Bosendorfer grand piano that graces the lower level of the Hungarian Mission.]  

Her life as a diplomat began only in 1999 when, at the request of the Hungarian Ministry of Culture, she opened a Hungarian Cultural Center in the heart of London’s Covent Garden. So successful were her efforts in London that in 2006 she was asked to return to Budapest as State Secretary for International Affairs at the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture. All of Bogyay’s cultural efforts culminated in her appointment as Hungary’s Ambassador to the Paris-based UNESCO, the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, where she served from 2009-2014. During that time she served as President of UNESCO’s 36th General Conference from 2011-2013. She began her role as Hungary’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in January 2015. 

Ambassador Bogyay was kind enough not only to host a reception for ‘Diplomatic Connections’  at the Hungarian Mission in New York but also to take time to speak candidly with us about her career and her experiences as a woman, a mother, an artist and the representative of her country at the top levels of multilateral diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections:
You began your career as a highly successful television broadcaster and arts critic a decade after communism had come to an end and Hungary had become a parliamentary republic. What factors led to choosing a diplomatic career and a career focused on cultural diplomacy at that?

Ambassador Bogyay: Remember that when I began my career we still lived under oppression. Our possibilities were limited. As a journalist I had to learn not only how to read between lines but how to send messages between the lines. I was mainly an arts correspondent, and I interviewed actors and artists from all over the world. But, under communism in my country and in Eastern Europe, the arts and culture were the strongest tools for talking about major issues. We were sending messages through a painting, through a piece of music, through a film, through a novel or a poem.  

Ironically, it was the restraints of communism that taught me the power of the arts to offer insight, to imagine resistance, to challenge beliefs, to explore differences, and to offer healing. 

Diplomatic Connections: How has being a woman and a mother impacted your diplomatic career? 

Ambassador Bogyay: I don’t believe that you can divide the various aspects of your life. You cannot say, Up to this point I am an ambassador or a professional and from this point on I’m a mother.  You are really all of these things at once. I believe in a holistic approach to life. Motherhood changes a woman’s perspective on the world. It changes her behavior and her way of thinking. Parenthood changes both parents.

Diplomatic Connections: How did those changes directly affect the way diplomacy is approached?

Ambassador Bogyay: When my son was born in 1987, no one thought that the Soviet troops would leave Hungary in 1991 and the country would become a parliamentary democracy. At that point, children, especially newborns, were the country’s future and our hope.  

Mothers, and fathers too, learn what unconditional love is. That child is a responsibility throughout a parent’s life because there was a conscious decision to birth and nurture a child. These two things carry over to diplomacy where diplomats are charged with protecting their country’s interests and nurturing global order and security. Diplomatic representation is responsible for shaping the world in which children grow up and the context in which they and their children will live.  

Of course, this knowledge makes decision makers more cautious. Whenever a parent, a leader, a diplomat makes a decision it is no longer personal. That decision has consequences beyond self for family, for country, for the earth. Whenever I said yes or no to any new job offers or possibilities, we three - my son, my husband and I - always sat down and discussed what each possibility might mean for us as a family. That experience i the origin of my insistence on multiple collaborations in all my diplomatic work.  

I always wanted to create a balance, to harmonize my roles as wife, mother and professional, whether in my communications career or as a diplomat. I like to talk about the importance of gender equality, empowering women in their possibilities while cherishing family values at the same time. 

Diplomatic Connections: Do women bring something different to diplomacy than men bring to the table?  

Ambassador Bogyay: Women diplomats are as rational, logical and tough as men, but they work with a great deal of empathy, intuition and creativity. They represent the other half of humankind. How can men decide the affairs of the world without involving women, who are the other half of the world?

Women are not superior to men in leadership abilities or diplomatic skills. It is necessary to be realistic and pragmatic. I do not believe in stereotyping women’s abilities. Still, if we are not using the knowledge, the experience and the talent of the women in diplomacy, conflict prevention and conflict solution, then we are losing a great deal.  

