Articles - September October 2019

Multi-Dimensional Diplomacy: H.E. Miroslav Lajcak

Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic
James A. Winship, Ph.D.

H.E. Miroslav Lajcak (ME-roh-slahv  LYE- chahk), Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic, is a seasoned diplomat who began his career by entering the Foreign Service of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, then part of the Soviet sphere of influence, in 1988.  A graduate of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO) during the Gorbachev years, Minister Lajcak also holds a law degree from the Comenius University in Bratislava.  He recalls, “I always wanted to be a diplomat as far back as I can remember, from the time I was 9- or 10-years old when I read a book about diplomacy.  It’s a fascinating field.  It’s my lifelong profession and my passion.”

Spanning more than three decades, Lajcak's diplomatic career has seen remarkable changes in the political structures of the world, in the global economy and especially in the political map of Europe.  He has lived the diplomatic history of the late 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century.  On his watch the Berlin Wall fell; the Soviet Union collapsed; the socialist republics of Eastern Europe, once Soviet satellites, achieved full independence; the Czech and Slovak Republic that emerged in 1989 separated into its component parts in 1993, becoming the two sovereign states – the Czech Republic and Slovakia;  both the European Union and NATO have dramatically expanded their membership; and the Russian Federation under President Putin has reemerged as a central player in regional and global issues of politics and security.

“In a way,” says the Foreign Minister, “I have lived in three countries: first, Communist Czechoslovakia; then, democratic Czechoslovakia; and now the Slovak Republic.”  It is perhaps a product of the rapid pace of political change that Lajcak's official biography describes his professional life as “dedicated to diplomatic service representing both the Slovak Republic and the international community.”  That commitment is exemplified throughout his career.  So, too, the events that have shaped Slovakia’s emergence and Central Europe’s evolution have led him to be not only a career diplomat but also a politician as a member of the ruling coalition in Slovakia’s government.

To borrow what is most often a sports metaphor, Foreign Minister Lajcak might be described as a “triple threat” diplomatic actor.  A dictionary description of “triple threat” defines the term as “a person who is proficient in three skills or adept in three fields critical to their activity or profession.”  In international relations, it might be a diplomat working adroitly to represent his country, persistently involving himself and his country at a regional level, and productively offering leadership at the global level.

That sort of multi-tiered diplomacy is evidenced throughout Foreign Minister Lajcak's career.  He is currently serving his fourth term as Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and served as Deputy Prime Minister from 2012-2016.  From 2010 to 2012, a period during which he was not Foreign Minister, Ambassador Lajcak helped to shape the newly formed European Union diplomatic service, the European External Action Service, serving as its Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia.  Concurrently, he served as the EU’s Chief Negotiator for the Association Agreements of the EU with Ukraine and Moldova, as well as the EU Representative for the “5+2 Talks” on the Transnistrian Settlement Process.

That word “concurrently” appears frequently in Foreign Minister Lajcak's professional biography.  On the diplomatic side he has served as the Slovak Ambassador to Japan (1994-1998) and later as his country’s Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (2001-2005).  Between those appointments he served as Director of the Cabinet of the Foreign Minister and concurrently served as Executive Assistant to the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Balkans.  Building on these experiences he honed his mediation skills amid the post-conflict crises in the Western Balkans negotiating, organizing and supervising the referendum on the independence of Montenegro under the aegis of the European Union.  Subsequently, he was appointed High Representative of the International Community and European Union Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

More recently, Mr. Lajcak was elected to serve as President of the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations (2017-2018).  He is currently serving as Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and recently completed a year in the Presidency of the Visegrad 4 (Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic) - an informal but quite active grouping of Central European states that are members of both the EU and NATO intended to optimize cooperation between them, encourage democratic development, help shape both European and Transatlantic security architecture, and advance the process of bringing stability to that region.  Slovakia also served a six-month term in the European Union Presidency (1 July – 31 December 2016.)

All of these are rotating or limited-term presidencies, but each of them was fulfilled synchronously with Mr. Lajcak's responsibilities as Foreign Minister.  This combination of roles attests not only to the administrative competence but also to the remarkable passion and boundless energy that animate his diplomatic life, not only at the center of Europe but at the core of global institutions.  Diplomatic Connections was privileged to speak with him during a whirlwind visit to New York where he attended a meeting of past, present and newly-elected Presidents of the United Nations General Assembly.

