By Bianca Beck
A conversation on the importance of empathy and facts in negotiations
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity
Katrin Hett is a Senior Political Affairs Officer in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General at the United Nations. Born in Hamburg, Germany, Katrin started her journey into international diplomacy after receiving degrees in International Relations and European Studies from the London School of Economics, King’s College London, and Sciences Po Paris. Her work in conflict prevention and negotiation has taken her to South Africa, where she served as Deputy Project Manager for Conflict Management at Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) in South Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she was Senior Democratization and Public Administration Reform Advisor at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and Brussels, where she served as the Regional Coordinator for the Western Balkans in Public Diplomacy at NATO Headquarters.
Why did you decide to become a World Fellow?
The World Fellowship is a fantastic privilege, enabling me to step back from my day-to-day professional life and gain new perspectives. As a World Fellow, you can connect to a network of other World Fellows, and you are also part of the Yale community, which is enriching in itself. You have the opportunity to rethink current global events. We’re living in very special times, so it’s good to consider new approaches to what we are currently witnessing and how we might be able to contribute, potentially influencing change on some of the challenges we currently see.
My first couple of questions have to do with your trajectory into the role you have now, starting with your education. How has your education and your studies in international relations prepared you for the work you do now, if at all? If you could go back, what would you do differently in your studies?
I think the most important aspect of academia is that it provides you with tools. London and Paris gave me the opportunity to think critically, and to apply those concepts. You can’t just learn in-depth about a subject matter. You have to know how to argue for a point of view, and convince another person to take another course of action. Regardless of what you study, I think this is what academia should provide you with: tools to question the status quo, and to listen carefully first and then come up with alternative courses of actions and suggestions. Later on in your career, you can hopefully use these skills in order to talk truth to power. You need to have the courage to do that, and also do it in a way that is based on facts.
This helps especially when you start off in your career. Early on, I had to convince very senior people in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war to change their financial practices— anti-corruption, essentially. Of course, that is not an easy task. If they are to take you seriously, you have to present them with factual analysis so that they know that you know what you’re talking about and that you take them seriously. You gain their respect if they know that you respect them. Through your academic studies, you learn to take approaches based on facts.
I don’t think I would have necessarily done anything in detail differently in my studies. But I think there are many different ways of arriving at that facts-based approach. It’s not just studying international relations that will get you there. If you look at the United Nations and my colleagues, we come from many different backgrounds, you realize that it’s a matter of how you apply your academic background to your daily professional life.
You’ve worked in so many countries and regions around the world, including South Africa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Brussels, before becoming the Senior Political Affairs Officer in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General at the United Nations. How did the work you did in these different countries prepare you for your current role?
When I finished my academic studies in London, I really wanted to practice conflict prevention and mediation. The project in South Africa with German Technical Cooperation worked with youth in townships post-apartheid, providing a community policing and peace service. Essentially, those youngsters would be mediating unarmed conflicts. We would provide
them with the tools on how to do so, such as how to overcome differences between families. The second element of this project was to work with the police to build trust between township communities and the police force because, during apartheid, that trust had completely evaporated. For any organized crime or capital crime, the youth would cooperate with the police, and pass on cases to the police. The third element was to provide the youngsters with a longer term vocational training because unemployment —especially among youths from townships —was phenomenally high. Officially, unemployment was at 30 percent, but it was probably even higher, given their dismal educational backgrounds and generally high youth unemployment in South Africa. We would provide them with the opportunity to pursue their careers. The project emphasized grassroots mediation, negotiation, and facilitation, to provide others with skills.
I then moved on to a post-conflict situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, working for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe as Senior Democratization and Public Administration Reform Advisor. I would work with mayors on how to engage more directly with citizens and how to reform administrations, such as their financial and human resources management, to make sure that public services were provided to all segments of society.
I then had the opportunity to be part of the negotiations reunifying the city of Mostar, which was entirely split during the war, largely between Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks. As part of our work, we did what is often just a slogan you read in the newspapers, which was to “follow
the money.” Finances are key to political agreements. In order to make a difference, we had to understand where money was coming from, where it was going to, and why. As part of that work, I became the internal control of the city, advising the mayors as to what to reconsider and what to change in order to make sure that citizens would benefit as they should be benefiting, such as using resources to finance reconstruction projects for houses destroyed during the war.
While doing that, I received an offer from NATO in Brussels to work with member states that had recently joined NATO. I also spoke with citizens and students from those new member states, to give their citizens more insight into what this institution based in Brussels stands for post-Cold War. NATO has gone through many iterations and changes from its Cold War outset to its reinvention into a 21st century global peace and security institution. Building on what I had done in the Western Balkans beforehand, I also worked with partner countries from the Western Balkans on their accession process to NATO.
