Articles - May June 2019

A Career Built on Transforming Experiences:

Slovakia's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dr. Michal Mlynár
By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Diplomatic history is studied in terms of benchmark events - ceasefires negotiated, peace treaties signed, alliances formed, policies adopted or trade agreements reached.  Diplomatic practice can be studied in terms of formal, stylized communication designed to facilitate concord and to soften the sting of discord.  Diplomatic protocol offers carefully structured conventions that recognize diplomatic position and rank and are designed both to facilitate interaction and avoid giving offense. It is rare, however, to be able to see into the transformational life events that have shaped the development of a skilled master diplomat.  That is precisely the insight that Ambassador Dr. Michal Mlynár offers in our interview with him at the Permanent Mission of Slovakia to the United Nations in New York.

Start with the fact that the country Ambassador Mlynár represents has itself undergone multiple transformations.  Long a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia emerged as an independent nation-state in 1918 under the auspices of the treaties that ended World War I and broke up the empires of the defeated powers.  The new state had a brief democratic existence during the interwar period before being occupied by Nazi Germany in 1938–1945.

Liberated by the Red Army in 1945, Czechoslovakia lived under Soviet domination as part of the Warsaw Pact from 1948 until the collapse of the communist regime in 1989.  There was a brief flirtation with a form of more open government during the Prague Spring in 1968, a movement that was crushed by a Soviet intervention but partly set the stage for Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution that brought freedom and democracy in 1989 under the leadership of Vaclav Havel.  By 1993, in what was termed the Velvet Divorce, the Czech and Slovak Republics separated, each to follow its own path.

Ambassador Mlynár recalls that he was 19 when the Velvet Revolution started in 1989.  In Slovakia, it emerged from within the Comenius University in Bratislava, where he was studying at the time.  “It was fascinating,” he recalls, “to witness and be part of the people-driven changes that brought down the communist regime and reestablished democracy in Czechoslovakia.”  His personal life was transformed by the political events that changed his country and shaped its future.

He did not begin his professional life as a diplomat, however.  That, too, was a series of transformations.  “I graduated high school and began my university studies in the old communist-era days,” he notes.  “At that time there were not many opportunities for young people to study diplomacy unless they wanted to study in Moscow.  I did not find that idea too appealing, so I thought the closest alternative to diplomacy for me would be to study foreign languages.  My first love was English, but back then, if you wanted to study a western language, you had to couple it with Russian or Slovak. Since I was fluent in Russian, I preferred that language.”

Ambassador Mlynár holds a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics and Teaching Foreign Languages (English and Russian) from the Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia.  He began his professional career as a high school teacher (1993-2000), but then came another transformation.  He was selected to participate in the Fulbright Visiting Scholar program to teach and study in the United States at the Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington, California and at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).  “In the end,” he reminisces, “my plan worked out.  Focusing on languages actually did become my pathway into foreign relations and diplomacy.  That Fulbright year was transformational for me and had a profound influence in my decision to enter Slovakia’s Foreign Service.”

Early in his foreign service career, Ambassador Mlynár served a series of posts in the Foreign Ministry in Bratislava including in the Diplomatic Protocol and United Nations departments. He also served twice as Chef de Cabinet for Slovak Foreign Ministers. From 2004-2009 he was posted to the United Nations in New York as Deputy Permanent Representative and Political Coordinator of Slovakia’s diplomatic team during his country’s two-year term on the Security Council (2006-2007).  Following his service at the UN Mission, yet another career transformation awaited.
That is where our interview begins

Diplomatic Connections:  Prior to being posted to New York as Slovakia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, you served as Ambassador in Nairobi, Kenya with accreditation to UNEP and UN- Habitat, headquartered in Kenya.  Is that correct?
Ambassador Mlynár:  Yes. I was Permanent Representative to all the UN agencies based in Nairobi – UN-Habitat, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), and the United Nations Office at Nairobi (UNON). In addition, many UN agencies have regional offices in Nairobi.  Kenya was a very demanding and interesting posting for me, and it was also an incredibly rich learning experience.

Diplomatic Connections:  Your Nairobi experience highlights another aspect of diplomacy that often goes unnoticed from the outside. This is the reality that many ambassadors wear multiple hats.  You were simultaneously Slovakia’s Ambassador to Kenya as well as 11 other countries in Africa.  On top of that you also represented your country before all of the United Nations agencies and regional offices based in Kenya.
Ambassador Mlynár:  It was a challenge. Covering 12 countries total plus the UN agencies is not an easy assignment.

