“Asia remains a great unknown for us”
Martin Klepetko played trumpet at the conservatoire in Pardubice, studied Musicology at Charles University’s Faculty of Arts and studied Conducting at the Academy of Performing Arts’ Music Faculty. He taught for five years at the conservatoire in Pardubice.
In 1993, when the need arose for new diplomats following Czechoslovakia’s partition, he applied to a recruitment process led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the basis of a newspaper ad. He was successful and since that time he has followed a career as a so-called universal diplomat, who has covered various fields of expertise and territories over his diplomatic career.
Martin Klepetko was involved in the International Observer Mission in the former Yugoslavia, then worked at the embassy in Tehran as chargé d’affaires e.p., and at the embassies in Baghdad, Sofia and Hanoi as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. At headquarters, he has worked for the South-East and Eastern Europe department, Analysis and Planning, was Director of the Human Resources Department and currently heads the Asia and Pacific States Department.
Our interview focused on parallels between conducting and diplomacy, career diplomacy in general and last but not least we spoke about Asia as a region which is still misunderstood and underappreciated in terms of its history and potential in the Czech Republic. And our meeting incidentally took place over a cup of tea brought back from his journeys in China and Martin told me of the rule he had learnt that in China tea is steeped briefly and repeatedly. The third steep is meant to taste the best.
Martin, in line of your previous studies and work, I must start with the question of what parallel there is between conducting and diplomacy.
As was mentioned in my introduction, my journey from conductor to diplomacy was not a planned one. But after it happened, I discovered that both professions have a whole lot of shared features. The principal commonality is management skills. It is well known that a conductor must be a good musician, must be able to play one or more instruments, yet he himself plays not one note. He must convince the other players, whether they are large in number as in a symphony orchestra or a few individuals as in a chamber ensemble, of his idea, enthuse them with his own concept and this is then reflected through overall shared efforts. Diplomacy is similar. If you’re sent abroad, it’s not a symphony orchestra you’re given, but rather a chamber ensemble and so it is all the more important that the collective act as one and not rather as occasional solo performances which do not resonate or complement each other. This parallel convinced me how important it is to be able to enthuse others and convince them of your own vision. As for myself, I am not someone who likes authoritarian management.
Your words validate one of the latest trends in management training in which managers try to improve their style through working with an orchestra.
I realise that it is easier for some people to manage others using a traditional authoritarian style through orders and tasks. I believe that despot conductors are a thing of the past now. A wise conductor knows that he has very high quality players available to him, and his task is to make sure everyone is working in harmony. This is also the task of a good diplomat. That’s why I prioritise opportunities to sit down with my colleagues and discuss what we can expect and then everyone knows what their role is and carries it out as they see fit.
What was it that led you to a career in diplomacy in 1994?
There is a Czech saying that necessity led Dalibor to play the violin, but for me it was the other way around; necessity led me to diplomacy. After five years working in the field I studied, I realised there were limited opportunities for career development. I didn’t want to wait for my older colleagues to retire so I could move into their positions. Remuneration in education remains a subject of debate today, but in the early 90s the situation really was terrible. To begin with I tried to earn extra money through various business activities but this just made me realise what a poor salesman I am. One day I came across an ad in the newspaper for diplomatic roles requiring a university education and two languages. I met both these conditions, applied and succeeded from amongst hundreds of candidates.
What was it like to undergo such a major change in occupation?
The change really was tough. I transferred from the relatively free career of a teacher with 22 teaching periods per week and all the school holidays into an institution where the working time was at least from 7.45am-4.15pm with 20 days’ holiday. From the outset, however, I was working in fascinating countries and so I dealt with the new situation well. In contrast to today’s new recruits, I was able to choose my agenda. I was able to choose between culture, Slovakia and the Middle East. I had left the cultural sphere, I didn’t consider Slovakia abroad and so I chose the Middle East. My work covering the Middle East was fascinating; I was in charge of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, countries which are today the centre of attention and taking up the front pages of newspapers, but at that time the situation wasn’t quite as tense.
It looks like you chose your departments strategically; today China, another department you managed, is also on the front pages …
You’re right, I deliberately haven’t chosen easy or might I say time off countries… I tell myself I have time for time off countries when I’m coming up to retirement. Time off countries can be considered those which in terms of development are calm, or countries far from Czech foreign policy’s main focus. Even in such cases there’s still stuff to do; monitor developments in the country, prepare reports and meet with colleagues and partners, but these are safe countries where there are no emergency situations. I have operated in countries which were not safe, or where things were happening…
I know it’s very hard for a diplomat to name names, but in light of the above, could your position in Sofia be considered a time off one?