Diplomatic Connections: There was a great deal of hope in 2016 that the election of a new United Nations Secretary General might bring a woman to that position for the first time. There were several women candidates, several from Eastern Europe. None of that happened. Are you disappointed? Has an opportunity been missed?  

Ambassador Bogyay: Hungary, as a country, and my government would have wanted to see an Eastern European and a woman as Secretary General. We were very vocal about that. There was a group of ambassadors pointing out that no one from the Eastern European region had had the chance to hold the Secretary General’s position. Yes, we are also European but we have different experiences, understandings and knowledge from our Western European colleagues. We have different answers because of our past history living under oppression and occupation with limited access to human rights for so long. Because of that experience we had to learn to adapt constantly to change.  

Diplomatic Connections: Were you surprised at the election of Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal and more recently UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to be the new Secretary General? 

Ambassador Bogyay: Clearly, Mr. Guterres was on the top from the first moment that straw polls began being taken and stayed atop the list throughout the selection process leading to his appointment by the General Assembly. He has all the qualities we were looking for in a Secretary General. He was born for the role.  

When I congratulated Mr. Guterres on his election as Secretary General, I told him: ÒExcellency, although you are neither Eastern European nor a woman, I am certain that you will guide the organization gracefully and with great insight. We are very much looking forward to working with you.

But, speaking personally on that matter, I never really thought that there would be a woman this time. The world was not ready yet to have a woman running the United Nations. But, we have started a strong movement and a process of raising awareness. That is very important.  

Diplomatic Connections: Will the time come when we see a woman as Secretary General? 

Ambassador Bogyay: This recent selection process for the Secretary General was a beautiful start on making the procedure more transparent, the candidates more visible and more known, and opening up the possibility of a woman being elected as Secretary General in the future. Now that work must be continued and expanded. There will be a good chance that the next Secretary General will be a woman.

But, it is still necessary to work on the mindset of the people and the governments so that they will finally choose a woman. Frankly, it is not that the woman candidates were not capable of doing the job.

By the way, UN Women has started a new program called Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality in support of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations, especially SDG #5, which focuses on gender equality and the role of women in society. Under that rubric, I was honored to nominate Hungarian Judit Polgr, who became a chess grandmaster at 15 and was the first woman to be ranked in the top ten chess grandmasters by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), as a Planet 50-50 by 2030 Champion in support of UN Women. Her accomplishments proved that gender stereotyping is always dangerous. Yes, a woman can become the best even in a totally male dominated world. 

Diplomatic Connections: May we look back to your experience at UNESCO and more broadly to your experience in cultural diplomacy? UNESCO has always received a great deal of criticism for much of its cultural work, and yet it has also been very successful. How do you evaluate the importance of cultural diplomacy? So many people see it as a second or third tier of diplomacy. Yet you make a convincing case that it is very much in the mainstream of diplomacy. 

Ambassador Bogyay: I totally disagree with the people who talk about cultural diplomacy as not an important thing. Through cultural diplomacy at least we have a chance to try not to misunderstand each other. Peace and security start with educating children at an early age that the diversity of cultures, religions and civilizations should be seen not as a burden but as a source of inspiration.

In diplomacy and in politics very often wars start because of lack of knowledge, because of ignorance, because of misunderstanding, because of mistrust whether the perceived conflict comes from lack of knowledge or manipulation of information or some other reason. But through cultural communication we are touching another dimension of a person. Through cultural dialogue it is possible to touch the heart and the soul.  Cultural dialogue is about sharing. This is how I have been working for decades. Through such experiences, relationships are built through words and music and images with people whom we don’t know, who we haven’t previously seen.  

Diplomatic Connections: Culture reaches people because of shared experience? 

Ambassador Bogyay: Shared experience and the urge of expression. Culture is always an opening towards another world. Through cultural diplomacy, including science and education and sports, we are building long term bridges between peoples, nations, cultures and countries. This is all investing in a better understanding of the other person.  