Diplomatic Connections:  It sounds like an almost impossibly complex situation.
Ambassador Mlynár:  Sometimes it felt that way. But I should immediately add that this was a labor of love. In many of these countries there are serious challenges whether from the perspective of peace and security or from the perspective of socioeconomic development.  In essence, my assignment thrust me into a regional, multi-agency approach.

More by coincidence than by design, my career had taken an almost ideal direction. Initially serving at the United Nations in New York, including working directly on the Security Council (2006-2007) before being posted to Kenya gave me a special perspective on Africa.  And, once I was working in Africa, the reverse became true as well – Africa gave me fresh insights into the work at the UN headquarters in New York.  And for two years before returning to New York as Ambassador, I served as Director General for International Organizations, Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid at Slovakia’s Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs in Bratislava. That series of assignments provided an exceptional set of truly defining professional experiences.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the importance of the United Nations to Slovakia and your country's diplomacy?  This becomes quite pressing especially at a time where multilateral institutions of all kinds seem to be under severe attack by resurgent voices of nationalism around the globe.
Ambassador Mlynár:  The United Nations is key for us.  Even though Slovakia was admitted as a new UN Member State after the split-up of Czechoslovakia in January 1993, we were not new to the UN because we proudly refer to our former country, Czechoslovakia, as one of the founding members of the United Nations.  We have deep roots here dating back to the drafting of the United Nations Charter itself.  The UN is the place where we can engage directly on all critical global issues.

Diplomatic Connections:  What are Slovakia’s priority concerns at the United Nations?
Ambassador Mlynár:  Slovakia has priorities in all three pillars of the United Nations: peace and security, development and human rights.  Over the 26 years of the Slovak Republic’s existence we have served in all the central UN organs. We were members of the Security Council in 2006-2007, and we are now serving as a member of the Human Rights Council for a second time. We have also served as a member of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC] and continue to be engaged across the spectrum of UN activities.  Without doubt our number one priority is regional peace and stability in our Eastern and Southern European neighborhood.  That is followed closely by our continuing support to reform and energize the core United Nations institutions themselves.

Diplomatic Connections: How should the United Nations respond to the resurgent nationalism around the world that seems to call into question not only the goals but also the effectiveness of the United Nations efforts and programs?
Ambassador Mlynár:  Engaging in the multilateral context of global affairs has always been a defining principle of our foreign policy.  That is even truer today when the idea of a rules-based international order is under attack from multiple directions.  Even as the fundamental values of the United Nations face severe criticism, we must recognize that the organization is only as good as the 193 Member States can collectively make it.

Diplomatic Connections:  United States Secretary of State Pompeo recently paid a visit to several of the Eastern and Central European nations, including Slovakia.  Out of that visit appeared an intriguing photo of Secretary of State Pompeo and Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Lajcak standing next to a bust of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.  Could you explain the significance of that statue?  It is surprising to see a bust of a U.S. president in the courtyard of the Slovak Foreign Ministry.
Ambassador Mlynár:  We are really very proud of that bust.  It is a materialization of the importance that we attach to the role that former President Woodrow Wilson played in the emergence of Czechoslovakia after World War I.  We owe our statehood largely to Wilson’s vision of a post-war peace in Europe as outlined in his “Fourteen Points” speech.

The creation and the placement of that bust was actually a joint effort of a group of Slovakia’s ambassadors.  It was paid for not from public funds but from our small private contributions.  The bust is a strong symbol of the continuing friendship between Slovakia and the United States.

Diplomatic Connections:  What was the importance of Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Slovakia?
Ambassador Mlynár:  The last U.S. Secretary of State to come to Slovakia on a bilateral visit was Madeline Albright in 1999. Twenty years is too long between such visits when strategic cooperation between the United States and Slovakia is so critical for both our countries.  We were delighted to welcome Secretary Pompeo as we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia. This was a symbolic moment that reinforced not only the history of our country’s creation but also the continuing commitment of the United States to assuring stability, freedom and democracy in Central Europe.