But my position in Sofia preceded my position in Iraq. I grew fond of the Balkans, and Bulgaria is unique in terms of close relations, and also unique in terms of the large Czech expatriate community resident there with a history dating back over a hundred years. I’d like to say here that warm friendly relations are really important, because diplomats aren’t always positioned in countries favourably inclined to them. I also added to my role there by collaborating with a number of orchestras, and I conducted more than 10 concerts, including one opera performance.
What’s it like to work in a country not favourably inclined to us then? The task of diplomacy is surely to nurture close relations…
There are territories where we are simply on different sides politically. Take my position in Iran, for example. The Czech Republic is highly critical of Iran’s current political class, and although we endeavour to develop economic relations, differences in our perspective on democracy and human rights persist. In Iran, there were significant areas of friction, and for me as a diplomat my work was not easy because it was extremely difficult to organise a meeting on any topic at all. Furthermore, there are not a lot of visits or delegations travelling to the country. But diplomacy isn’t just about simple and pleasant topics and destinations. On the other hand, Iran is a wonderful country, the people there are incredibly hospitable, so you need to differentiate between ordinary citizens and the political representation with whom you disagree.
You and your career are an example of a universal diplomat, where you interchange between countries, bilateral and multilateral relations and further specific agenda at headquarters. What is the opposing model?
The USA to some extent, but especially Russia and China, have diplomats who have very narrow specialisations. They can then speak the language of the particular country and repeatedly return there. Here, we try to avoid sending people repeatedly to the same country.
Although only eight candidates a year are accepted at the Diplomatic Academy, diplomacy is still attractive to young people. What is your message to young people who want to enter diplomacy with a desire to change the world?
If you want to change the world, then do something else. Diplomacy is about change, but very slow, indiscernible changes which move the world forwards. Diplomats should instead try to maintain stability, not make revolutions in international relations. Diplomacy really is about learning to say not entirely pleasant things so that they don’t sound offensive, retaining credibility. One of a diplomat’s main characters should be loyalty; loyalty to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself. Political representations frequently change, and Czech foreign policy emphasis changes with them. A diplomat should not have their own idea of what agenda to implement and to stick to it. Diplomats must respect the policy of the government and specific minister, and must also be able to identify with these steps. You can’t do things in the long-term which you are not persuaded by. So it’s about seeking compromise and that’s how to recognise who is suitable for diplomacy in the long term, and who isn’t. Basically, diplomacy is a service of the state; today we are part of the civil service. For me personally, the ratification of the Civil Service Code has not changed much; since joining I have perceived my role as to carry out a service to the state within an institution in which I cannot reflect my own political convictions.
You’re now in charge of the Asia Department; you’ve just returned from China. What is your message about this territory to close this interview for Czech and Slovak Leaders readers?
I’ve been on two brief trips during which I wanted to see the workings of our missions in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. You can’t describe China in one sentence. Each region is different; you need to realise that China as a country is incredibly large and diverse. Regions differ not just in terms of natural conditions, but also in mentality and even cities differ from each other. I was surprised how well China works, how ordered and clean it is. The standard of living is a lot higher than people here usually imagine. On the basis of our own experience, we associate socialism with things not working and a pervasive dysfunctional bureaucracy, but that just doesn’t apply here. And as an artist I admired the long history and maturity of Chinese civilisation. When you take a walk through gardens, parks and past churches, you can see a true reflection of a culture going back millennia. There is an engrained and natural harmony there. That can’t just come about from one day to the next. Asia as a whole is a great unknown for us. Asia is a region of the future, it is the most dynamically developing region of the world and it certainly deserves attention. We don’t know how the countries there work, and our entrepreneurs still don’t know how to behave correctly there. You need to deal with Asian partners differently to how you deal with Europeans or Americans. We need to approach the region with greater humility. With the exception of Japan, Korea and partially also China, we look at the region as we do at a developing country which is more or less below our level of development and to whom we can impart our knowledge. Yet these are ancient civilisations who live in a different manner, with different values, different priorities and a different idea of how to manage things and how things work. It is certainly inappropriate to impose things on them. We may well disagree with their concept of human rights, for example, but it is not right to impose our ideas of a political system or institutional arrangements upon them.