Jan Eliasson | A life in the service of diplomacy
Pelle Axelsson asks Jan Eliasson for his reflections on a career seeking to maintain communications and prevent conflict.
Jan Eliasson was born in 1940 in Gothenburg and was the first in his family to graduate from high school. After a master’s degree in economics, Eliasson was employed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was the start of a long and successful career as an ambassador, diplomat and mediator. Some examples of assignments he has had are mediation adviser to Olof Palme in the war between Iran and Iraq, UN ambassador in New York, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Swedish ambassador in several countries, Swedish foreign minister, mediator in Nagorno-Karabakh, President of the UN General Assembly, UN Special Envoy in Darfur, UN Deputy Secretary-General and Chair of SIPRI. In 2022, Eliasson’s memoirs were published in the book Ord och Handling – Ett Liv i Diplomatins Tjänst (Word and Action – A Life in the Service of Diplomacy).
Your writing process for the book was unusual in that you wrote the entire text by hand, how did that come about?
– I am not particularly skilled at writing longer texts with the computer. Instead, I sat at the dining table in the evenings and wrote everything by hand. My dear wife Kerstin then helped to rewrite it in digital format, as she is one of the very few who can read my handwriting. We were both at home due to the pandemic, so it was a suitable project. However, before I started writing the book, I spent a whole summer reading all my old diaries from throughout my career. There was a lot I had forgotten and some things I had reconstructed incorrectly in my memory.
In addition to helping your memory, has keeping a diary had other positive effects for you?
– Absolutely, it was very liberating to write. Sverker Åström, who was head of the Foreign Ministry when I was asked to become Olof Palme’s adviser in the mediation in the Iran-Iraq war, told me that what I would now be involved in had to be documented. I didn’t write daily, but mostly during the weekends when I reflected upon the impressions from the week. It helped me to evaluate which events and details were most important. Writing eventually grew into a need. Now I am extremely grateful that I have these diaries, but it is also frightening how much memories have been lost and even worse – distorted. Kjell Espmark is absolutely right in the title of his book, Memories Lie (Minnena Ljuger, 2010).
What has your career taught you about human nature?
– I have seen the most extreme forms of evil, but at the same time I have seen equally extreme forms of goodness and willingness to sacrifice. There is a great span between these two opposites of good and evil. Something that has given me hope is when I got to see the enormous power in gathering people, when there is a mobilization, for example to reach a
ceasefire or to solve a water shortage. I have tried to create a feeling that together we can solve problems. That is also how I end the book, that together is the most important word in the world.
Are there people who are downright evil?
– Well, there are people who are completely impossible to get off the path of evil. The strongest symbol of that among all the people I have met is Saddam Hussein. His actions were imbued with evil: the Halabja massacre, torture of dissenters, executions in which he personally participated and the use of chemical weapons. I saw with my own eyes the victims of these chemical attacks when they came back to Tehran – it was horrific. When I met Saddam Hussein during the mediation mission, I saw no openings. His eyes were pitch black, complete stone face and the whole room was filled with fear. I have met others who also have committed evil actions, such as Muammar Gaddafi, but he was more peculiar and incomprehensible in his actions.
– In my job, I have often been forced to conclude, not accept but to conclude, that it is what it is. When things were at their worst and most difficult, I always told my colleagues that the UN is a reflection of two things: the world as it is and the world as it should be. The world today is not a pretty place, and on that point we should not have any illusions, but we should see reality for what it is with all its flaws. You must be completely honest when analyzing the current situation because it will serve as the starting point for the work going forward. Our job, not just at the UN but throughout life, is to close the gap between the way the world is and the way it should be.
Will there always be conflict and war? Is it part of human nature?
– I think it is difficult to avoid conflicts. It must be said that certain conflicts are necessary and must take place, especially conflicts without violence. That opinions, ideologies and thoughts are tested against each other is a requirement for human progress. But I think there is a possibility to avoid the violence, even if it looks dark at the moment. One can come to the conclusion that the violent path is either far too dangerous or that it is not in one’s own interest. I come to think of 1985 when Reagan and Gorbachev said that nuclear weapons must never be used and that a nuclear war can never be won. This was reiterated by the five permanent states in the UN Security Council in January 2022.
– Look at the war going on right now in Ukraine, what exactly would a victory look like there? Is it total destruction of a certain land area? Is it the death of thousands of soldiers? That hundreds of thousands of people die and get injured? Or millions of refugees? Is that a win? Can any rational person conclude that it is a win for any party? Russia, which has seen Ukraine as part of the old Russian sphere of interest, is right now creating an enmity that will remain for generations after this war. So what have they won? War is extremely dangerous for everyone, including the one who starts the war. In general, every post-war analysis is a sad reflection and, reasonably, it should strengthen the forces that recognize the power of diplomacy and preventive possibilities.
The core of diplomacy is about conversing with everyone, including the worst of individuals and governments, to influence them and hopefully to avoid violence and death. At the same time, there are those who advocate isolating, recalling ambassadors and breaking all diplomatic ties with such leaders and countries. Do you think it is always right to maintain diplomatic contacts?
– I am a bit ambivalent on this question. Sanctions are included in the UN Charter as a method to punish those who start wars and prevent new ones from breaking out. I accept as a fact that there is a sanction instrument and there are certainly times when it has worked. For example, I remember the informal sports sanctions against South Africa. It drove the leaders and the white population mad that they were not allowed to participate in various sporting events. But generally speaking, I am against such things as recalling ambassadors.