Diplomatic Connections:  Given Slovakia’s history and its strategic location in the heart of Europe, peace and security issues have been major concerns for your country.  Despite Slovakia’s immediate security concerns you have also played a significant role in UN peacekeeping operations.  Where and how?
Ambassador Mlynár:  We are among the top contributors from the European Union states to UN peacekeeping operations, and we have been doing so for many years.  Our largest contingent is in Cyprus [UNFICYP] but we also have military observers in the Golan Heights [UNTSO].  Historically, we have provided troops to peacekeeping missions in Africa, in the Balkans and in Timor-Leste. Additionally, we have police personnel both in Cyprus and in Haiti.  Our numbers are not large, but our commitment has been consistent.  We have also provided troops to EU and NATO operations mainly in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

Diplomatic Connections:  Why does Slovakia believe it is important to participate in these peacekeeping operations?
Ambassador Mlynár:  There are multiple answers to that question.  We see this as part of our global responsibility, as part of our contribution to making this planet a better and safer place.  That’s the overarching purpose.  There is also an element of collective security.  We want the peacekeeping efforts to work and function more effectively because sometime in the future our own security may be at risk.  In practical terms, this is an excellent way for our troops and police officers to be involved in widely varied theaters of operation.  Our peacekeepers gain valuable training and experience that develops their skills and hones their readiness.

Diplomatic Connections:  Slovakia also has quite a broad definition of its role in peacekeeping activities, does it not?
Ambassador Mlynár:  Quite true.  Let me cite two examples.
First, we have taken a leadership role in continuing the peacekeeping operations in Cyprus based on our nearly 30 years of engagement on that divided island.  We believe strongly that when United Nations troops are deployed on the ground, those efforts must be coupled with political negotiations and development initiatives.  Simply put, there is no development without peace.  But, it is also true that there is no peace without development.  Slovakia has been very active in hosting the so-called bi-communal talks between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots as a facilitator and honest broker.  Our mediation efforts are underpinned by providing our military troops.  Such a comprehensive engagement demonstrates our strong commitment to peace and close partnership with Cyprus.

Second, one of the greatest dangers peacekeeping operations face in post-conflict situations is relapsing into renewed conflict.  When that happens, there is a risk that the conflict becomes more protracted and more deeply rooted.  For more than 10 years now, Slovakia, together with South Africa, has co-chaired the Group of Friends of Security Sector Reform bringing Member States together to confront the challenges faced by UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts.  Recently we hosted a high-level event on gender parity in the security sector, which was jointly sponsored with the Group of Friends of Gender Parity, co-chaired by Ghana and Qatar.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have one of the deepest and most fascinating backgrounds in the behind-the-scenes work of the United Nations of any of the Permanent Representatives serving in New York.  The world sees the work of the major United Nations organs on the surface, but the inner structures that do the heavy lifting of the United Nations are rarely visible.  Could you tell us a bit more about those inner workings, particularly the role that the so-called “Groups of Friends” play?
Ambassador Mlynár:  The “Group of Friends” structure is a relatively new method of work at the United Nations. The first “group of friends” emerged in the early 2000s to deal with the conflict situation in Georgia, one of the former Soviet Republics.  It was originated by a group of Security Council members who recognized that they needed a smaller more informal format in which they could meet with interested parties, whether they were Security Council members or not, to candidly discuss critical territorial and thematic issues.  The goal was to simultaneously sharpen the discussion and at the same time lower the stakes of policy exploration.  Freed of the constraints that the high visibility formal Security Council structures inevitably require, the hope was that more frank discussion could be held, more flexibility might be exhibited, and greater progress could be made.

Diplomatic Connections:  That “group of friends” mechanism has grown from those beginnings to become a substantial part of UN process, has it not?
Ambassador Mlynár:  Yes, the “groups of friends” have proven to be a very useful, practical and efficient tool for bringing together groups of interested states around a specific issue or concern.  These groups have become a means to galvanize interest and generate support among member states for specific issues.  The groups, and there are many of them these days, become avenues for informal and candid conversations on difficult or sensitive questions before the formal UN bodies.  And, they have been useful avenues for posing questions and seeking answers from the Secretary General and his staff.

In terms of the Group of Friends of Security Sector Reform that Slovakia co-chairs with South Africa, we have always referred to the group as an “interface” between the United Nations system, its various components, and the Member States.  The key purpose of these groups is to bridge the gaps that sometimes occur between what the UN is or is not doing with regard to a specific issue and how concerned states wish that issue to unfold.

