Dear students, professors,
South Africa is the 12th African country I have visited since last October. And I’ve learned a lot throughout this year. I don't think any other foreign minister in the world has visited 12 African countries in one year. We did it on purpose. We want to rewind the relationship that we had—the relationship that we lost in the late 90s because of drowning in our internal problems and the need to focus on our return to Europe, where we geographically, historically, and culturally belong.
When I look at the past of our relations with African countries, everything evolves pretty smoothly, and there is a lot of depth and content in this cooperation. And then there is this gap from the late 1990s until now. The lesson that we have learned from this is that it doesn’t matter how solid your relationships are; every single day that you have not been investing in them, you are losing them. No interruptions in relations between countries like it is the case between people as well, because countries are essentially very similar to individuals: they have their own prejudices, principles, their own fears, ambitions, and miscalculations of their ambitions. But the first lesson to take away is that any interruption in diplomacy significantly increases the price of returning to diplomacy.
I think since the pandemic, every diplomat has become a crisis manager. Before the pandemic, some countries were very unfamiliar with the concept of crisis diplomacy. Now the pandemic has forced everyone to learn what crisis diplomacy is.
Unfortunately for us in Ukraine, one crisis led to another. Right after leaving the zone of the pandemic, we entered the war that Russia launched against us.
And here is an interesting thing: the world knows many wars. I mean, every war is unique when you are a party to that conflict. But for someone from the outside, so many things are happening in the world simultaneously. So the question is: What makes you treat a war happening thousands of kilometers away as something you care about? And the answer is the level of honesty and integrity you can allow when doing your foreign policy.
There are many important concepts in international law. I’m a graduate of international law, and international law must be respected at all times. But on the other hand, there are interests in different parts of the world. And there is also this famous concept of “double standards”. Every time you don’t want to do something, you shield yourself with the argument of “double standards”. And now we hear this argument being imposed again and reintroduced in the discussion again.
So a war is a test of what you believe in. And if you had been sincere and honest in the years before the war started, when you said that international law matters and that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of every country must be respected, then, when you are tested, you will have to stand by your words. And this is the most difficult part of diplomacy—maintaining integrity.
It's challenging. However, in the end, how we act in times of crisis determines how we all behave. This is how we are remembered. You can do a lot of nice things in times of peace, but you can make a mistake in times of war, and that’s how you will go down in history. And this imposes double responsibility on a diplomat to shape and conduct foreign policy in a way that your country does not get compromised, neither in times of peace nor in times of war.
The third challenge that we are all facing in our times is the reinforced perception of division between “the West” and “the Global South”. Those who read my interviews know that I don’t use the term “Global South” anymore. I do not use the word “West” either, at least if I’m not directly asked to do it. Because this is such a misleading interpretation. First, it creates the impression that the whole conflict is about “the West and the rest”, or “the North and the South”. And this is, by the way, exactly the key and fundamental narrative of Russian propaganda and Russian understanding of the world.
But if I look at the “Global South”, if I accept that it exists... It’s a catchy phrase, and since we are all human beings, we tend to simplify things. My question is: Where is the “Global South”? Even in Africa, would it be fair to say that there is unanimity among African countries on all key issues in global affairs, including the Russian aggression against Ukraine? No. The way you vote and the way you conduct relations with Ukraine and Russia make every country special.
Why would a country be willing to be dissolved—a country with it’s own history, its own identity, its own national interests, and it’s own stance—why would it be willing to be dissolved in a notion of “Global South” putting on equal footing South American countries, African nations, and Asian nations? I think it’s just incorrect. It does not match reality. And it gives the wrong perception of the stance of the country. And finally, it only reinforces the conflict. Because the more you use the words “Global South” and “the West”, or “the Global North" and “the Global South”, the more polarizing you become.
And the same applies to “the West”. It is true that “the West” is not a geographical concept, of course. You can find countries that claim to belong to the West in Asia, for example, or in Africa. But the West is also very diverse, if we even allow using this term. More nuanced, but still diverse. Another issue that I think is changing diplomacy forever is social media. There are tons of papers written about that. But what social media has certainly killed is secret diplomacy. Every time anyone tells you: “Why don’t we sit down in a closed room without cellphones, one on one, to discuss some sensitive matters?"—make no mistake: at least one element of the content of your conversation will be tweeted by someone within 15 minutes after you leave the room. And somehow, miraculously, none of you have even spoken with anyone. That is the way it works. And although secret diplomacy is probably not the best thing to do, sometimes you have to do it to solve the most sensitive matters. We, as diplomats, are almost entirely deprived of that opportunity now. This is a completely new element in diplomacy.
And finally, there is an issue of trust, because when you cannot do anything discreetly, trust becomes even more essential than it was. Trust is crucial in the lives of human beings, businesses, and states. It has never been more expensive than it is now. Especially in times of war and crisis management, if you trust your partner, you can forgive him or her for taking steps that put you on alert.
The issue of trust becomes absolutely crucial when you engage in diplomacy these days. It’s the biggest luxury, and you have to forgive a lot to your partner if you see the potential for trust that will help you deliver on the most sensitive and important issues.
There is this cliche about the world getting fragmented and polarized. It is true that the world is getting a scarier place to live, but we have to live in it, and we will. We have to be successful.
Whatever kind of crisis you find yourself in, always remember one saying that I’m using for myself. I keep saying to everyone—no pessimist has ever won a war, and no pessimist has ever sorted out a crisis. You have to be rational, but what drives you forward is optimism and belief in what you are doing.
This is what drives so many diplomats around the world, who serve honestly and sincerely the purpose of diplomacy: to defend peace, to prevent wars, and to restore peace once diplomats fail. Because a war is always a failure of diplomacy. International diplomacy or domestic diplomacy. But at the end of any war, there are diplomats sitting down at the table and signing papers.
I wish all of you to enjoy diplomacy — now I’m looking mostly at students studying this exciting subject — and to become excellent crisis diplomats, because this is the world you are going to work in.