Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Katrin Hett

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 bianca.beck@yale.edu.