Diplomatic Connections: What is UNESCO’s role in nurturing cultural diplomacy?

Ambassador Bogyay: UNESCO is about the protection of diversity. It nurtures diversity of cultures, diversity of languages, diversity of the biosphere, diversity of the environment. UNESCO is a place where diversity is celebrated.  

To be successful in any kind of international political collaboration, it is necessary to understand another’s identity. I don’t like the term tolerance because tolerance is a minimalist concept: I tolerate you, but I do not really hear and accept you. Instead, the goal is mutual acceptance. UNESCO invests in youth, in education, in science. All these are the basis for future peace and security.  

Diplomatic Connections: What is the importance of the United Nations to Hungary’s overall foreign policy goals? What can multilateral diplomacy accomplish that bilateral diplomacy cannot? 

Ambassador Bogyay: No other international organization matches the convening power of the United Nations. In the case of issues that can only be addressed through global action, the UN is the forum where such decisions can be made. The work of the UN is critical to coordinating implementation, pooling resources and ensuring that stakeholders work together.  

It is in Hungary’s vested interest to have its foreign policy goals properly reflected in the decisions forged at the UN precisely because it creates the framework for common action. Sustainable development, human rights, large scale movement of people, preventing conflicts, and counter-terrorism issues are only a few of the current challenges facing us. In today’s interdependent world implementation of national foreign policy goals can only be successful if they are properly understood and integrated into the UN’s functioning international framework. 

Diplomatic Connections: The year just past, 2016, represented the 60th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the uprising against Communist Party rule and Soviet domination that was forcibly suppressed by Soviet troops. Many would say that is in the past. It is Cold War history with no relevance to the current day. Why has this moment in history remained so important to you? 

Ambassador Bogyay: There is much we can learn from the relationship between the 1956 revolution in Hungary and the actions of the United Nations at that time. These events provide an object lesson in the work of the Security Council. What are the implications of the veto power held by the Permanent Members (P5)? What can the General Assembly accomplish on its own? What kinds of political and economic pressures can the UN bring to bear on regimes that violate international law and undermine global and regional security? Hungary very strongly supports the United Nations reform efforts with an eye to the possible restructuring of core UN institutions. 

We are part of ACT, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group, a cross-regional effort to offer concrete and pragmatic proposals to improve the working methods of the Security Council. We support the Code of Conduct which proposes that the permanent members would agree to suspend their right to veto in the Security Council if that Council were required to make a decision with regard to a mass crime or alleged genocide. 

Hungary has just been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council. There we stand ready to fight for the rights of minorities and other most vulnerable groups, including key rights such as freedom of speech and dissent.  

Diplomatic Connections: You have been very active in organizing the Circle of Women Ambassadors here at the United Nations. What is the importance of that organization, and how does it function within the context of the UN institutions? 

Ambassador Bogyay: Today there are only 37 women ambassadors among the Permanent Representatives (PRs) of the 193 member states of the United Nations. I keep inviting the women ambassadors to share knowledge and exchange views. Part of representing the concept that we would like to see more women in all areas of diplomacy is that we should know and understand each other well so that we can present our case most effectively.

The women ambassadors are particularly dedicated to the cause of protecting women and girls from sexual abuse, especially now in war tormented areas. I am very concerned about the problem of modern-day slavery and trafficking in women and children. There are many segments in our work where the concerns of women are paramount.  

Diplomatic Connections: What advice would you give to young women who look to you as a role model, who want to be the builders of bridges and would like to seek careers as a diplomat? How would you help them prepare?  

Ambassador Bogyay: Be a dreamer. Be an optimist. Be an activist. Develop imagination, motivation, courage and resilience. Always believe in yourself and never give up!  

Diplomatic Connections: That is a perfect ending to our conversation. Thank you, Ambassador Bogyay.


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