Diplomatic Connections:  These “groups of friends” are both voluntary and self-generating.  Are they not?  They are a real part of the workings of the UN but not part of its formal structures?
Ambassador Mlynár:  Exactly.  Usually the “groups of friends” are set-up at the initiative of a small group of concerned states that act as facilitators and invite other Member States to join them in that conversation and preparatory work.  In most cases membership in any of these “friends” groups reflects the Member State’s priorities and expression of interest.  The groups have become an important additional tool for Member States engaging among themselves and, importantly, for holding the UN system accountable.

Diplomatic Connections:  Here is a question that has never before been posed in one of our interviews.  The answer may be revealing to our readers.  How large is your staff?  You obviously have a remarkable range of issues to deal with when the scope of the UN’s working agenda is considered.
Ambassador Mlynár:  That’s a very relevant question.  Slovakia’s mission is quite small.  There is the Ambassador, the Deputy and six line diplomats covering the six main committees of the UN plus a small support staff.  We are among the smaller to mid-size Mission teams here in New York.

It is certainly a lean team but a very dedicated, very enthusiastic one comprised mostly of young people.  I strongly believe that this is a lifetime opportunity for these young officers. Being posted to New York is a major impetus for their careers.  Truthfully, the most rewarding part of the work is to be able to engage with diplomats from the other 192 countries and with UN staff across a wide range of issues.  It is vital for us as members of the international community to learn what is of central importance to each of the Member States.  Every country has its own set of unique concerns that must be given credence.

Diplomatic Connections:  Imagine that as you are very senior in your career, you have been placed in charge of the Foreign Service Training Institute for Slovakia. What lessons, based on your experience, would you want to be sure to communicate to fledgling aspiring diplomats?
Ambassador Mlynár:  That is an interesting question.  It is particularly fascinating to me because, as a former educator, I always have students and training perspectives in mind.

First, I would emphasize to our young diplomats that they must never take anything for granted.  They must never become complacent or simply follow the mainstream.  I have seen repeatedly in my professional career that it actually pays off to look deeper, to read more, to consult more with colleagues and with peers.  It is critical to have as wide a picture of any situation as possible, given time constraints, if a diplomat is to analyze properly and make informed decisions.  In the world of diplomacy decisions are rarely black and white.  Perhaps the world was once bipolar and for a brief time there was a temptation to see it as unipolar.  But, there is no doubt that we are in the midst of a complex multipolar world that includes not only traditional nation-states but also an array of non-state actors as well.

Diplomatic Connections:  What must the next generation of diplomats know to function in that rapidly changing international system?
Ambassador Mlynár:  What that evolving international system looks like and how it will work remain open questions.  Young diplomats need to be equipped with a wide range of knowledge and skills.  My second imperative would be that there is no alternative to what might be called “footwork,” i.e. experiencing programs and people face-to-face on the ground where they live, work and turn policy directives into actions that have consequences.

Sitting in your office and writing required reports doesn't take you too far.  Young diplomats have to be out there in the meeting rooms and in the informal consultations engaging constantly with partners. That is the only way that things move forward and agreements are reached – by consensus or by compromise.

In addition, meeting the people who are impacted in real terms by the actions of our negotiated agreements and various resolutions is what makes diplomacy concrete and all the preparatory work worthwhile.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there a tendency for diplomacy to become self-absorbed, too immersed in process to understand the implications of the issues and actions being negotiated?
Ambassador Mlynár:  There are times when that may be true. Often foreign ministries underestimate the importance of hands-on experience.   There is a tendency to think that somehow things will happen automatically, as if words were actions on their own.  To be sure, something will happen but events rarely unfold as anticipated.

That realization leads directly to my third imperative.  We need to learn from our mistakes. Diplomats must learn from the past because too often we fall into the trap of believing that what has happened in the past cannot happen again. I'm afraid that mistakes are sometimes repeated.  Conflicts and other challenges do reoccur.  History does not repeat itself, but similar situations arise and the shared problems of humanity do not disappear.

Problems of the past reappear in new and often more dangerous forms.  Whether it is armed violence or arms proliferation or the weaponization of technological advances, the dangers of conflict do not disappear. Where familiar threats to global health are managed, new dangers arise.  Threats to human security repeatedly arise in new and unanticipated forms. We need to be mindful of that and learn from the past, but we dare not dwell in it. Preventive diplomacy and political solutions to crises are our new narratives.  Not least because prevention is better (and cheaper) than “cure.”

Diplomatic Connections:  Thank you for that distillation of your experience.  Thank you for the time you have spent with us today and for your insights.

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