copyright: Eric Kruegl
Just before his travel to Sichuan Mountains with his son His Excellency had time to drink a cup of green tea with me in a café in Vinohrady and discuss about diplomacy, mentoring and the upcoming generation of young Czechs.
Mr. Ambassador, have you always dreamt of working in diplomacy?
No, never. However, I was a student during a breakthrough period and organizer of student movement at the Czech University of Life Sciences in November 1989. It was the first time that I found myself in the role of a negotiator. I supported students and negotiated cancellation of Department of Marxism and Leninism, creation of academic senate and the organization of the first elections. In 1991, a recruitment of university students took place at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I enrolled myself simply because I wanted to know if I could compete. I was eventually accepted. I joined the cultural division where I specialized in German-speaking countries and this has predestinated me to stay in the region.
What do you think is the world of diplomacy like?
Diplomacy is characterized by being at the boundary of two worlds. As early as Babylonia and Egypt resolved their problems and secured deals through diplomats. Unlike the work in a corporation, you represent opinions and convey attitudes. Diplomats try to find common interests and identify conflicts. It is a public service directed abroad with a strong link towards home and that is what I like about it.
It is nice that you perceive your job as a service.
I perceive my job as a gift. Diplomacy has always been connected to certain privileges and prestige, because you not only represent your country but most importantly the head of the state. Some people can live with the prestige while others do not know how to cope with it.
Source: Archives of the Embassy
How can one keep humility in such a society?
One can keep his humility by creating an inclusive environment around them. I try to speak to different people, I make time for interns and I try not to forget about what is happening at home. This is my method on not becoming too proud. The opposite is the exclusive environment where you are only surrounded by people from your area and your hierarchical level (such as ambassadors, politicians or CEO’s).
What is your mission at work?
I came to Austria with a clear mission and that to fiercely improve relations which could have been called non-relations until that time and to play down topics which made these relations more complicated. Both countries have gone through a strange phase – historical reminiscences of Austria-Hungary, shadows of World War II, ideological differences in the past, transitional periods of free movement of persons, the misunderstandings of nuclear energy and overall distrust caused by imbalance of life quality between the two countries after 1989. I have a feeling that after two years we did a great deal of work. The Czechs are perceived as one of the best neighbors and an important partner in Central Europe. The Government and the opposition do not have any problem with Austria. Hopefully time will come when we will all feel better in Central Europe than we do now.
You have a progressive and unconventional approach. You try to remove differences in the work hierarchy, you support interns and are active on social media.
I do not think that my approach is unconventional. If diligence is unconventional, then we are not doing well. I like to support people who need it and a little less those who tend to decide for everybody. It should never be the case that only the person at the top of the hierarchy can come up with ideas. It is important to connect teams and pull regions, cities and universities in diplomacy. I like to listen to interns and support their ideas. Actually, two of my interns in Poland suggested me Twitter and Instagram because they correctly understood that diplomacy must be accessible to a wider audience. I also understood that Twitter makes us more inclusive in this world.
Did you have an important mentor in your life that inspired you?
Yes, my father, but only until I was 13 years of age because then he died. Later I was only trying to envision what he would have done and said. My two uncles were also important during my adolescence and I am grateful to them. I played hockey, so I was inspired by different sportsmen. Overall I was lucky with my bosses. When you see that something is possible, you try it too. During the time where there were no regulations for interns, my boss in Berlin said: “Hey, why couldn’t we have some interns here when there are no constrains to that?”
Are you leading anyone?
I moderately try to influence how my children are growing up. We have discussions about all possible things. At work I can only devote my time to two interns aside from my colleagues. Conditions have to be created for finding a mentor. This can be easily done in the private sector; however, it is harder in the state sector. Institutions in Austria perceive interns as a full-valued part of the team; this is different in some more traditional countries. The Czech Management Association organized a seminar where both representatives of big companies and students discussed about how a good internship should look like. You can watch a recording of this. It was quite controversial.
Source: Archives of the Embassy
You often work with young people. Did you notice any problem which had not occurred before?
People resign on their own thinking. We all have a great number of information sources and we should decide for ourselves and only after that should we find people with a similar opinion and not vice-versa. It is incredibly important to preserve one’s own critical thinking. It is good to read ideological opponents on purpose even when we do not agree with them. It is essential not to close oneself into FB like-minded groups and people with same opinions and see the other side. We must prescribe some discomfort.
Do you have any suggestions for young Czechs? From my experience the Poles were more progressive than Czechs in Brussels.
I experienced Poland and you will find out that this is a character that is created by education and tradition. We should not dissemble; we cannot turn ourselves into Poles. We should start from our traditions, from a certain capability of finding out what is important and seeing the detail and being able to say that our unique experience from economical and political transformation which we did our own way is interesting. We now have a unique opportunity to use this experience during Brexit. We can jump in like after the Czech-Slovak partition and create tens and hundreds of small agreements which can hold the Brits together with our community.
What traditions can we build on?
Our ancestors were able to build Czechoslovakia on shambles of Austro-Hungary through the so called small “Masaryk work”. Meanwhile the Poles organized several uprisings with disputable results. From a long-term perspective it is a miracle that we are still living in this area as Czechs. We should not bow down to great powers. We should be able to agree with our neighbors, cooperate with them but sometimes to say “No, we do not want that. We are Czechs and this is ours.” I am upset when people see themselves so negatively or when they say we are a small country. Try asking a Dutch person if they think Netherlands is a small country. It is important to awaken some healthy confidence which does not lead to bad things.
Jan Sechter is an Ambassador of the Czech Republic in Vienna. He started his career in the Foundation of the People’s News (People in Need) and since 1993 he has been working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has worked himself up to a position of an ambassador in Poland and Austria. He speaks fluent German, English, Russian and Polish. Follow him on Twitter (@jan6869), Instagram (@jansechter) or read articles on the webpages of the Embassy or on Facebook. And if you want to meet him personally, why don’t you try an internship at the Embassy?