Diplomatic Connections:  Your foreign service career has spanned an incredible era in diplomatic history, literally from the last days of the Cold War to the rise of new nationalisms, to the on-going search for a new international system. How has that panoply of events impacted your diplomatic career?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  I have the opportunity to live in a fascinating era. The '80s were years of dramatic changes as the Communist regimes began eroding and finally fell apart.  I saw those changes firsthand.  Alongside those experiences, I also saw the opening of archives that were not available even to scholars before 1989.  It was as if you were seeing the world with one eye.  And then, all of a sudden the second eye opened up.  I learned a great deal about my country and the system I was born and grew up in.  That helped me to understand much more about the world.

Diplomatic Connections:  How has that access to the archives of World War II and the Cold War changed your historical perspective and impacted your world view?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  That new knowledge offered critical insights that had been missing from my education.  It helped me to understand more of the past and to think about the world in new ways.  Slovaks have successfully transformed our country’s political, economic and social systems.  We learned something that other people can only read about in books.

As Slovaks we have lived on both sides of what was the East-West divide.  We really used to be a closed society with no possibilities to travel, hoping that one day we might join the European Union.  Today we have been members of European Union for 15 years and members of the Eurozone since 2009.  But I still remember what it was like to be on the other side.  Now, we are attempting to use our practical experience to help those who hope to follow us, like the countries in the Balkans or former Soviet republics, who are trying to get closer to Europe.

Diplomatic Connections:  As Foreign Minister, what do you see as the major issues confronting Slovakia today?   What are your greatest concerns for your country's political and economic security?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  Slovakia is a small country of five and a half a million inhabitants.  The most important thing for us is an international order that is stable and predictable, an order based on rules.  That is the best protection of our independence, our integrity and our interests.  Our biggest worry is that this rules-based order is now under attack.

Diplomatic Connections:  How so?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  For the moment, the rules no longer seem to apply.  Leading states that are more powerful believe they can bend the rules.   In contrast, Slovakia speaks up in favor of respect for the rules.  We support the multilateral system and the role of international organizations that were created by the international community in the years following World War II and that have evolved as the community of sovereign states has grown.

Slovakia’s vital space is the European Union. We are deeply and committedly integrated into the EU. Our economy is open, export oriented, and we are members of the Eurozone.  We want to see a healthy, active European Union that cares for every citizen of the European space.  We are actively trying to contribute to that goal.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do you feel that the security of the European space is under threat?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  Slovakia wants to be part of a stable European region.  We want to have good relations with our neighbors, which is the case.  At the moment, there is a crisis in and around Ukraine, our biggest neighbor.  We are trying to help stabilize that situation, both in our national capacity and also as the chair of the OSCE, so that people can focus on normal life, work, prosperity, and their families.

Diplomatic Connections:  Given your country's role, having been part of the Communist system, having been part of the Soviet sphere of influence, and now so deeply enmeshed in Europe, do you see Slovakia as having an opportunity or a responsibility to be a kind of bridge between the different portions of Europe?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  I'm not a big fan of bridges. We are clearly anchored in our space, which is the European Union and NATO.   We have clearly decided that these are the best guarantees of our prosperity and also of our security.  If you want to be a bridge, it looks like you don't belong anywhere. Bridges get burned. And this is not what we want.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ukraine has been under great pressure from Russia, in part because of the Russian annexation and integration of Crimea.  How do you think Europe should try to deal with that situation? How should OSCE, and Russia as a part of OSCE, be responding to questions about the future of Ukraine?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  We want to see Ukraine as a peaceful country within its internationally recognized borders. OSCE is very actively present in Ukraine with 1300 monitors committed to the special monitoring mission.  We have identified confidence building measures, concrete steps, that the OSCE believes would help improve life of citizens who are affected by the conflict.

OSCE believes that some momentum has been created with the recent election of President Zelensky.  He is very serious about bringing an end to the war and about the unification of Ukraine.  He deserves to have our international support.  OSCE will continue its policy of refusing to accept or tolerate violations of international law or annexation of parts of the territory of one country by a different country.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have just recently published a book about your experience as president of the UNGA, the 72nd General Assembly (2017-18).  Certainly in politics and diplomacy, one year is not a long time to have an effect.  How did you seek to structure your presidency in order to make it effective and impactful in such a short span of time?

How did you make your presence felt? How did you build your cabinet, your staff, all of whom you have to recruit from other countries? They all have to be seconded from their missions or from their foreign ministries.

