The international officer as a diplomat

The international officer as a diplomat

At the International luncheon at the NAFSA Conference in Houston we were treated to a speech by the recently appointed Deputy Secretary General of the UN, Jan Eliasson, former UN mediator, diplomat and Swedish Foreign Minister among other merits.

Jan Eliasson’s speech was the highlight of the conference. The experience and knowledge that this man has accumulated through his career is beyond imagination.

In his speech he focused on what he considers to be the three main factors that contribute to success or failure in human relations, in his case specially when mediating in difficult conflicts.

As I listened, I was struck by how similar these qualities are to those of an international relations officer. Here they are, with a little example of each.

Language, context and personal relations

His first important factor was language; the words we use and how we use them. The importance of being aware of the fact that the same word may evoke different feelings and carry a different weight in a conversation is sometimes the difference between failure and success. Always being prepared to rephrase a statement is an important part of international interaction.

The second factor was intercultural sensitivity; knowing the area in which you will be working in terms of the atmosphere and the cultural patterns and behaviour. Having the ability to show knowledge and respect for cultural heritage and customs will give you an advantage in almost any situation. It is also a way to show respect for your counterpart, by demonstrating that you care enough of your relationship to inform yourself about things that are important to them.

Finally, the third essential factor was personal relation; how you use your personality and how you conduct yourself. Offering a smile when needed, sharing something on a personal note without being unprofessional, and giving a little of yourself if appropriate are a means to open doors and facilitate success.

To sum up, the talents we develop in our everyday work make us very good diplomats. What we need to do is to further develop these capabilities, and make sure that these assets are recognised by our leadership.

After the lunch we were part of a smaller group that had been given the opportunity to meet with Jan Eliasson for more informal discussions. During the two hours we had with him, he generously shared his experiences, both failures and successes, and it became very clear that the devil is in the detail.

He noted that sometimes, however well prepared you are as a diplomat, the outcome may turn your way only through something completely unexpected. In other words, we cannot control everything the way we would like to. This also applies to the field of international education. So what should we do?

Thinking like a diplomat

During our informal discussions, Eliasson returned to the importance of internationalisation of higher education several times. He put a strong emphasis on education and its role in the global sustainable solution.

In his coming assignment as Deputy Secretary General of the UN, his focus will be on Development, Peace and Human Rights. As he pointed out, these three have to go together. If you lose one, the whole system crumbles. His main point was:

“Good international solutions should be a national interest.”

I believe that education can play a central role if he is to achieve his mission. Furthermore, I believe that if we are to achieve measurable success in the internationalisation of higher education, we need to take his advice, and try to work in that direction as well.

We should think like diplomats, and always consider both the national and the international benefits of the internationalisation of higher education.

Another aspect that we seldom consider is how well our work actually prepares us for leadership positions in general. How can we make our capacities visible to university managements, and how should we profile these competences for our benefit? It would be nice to have an exchange of ideas on this.

Photo by Lawrence Jackson/Pressens Bild