My work also entailed going to countries that saw NATO from a very negative point of view. My task was to engage with those communities. You can’t change people’s minds immediately, but at least you can provide them with explanations. Being there and enabling them to engage in dialogue was a starting point for overcoming skepticism, animosity, and negativity. I worked to make someone see someone else’s point of view and to provide them again with the facts as to what happened and what didn’t happen. This is also a key part of the work I do now at the UN.
While I was at NATO, I passed the UN competitive exam and subsequently got an offer to join the UN in New York as a Political Affairs Officer working on European countries, specifically, again, the Western Balkans. In 2012, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs — the position compares to the of foreign minister in a national government — asked me to work for him. With him, I got to travel the world, including to different conflict zones. It was a great privilege to be part of the UN’s good offices, trying to identify solutions to conflicts and ideally prevent conflicts from breaking out.
When Mr. Guterres was elected as Secretary-General, I was asked to support his transition team. Afterwards, Secretary-General Guterres invited me to join his office. Circumstances provide you with opportunities. You have to be lucky, and also try to, hopefully, influence those circumstances a bit yourself.
I’m curious about something you mentioned in your World Fellows introductory video that relates to your current work as a diplomat. You said in the video, “Art is not only thought-provoking but also has direct relevance to my daily work. Negotiations often involve so-called ‘diplomatic theater,’ and seeing situations from different perspectives is, for me, indispensable to help others bridge their divides and see their situation in a new light.” What is this so-called “diplomatic theater,” and why do you think it resonates so deeply with art?
What I related to and aspired to say in my video is that art provides us with an opportunity to see life from different perspectives and to really use empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s perspective enables you to see the world from a different point of view. I think that’s what diplomats should do when we try to reconcile opposing views. It’s important that we be able to see both sides, but also that we allow others, especially the parties concerned, to see the issue from their opponent’s—if you even want to call them that—point of view.
Part of the “theater” in “diplomatic theater” emphasizes dialogue, and part the entire setting in which that dialogue takes place. Different characters in a play must interact, and, just so, all negotiations are dialogue. In diplomacy, you have different parties engaging and talking about a problem they have to overcome, or, hopefully, want to overcome. Sometimes they don’t want to engage in dialogue, and in those instances, it’s important to entice them to try. So, we write dialogue, too. For example, our senior officials offer suggestions to the parties concerned and different options. The parties do not always immediately agree to plan A, although it might be the most straightforward and helpful solution. Again, we have to imagine what the other party might be saying in order to be able to then provide new solutions.
“Diplomatic theater” refers to a creative way of thinking about negotiations.
Just to clarify, does the UN play more of a director’s role, where you give the actors on stage directions and guidance? What role do you play in this metaphor?
Our role varies. In some situations, we have a direct mandate from the Security Council, which gives us a more direct role in a specific country. But in other countries, it’s more p rimus inter pares , and we can only facilitate. Thus, a very UN terminology is “it’s led by the parties.”
For example, negotiations are led by the countries involved and the UN is only there in the background providing ideas. We are often not the protagonist. We are behind the scenes, helping others to bridge their differences. So, to go back to the theater metaphor, no, the UN wouldn’t be the director. In most cases, we are one of the actors. It’s almost as though we don’t have a director, and the actors have to agree amongst themselves on how best to proceed. But, as I said, it depends. Sometimes we do have a mandate and we can be more directorial.
Shifting to current events, populism and xenophobic rhetoric has been on the rise, creating division. This is contrary to many of the values the UN represents of unity and cohesion. As the senior political advisory, how have you been approaching this trend and bridging differences in this highly polarized time?
What the UN can do, what we aspire to do, and what the Secretary-General and all our senior officials constantly do, is to provide the impetus to others: providing ideas, suggestions, and recommendations as to how to bridge divides. We do that often quietly, and sometimes more publicly, depending on the subject matter. But essentially, we work to make the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations a reality. Member States pledged that they would respect those purposes and principles. This universal membership is our leverage, and a part of our role is to hold Member States to their own pledges. We do best when we manage to prevent an incident without it even reaching the news, having done so quietly, so that the issue just goes away. That’s what we do on a daily basis, trying to bring different points of view together, finding compromise, and ideally creating consensus.
Perhaps the most consequential current event is the COVID-19 pandemic. In the words of one of my political science professors, Dr. John Dearborn, “the pandemic has certainly exposed every crack in the fabric of democratic society. It exacerbates existing problems, including economic inequality and disparities based on race (such as in health care) and gender (such as in issues of child care and working from home).” What steps do you think the UN will take to address these inequalities that COVID-19 has exposed?