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  The key is preparation.  It was very clear that my staff and I needed to be fully prepared and ready to hit the ground running from day one. First, we had to agree on what we wanted to achieve.   We tried to encompass this with the theme of my presidency – “Focusing on people: striving for peace and a decent life for all on a sustainable planet.”

Often the link between the work of diplomats or the work of international relations and the life of real people is missing.   My goal was to emphasize that we are only doing a good job when people can see it, people can feel it, and people appreciate it.  If we are locked in our organizational bubbles fighting over language and punctuation, believing that this is real accomplishment, then we are doing something wrong.   The goal of our efforts is the practical impact of our work on real people and how they perceive those efforts.

Beyond that our theme also sought to emphasize a balanced approach to all three pillars of the UN’s work – peace and security, development and human rights.

Diplomatic Connections:  How did you go about the task of assembling your leadership team?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  Earlier we made a very good decision by seconding our diplomat into the offices of two of my predecessors to learn more about the General Assembly’s work.  We identified good people from the previous presidencies and from other missions. It was very clear to me that we had to be balanced when it came to geographic regions.  And, I was concerned to have gender balance on the staff as well as youth representation.   More than 70% of my team were women, and we had a very young team.

Diplomatic Connections:  All of this is being done before the General Assembly session started, is that right?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  Exactly. I interviewed, personally, every person who was proposed to me to be on my team. And every member of the team knew exactly what their role was, what their responsibility was.  We established a very clear organizational structure, light on the top but heavy on the bottom. This is probably the best team I’ve ever worked with.  I'm very proud of it.

Diplomatic Connections:  You are here in New York to meet with the newly elected president, as well as the current president of the General Assembly.   Is there a mechanism to assist the Presidents of the General Assembly in learning from each other along the way?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  The out-going President of the 73rd General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador), has undertaken to bring together former presidents of the General Assembly. It is recommended by various UNGA resolutions, but it has not been common practice. Learning from the successes and the mistakes of your predecessors is the best preparation there can be.  And, that learning process is in the best interest of the United Nations itself.

Diplomatic Connections:  One of your special interests, whether at the United Nations, the European Union or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been on the work of peacekeeping.  Is the world’s approach to peacekeeping changing?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  In recent sessions, the United Nations has added a new expression to its lexicon, “sustaining peace.”   The idea seeks to put greater emphasis on dealing with peace not after the peace is lost, which is the usual model, but trying to preserve peace and prevent conflicts.

Diplomatic Connections:  This is a significant addition to the UN’s traditional language of peacekeeping, or peacebuilding, peacemaking.  Peacekeeping operations have never been busier than they have been during the last two decades, and monitoring those multiple operations has presented significant challenges.   How do you think peacekeeping operations and the work of peacekeepers should evolve?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  Peacekeeping is one of the most important, and also the most visible and noble activities of the United Nations.  Peacekeepers, under the blue flag of the United Nations, are very often the last best hope for so many people who suffer.  We need to pay close attention to peacekeeping operations and the difficulties they encounter.  We have to make sure that they are properly funded and have a mandate that is both realistic and achievable.

But too often when peacekeepers are sent to a certain area, there is no peace to be kept.  They are coming into a conflict where peace has been lost, where violence has already occurred and where only a tenuous ceasefire may be in place.

Diplomatic Connections:  That is a very different mission than what it was originally anticipated peacekeepers would be expected to do.   How should organizations putting peacekeepers into the field respond?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  The concept of “sustaining peace” tries to look at peace in its full cycle.  That begins with preventing conflict, addressing the root causes of conflict and trying to deal with them before they turn into real conflict.  It means not ignoring the flashing warning lights.  Conflicts don't happen overnight or all of a sudden. Normally there are signals, but we either ignore them or misinterpret them.   It is critical to deal with the conflict phase, but our peacekeepers must be better equipped, better trained and better disciplined.  Beyond that, we must pay greater attention to the post-conflict healing of the society, which is central to assuring that the conflict will not recur.

The goal is not only to address conflicts, but also to address all that led into the conflict and to make sure that, once we stop the fighting, it will not recur after the peacekeepers are withdrawn from the area.  The role of diplomats is to guarantee peace because once peace is lost there is not much to do for diplomats.

It's the military people who are dealing with the conflicts then.  Transitioning from violence underway back to diplomatic initiative is never easy.

