Miloslav Stašek

Diplomacy is a Calling

Miloslav Stašek, State Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

I enjoy going back to Czernin Palace, the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 2002 to 2006, I was responsible for running the Diplomatic Academy. These were landmark years for Czech diplomacy and were full of events. I personally remember in particular the preparation and implementation of the NATO Summit in 2002, which was symbolic in many respects, allowing the Alliance to expand by a full seven countries, but was an opportunity for many statespeople to say goodbye to Václav Havel. Thus a record number of delegations at the highest levels headed for Prague. The summit also took place just four months after the devastating 2002 floods, so it was difficult not just in terms of co-ordination and security, but also logistics. The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004. The entire civil service had to be made ready in advance, with officials trained not just centrally, but also at a regional level. It had been years since I had last met Miloslav Stašek, my colleague and an expert on the Middle East of many years standing. We not only looked back together on diplomacy’s major milestones of the last 30 years, but we also endeavoured to focus on those aspects of the foreign service that are less well-known to the public. Last but not least, we looked at the issue of gender. One of the roles of the State Secretary is to ensure that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fulfils the criteria and requirements of gender policy, including within the EU and the European External Action Service. Since my departure, I have asked myself the question of whether I would have remained in diplomacy if the issue of reconciling family and work life had been focused on back in 2006.

Miloslav Stašek joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs twenty years ago. During his career, he headed the Middle East and Africa Department, was Deputy Ambassador in Riyadh, led the Embassy in Kuwait, worked as Ambassador to Egypt with accreditation for Sudan, and worked as Ambassador to India with accreditation for Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. He was Director of the Economic Diplomacy Department and was Deputy Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs for Economic and Operational Affairs. Since November 2017, he has held the role of State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Miloslav Stašek is married and has three children. In his youth, he was the champion in middle-distance running. Despite his busy programme, he finds time every day for a regular workout so he can continue to focus on bodybuilding.

We’ll be celebrating thirty years since Czech diplomacy was restored to the independent diplomatic service of a sovereign state in November 1989. How do you look back on that period?

Since 1989, and subsequently since the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993, there has been a huge change in personnel. Former workers who did not receive negative lustration certificates had to leave. New diplomats were frequently recruited from amongst researchers, since they fulfilled the requirement of knowing two foreign languages. The first turning point in terms of the professionalization of the foreign service was the Diplomatic Academy you mentioned, which was set up in 1997. This was the first step towards conceptual work in career training and career development. Another milestone was the Czech Republic joining the European Union, which allowed our diplomats to work not just in the services of the EU, and not just within the European Commission, but also after signature of the Lisbon Treaty in the services of the European External Action Service. From my perspective, this development reached its pinnacle in 2015 when the new Act on the Civil Service was ratified, with the Act on the Foreign Service subsequently adopted in 2017 as a “lex specialis” dealing with specificities related to the foreign service. This act puts diplomatic practice into the context of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations, the consular service, and the career and procedure of diplomats, diplomatic ranks and the awarding of ranks, which leads to the opportunity to apply for higher management positions in diplomacy both in the Czech Republic and abroad. Today, the Czech Republic has a foreign service system comparable to that of its neighbours, Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany, which were models for us.

The 1990s are often described as “Wild West” years, with people becoming ambassadors who weren’t even 30 years old. In practice, this put them at a disadvantage in relations with foreign counterparts from more advanced countries, because normally at that age they would be at the level of Attaché or Third Secretary. Today, standard practice is to accept candidates for foreign service following successful application for study at the Diplomatic Academy, in general at the age of 25–27 years old. After training for a couple of months, including a placement abroad, they begin a permanent job at headquarters. They build their career up gradually, such that at the age of approximately 45 they can achieve the highest position of heading a diplomatic mission as Consul General or Ambassador.

After looking at the development of the foreign service, let us now look at developments in terms of issues. In the 1990s, the core issues were joining NATO and the EU, while in contrast, economic diplomacy is highlighted today.

I’d still like to point out one period in which we focused a lot on development co-operation and transformative assistance. Remember that we submitted our application to the EU in 1994, and it took ten years to become a full member. We then began to share our own experience of transformation and preparation for joining the EU. Now, we focus this assistance on the countries of the Western Balkans, with accession talks ongoing with Serbia, and discussion within the EU on launching accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Our assistance doesn’t just involve political and transformational assistance, as we also offer our experience of transforming from a centrally managed economy to a market economy, and our experience of privatisation. It isn’t just countries in Europe that are interested in this experience, but also countries in Asia.

Economic diplomacy and stressing such diplomacy is a matter of the last five years. One can say that economic diplomacy is literally genetically encoded in the practice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thanks to our unique network of embassies abroad. It is our diplomats who play a key role in individual countries in supporting export and assisting specific companies. We are now endeavouring to bring together the platforms of different agencies such as CzechTrade, CzechInvest, Czech Centres and CzechTourism, putting them all under the management of the heads of missions, the highest representatives of the Czech Republic abroad.