The UN has already started taking steps. The Secretary-General has issued a series of policy briefs on the impact of the pandemic on different aspects of people’s lives, including the direct broad economic aspects, health, gender violence, human rights implications, and so on. These policy briefs are suggestions and policy recommendations to Member States and to the broader international community, on how to mitigate these cracks that your professor described and the practical corollary of these policies. The recommendations engage with, for example, the G20, the IMF, the World Bank. A lot of investment is required in order to mitigate the immediate effects of the crisis.
We also see that we will not overcome this crisis in the next couple of months; a long-term investment is required. It requires smart solutions to mitigate immediate economic and health effects but also devise a way in which we can, what we call, “recover better.” So, it’s also a long-term investment, for example into renewable energy, to address the climate crisis. Our goal is not just to go back to where we were, but to use the crisis and the cracks as an opportunity to really make a change for the better in the long term. Even now, we cannot forget about what has been one of the most acute global issues, which is climate change. And so really, we’re using the current situation as an opportunity to address issues holistically.
Speaking of climate change, the topic has been highly politicized around the world, with some world leaders even questioning its scientific validity. How do you navigate the political aspect of climate change to try to build a united front in addressing this issue?
The United Nations Secretary-General has taken a very clear stance on the importance of addressing the climate crisis, and that time is running out. He’s been very vocal about it. We have a framework provided by the Paris Agreement of 2015, along with subsequent arrangements and Member State pledges as to their national reductions and contributions to mitigating emissions. The Secretary-General is at the forefront, for example reminding Member States of their pledges, and also acknowledging that more needs to be done. First of all, we are not on track to reach the
Paris commitments. Secondly, the Paris commitments are not enough because the current trajectories of global emissions are beyond the maximum rise in global temperature agreed in Paris.
And so, we return to the facts. We have lots of scientific data and groups of international scientists providing us with their calculations as to where we are headed if we maintain the status quo and where we could be headed if we make drastic decisions.
In addition to engaging Member States, it’s also very much about engaging the private sector, cities, local communities, citizens directly, and achieving global engagement. Everybody can make a difference and can contribute to averting the worst possible scenarios.
There’s also a good economic argument to be made for addressing the climate crisis. Yes, it’s a big investment up front, but in the longer term, it’s actually very good value for your money. There’s a good case to be made for investing in renewable energy rather than fossil fuels and other antiquated technologies on which our economies have depended. Private sector tech, especially, is far more advanced and enables us to reach emission levels that are feasible and would avert the current trajectory, without people having to completely relinquish their current way of life. But we all need to make changes and adjustments. They don’t need to be negative. Adjustments can be opportunities and can actually be a change for the better, as I said earlier on COVID-19.
Based on your previous responses and your World Fellows introductory video, it seems that you’ve interacted with many people who are in precarious situations. The UN is tasked with helping these people and providing humanitarian assistance. How do you navigate this relationship between you, the helper, and the people being helped, and the power dynamic that arises from such a relationship?
The UN has a very special mandate to help and protect people. The UN originated after the Second World War, when we saw the largest human calamity imaginable, and the idea was to prevent something like this from ever happening again. The biggest overarching pledge made by world leaders then was to protect people from the horrors of war, to “find a way to end war” as President Truman said that the time.
Obviously, this hasn’t worked as well as envisaged. The UN steps in to protect and support people in precarious situations. We do this in partnership with the people we serve. Everybody should have a say in his or her future.
Immediate assistance is delivered to refugee camps and post-disaster areas, but the long-term idea is to lift those people up and provide them with the support they need to lift themselves up out of their situations. To do this, we use a holistic approach. This means having an immediate crisis response, and engaging governments and the larger international community to find sustainable solutions, enabling sustainable development. We navigate this by, hopefully, finding the right balance between many different factors and actors, even if challenging. It is our
duty and responsibility to always strive to square the equation as well as feasible, and seeking opportunities for doing better.
You have mentioned that one of your deepest inspirations is people, specifically their courage and resilience in adversity. Do you have any anecdotes in particular that you think highlight these characteristics?
We went to post-tsunami areas in Indonesia and visited a makeshift hospital in tents. The people we visited and spoke to had lost everything, everything, and even their health was deeply affected. But they wouldn’t give up. They told us, “We will rebuild. We will put our lives back together again.”
You hear similar stories from refugees. We went to a school in the Za’atari refugee camp and met with children who were six to ten years old. They were taught in a tent. They had seen so much despair in their lives: they had only ever seen war, never peace, because they were born just before or after the start of the war in Syria. And yet, they wanted to become doctors, and nurses, and lawyers. And they drew wonderful cities on the outside of their makeshift shelters. They had dreams for their country. We saw them in misery, but they see hope. It makes me believe that the human spirit does not give up and that we have a responsibility and opportunity to make their hopes come true.
Bianca Beck is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.