Diplomatic Connections:  Now that your year is over and you have had time to reflect, how did your experience as President of the UNGA impact your continuing work as your country's Foreign Minister? Has the United Nations experience changed you in any way?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  It would be very strange if that was not the case. First, I became more global after the year at the United Nations.  The idea that we are all global citizens became much less abstract. I gained a deeper understanding that - by the way we behave, by the way we act, by the way we consume - we are all either improving or destroying our planet.  Second, I became more sensitive to gender balance.   Since returning from the United Nations, I have paid particular attention to the composition of the delegations Slovakia sends abroad, recruiting more women diplomats and naming more women as ambassadors. 

Diplomatic Connections:  Has your leadership of the General Assembly also impacted your leadership role in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  The focus on people is one of the priorities of Slovakia’s term as OSCE Chairperson.  Our three key words for our OSCE leadership are people, dialogue, and stability. These give rise to three priorities.  The first is prevention of conflicts, as it was during my time as UNGA President.  The second is greater investment in securing a better future.  And the third is pursuing effective multilateralism.  My fundamental priorities have not changed because, if you believe in these principles, then you try to promote them in various international platforms.

Diplomatic Connections:  That said, one of the most difficult problems the world faces right now is the rise of a very vehement, sometimes virulent, nationalism.  We see it in many places in Europe. We see it here in the United States. We see it in the Middle East. We see it certainly in Russia. How do you think the world of multilateralism, in which you've spent so much of your career, should respond to this rising nationalism?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  Multilateralism must deliver for people. People must believe that the international system created after World War II, which is based on multilateralism, on rule based order and on the central role of international organizations, is working and making their lives better.  Unfortunately, this trust in the system has been shaken because of a series of crises, short-term and long-term, happening around the planet.  But, I am absolutely certain that renewed nationalism is not an alternative to multilateralism. States and nationalities should not be locked in their own bubbles.

Diplomatic Connections:  How will the future of multilateralism unfold?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  I'm afraid that we are moving in the direction of creating new spheres of influence.  This is not good because the majority of the countries on this planet are small and medium-sized states.  For them, the most important principle is that rules must be respected and obeyed by everyone.  Falling under the sway of regional hegemons will significantly limit smaller country’s independence and freedom of action.  The rules governing international order should be made by the international community, not by the most powerful.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is it difficult for you to switch back and forth between your role as Foreign Minister and your multilateral organization roles?  You seem to have boundless energy for the work.  You always speak about it with a marvelous smile and enthusiasm. But is it hard sometimes?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  Yes, it is. It is hard because, to be honest, when you come from a small country, you are expected to listen and follow rather than to offer your own opinion. Second, I truly believe in dialogue.  Dialogue is the most powerful and most essential tool for diplomats. But I see the space for dialogue reducing. We are more and more talking at each other or about each other and not to each other.

If we want to solve problems, we must talk to those who do not share our feelings, try to listen to each other, understand where we differ, identify areas of agreement and seek compromise where there is disagreement.  That has always been the essence of diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections:  What do you want to be your legacy as foreign minister? What lessons would you offer for future generations of your country and the world's leaders, based not just your decade as Foreign Minister, but your decades as a diplomat?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  First, I am committed to the principle that countries like Slovakia need to have a strong voice and exert influence because diplomacy is like a second army as it pursues the goals of security and stability.  That is why I try to be so active in multilateral diplomacy.  This is an opportunity to put my values and my diplomatic service to a test in an international environment.  Each successful presidency or chairmanship adds to respect for the professionalism and integrity of our foreign service at home and abroad.  That is an investment in Slovakia’s future.

Second, I want to show that smaller countries also have their role and their say.  They should be listened to.  They can be part of the solution.

Third, I'm trying to actively promote what I believe in: respect for rules, a multilateral system, and dialogue as a basic principle of diplomacy.

Diplomatic Connections: After 30 years as a diplomat, and now four terms as foreign minister, what have you learned along the way that you wish you'd known when you were a young junior diplomat?

Foreign Minister Lajcak:  That would take another interview!  I remember what I once heard from one experienced elder statesman who said, "You have to be relevant if you want to be useful."  There is a great deal of wisdom in that.

Diplomatic Connections:  That is a marvelous note to end on.  Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you for your very pointed and insightful answers.  And, thank you for adding this interview to what was already a very full schedule in New York.

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