The opening and closing of diplomatic missions is a headline-grabbing topic which few actually really understand. On the other hand, how many Czechs realise that with 120 missions across the world, this is the highest number in the Czech Republic’s history?

It remains true that our network of diplomatic missions is a kind of living whole, and not a final number. Changes through the optimisation, closing and opening of missions are governed by the interests of Czech policy – and not just political, but also economic policy. In around 2010, six missions were closed, whereas since 2013 we have been gradually opening and expanding missions. We have 120 diplomatic missions: 93 embassies, 18 consulate generals, 7 permanent missions and delegations, 4 consular offices and 2 diplomatic missions of another type. From 1 January 2020, we are planning to open a diplomatic mission in Singapore. These official state representations are further complemented by 23 Czech Centres, the Ministry of Industry and Trade’s Integrated Foreign Network, Czech Tourism agency branches, and also honorary consulates and honorary consulate generals, of which there are about 220, but this number is always changing. Honorary consulates have a similar role to professional consulates, but are run by honorary consular officers who do not have diplomatic status and are not Ministry of Foreign Affairs employees.

The Czech Republic has a new brand: the Czech Republic as the Country for the Future. How is this reflected in diplomatic practice?

Singapore can serve as inspiration here, in terms of infrastructure, and in terms of technology and transport. Science, research and new technologies will be one of the main areas of co-operation with Singapore. The Czech economy is an open economy primarily based on exports. Unless we create optimal conditions through a support network abroad, we cannot have long-term success in exports. It is important to have not just a high-quality network of diplomatic mission trade councils and agencies that help get our producers onto less traditional markets than we have been used to, but it is also important to have a high-quality export portfolio. Here, new technology plays a large role. The government’s new strategy, summarised by the slogan Czech Republic – the Country for the Future, goes even further in supporting the implementation of trends linked to Industry 4.0, digitalisation, robotisation, and the use of artificial intelligence to support the competitiveness of the Czech economy and Czech products in general. If we want to progress in these new sectors of industry and business, fundamental changes in our education system will be required. During my work in India, I saw how Indians enjoy high-quality education in mathematics and physics, meaning they are leaders in the IT sector. You can see that the top management of most major IT companies around the world is comprised of Indians. Not only are they talented people, but their education system has prepared them well for their careers, combining both motivation and rote learning.

Diplomacy isn’t just a profession, but also a calling. On the other hand, the world is changing, with ever more dual-career marriages; with today’s low unemployment rate, working for the state is no longer so attractive for young people.

Working in diplomacy is considered one of the most prestigious positions in the civil service hierarchy, and there is much that is unique about it. It is assumed that you will spend some of your career abroad. In the past, over 1000 candidates applied for positions, with 15 of them chosen. Today, around 100 candidates apply for eight systematised positions. We don’t just take candidates with humanities degrees; we also need lawyers and experts on economic affairs, as a generational change is beginning to take place in these roles. I admit that it is more difficult for women to reconcile their working and family lives, but it is part of my job as State Secretary to make this easier. Since I have spent a large part of my career abroad, I know how important a role a well-set-up system plays. Here at the Ministry, it is in our interests to ensure that not just women, but also married couples work abroad. Today, female diplomats are able to give birth abroad, without having to interrupt their careers, and return to work following their maternity leave. The Act on the Civil Service ensures that the Ministry pays all costs incurred. We also provide for part-time work and working from home. We offer two children’s playgroups to our employees; our nursery school is considered one of the best because our colleagues provide kids with toys literally from around the whole world. We hope that our “Zamiňáček” playgroup will become a hatchery for future diplomats. We organise the “Zamiňák” summer scheme, our Olympics and also a regularevent for St Nicholas Day or lightning of a Christmas tree. We know that our employees are our most valuable asset. We take care to secure them continuous development. Another major change is the option of transferring from the ranks of so called administrative and technical staff to diplomatic roles after completing the necessary training and meeting all criteria. In the past, our employees didn’t even have high-quality insurance, but today, thanks to the Act on the Civil Service, they and their families are insured. And last but not least, I would also like to say that we pay for costs related to the schooling of the children of our employees abroad.

I’d love to spend another hour with you, but now I’d like to ask you to say a word to Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine readers from the State Secretary.

The Czech Republic wants to be a consistent partner in both politics and business. We have quite a complex period ahead of us in international politics in regard to Brexit, which will have to be followed by a period of reflection from the remainder of the European Union on where the Union wants to go now. Debate on reform will be unavoidable; Brexit is not a unilateral affair of Great Britain alone; there will be impacts on both sides. I think the Commission should be more pragmatic, realistic and certainly closer to its citizens. On the other hand, the idea that we are being dictated to is also incorrect; we are a part of the Union and what happens within it. For the Czech Republic, it remains important that the EU expand to the Western Balkans; I have already mentioned Serbia’s accession and North Macedonia and Albania as the countries most ready to begin talks. Last but not least, I would like to note the importance of our relations with our closest neighbours – in terms of both the continuation of the extra co-operation amongst the countries of the Visegrád Four, and co-operation within the Eastern Partnership.

By Linda Štucbartová