– Diplomatic relations do not mean good relations. Diplomatic relations are a channel open to dialogue with the goal of preventing conflicts from breaking out or worsening. I have a memory from my young days at the Foreign Ministry, when the Swedish ambassador in Athens was recalled after the Greek military coup. The senior colleagues then sat with the difficult question of how to get the ambassador back into Athens while the junta remained in power. It can easily become the case that you are forced to simply give in and send the ambassador back if things do not improve. In general, I have been against isolation and ending diplomatic relations.
– However, it is of course the case that you cannot make the dialogue completely unconditional. This is the dilemma we now have with the Ukraine war, where the Baltic states and Poland want to stop Russians from traveling into the EU. I understand the sentiment behind it, but at the same time I feel ambivalence when I think back to how we did the exact opposite to end the Cold War. We tried to get more and more Russians to come out and to get more and more of us in.
Can all conflicts be resolved?
– I have worked a lot with Israel-Palestine and I have almost given up. Never has a breakthrough in that conflict been so close as when Yitzhak Rabin was the Prime Minister of Israel in the early 90s. This persistent, strong and quiet man eventually decided to follow the advice of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to take up the dialogue with the Palestinians. He did it so well and in such a clear way. Given the political position he held, I really believe there was a possibility of a two-state solution, but unfortunately he was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995. It is now 2022 and I see no opening, no opening at all.
– But I must never lose hope! I will never forget when Alva Myrdal gave a speech on disarmament to us, a group of young diplomats, and a guy in the audience asked a question: “Well, Mrs. Myrdal, isn’t it unrealistic that you can achieve this great disarmament in these times of cold war?” She locked her eyes on him and replied“Young man, it is unworthy to give up!” Since then, whenever I’ve been in situations where everything is going to hell, I think of Alva Myrdal!
In the book chapter on mediation, you address four keys to success, one of which is cultural competence. How do you acquire cultural competence?
– Cultural conflicts can create such deep difficulties that any attempt to mediate is almost hopeless. Not all conflicts are necessarily linked to strong emotional elements. But when culture and religion are involved, as in Sunni and Shia conflicts for example, it becomes a completely different charge. I argue that a mediator, who does not see the importance of cultural factors, does not stand a chance in such a situation. For me, it’s all about curiosity and openness to other cultures and a constant search for knowledge. Such an interest also makes things more fun! If you go to a place where you know a bit about the history, the culture, the religious buildings, you get a much richer experience yourself.
What role does psychology play in mediation?
– I would rather highlight the importance of compassion and being able to put yourself in other people’s situations. It is also crucial to be authentic and genuine. You can never fool people. They instantly know if you are genuine and honest or not. If you promise yourself complete honesty and promise that you will do everything to improve the situation, then people will believe in you and that is a prerequisite for them to agree to something you suggest! In situations where you are trying to stop a war or change a humanitarian situation, you need to break down a huge amount of suspicion. Mistrust and suspicion between the parties is a major challenge in mediation and both parties constantly see pitfalls in any proposal. In many cultures, agreeing to a compromise is considered a weakness. But the only way to succeed is by being authentic.
One might think that we have a robust system in the world, where a capricious and malevolent leader can be dealt with without the risk of devastating consequences. But when I read your book, I realize that tiny things can become the determining factor of hundreds of thousands of lives. Even the choice of a single word can in a decisive situation mean war or peace. Do you agree that it is frightening how fragile peace is?
– Absolutely, and I also wanted to emphasize the importance of words with the book’s title – Word and Action. It is so extremely important to know and feel the nuances in each word. My constant advice to all young people is to collect as many words as they can because it means more tools in the toolbox. A wrongly chosen word can clearly result in ruined relations between people and even between states. At the same time, the right words can save lives. The clearest example I have of that was when, in the peace negotiations in Sudan, we changed the word from ceasefire to humanitarian corridor. It was so beautiful! From being completely locked down, we brought both sides to an agreement and hundreds of thousands of people in need could be saved. It was the word that saved all those lives.
Nations are a human invention. Some are prepared to die defending their nation’s borders while others want to dissolve nations and instead see more globalism. What are your thoughts about nations?
– When Putin tried to justify his invasion, he spoke disparagingly of Ukraine, claiming it lacked legitimacy as a nation. When the issue of condemning the Russian invasion came up in the UN, Kenya’s UN Ambassador Martin Kimani spoke so wisely. He pointed out that the borders of many African countries were drawn with pencil and ruler by men in London, Paris and Lisbon and could easily be called illegitimate. Had these countries now chosen to pursue new borders based on ethnic or religious homogeneity, it would surely result in a gigantic bloodbath. Nations may seem like a strange construct but the construct exists, and to end it is extremely dangerous.
– At the same time, we want to see more and more joint solutions that break down borders. Throughout history, we have paid far too high a price in Europe for our national borders. The Coal and Steel Union was only about coal and steel on the surface, but the whole purpose was basically to weave Germany and France together and to bring Europe together to stop the wars. We know that intertwined interests and collaborations reduce the risks of conflict and increase the sense of community across national borders. One of the most dangerous tendencies in our democratic societies is to regard the outside world as a threat, for example protectionism and looking at refugees and migrants with suspicion. I see this increasing and it worries me.
Let’s finish with two easier questions. Which country that you have not visited, would you like to go to? And which book would you recommend?
– I recently counted that I have now visited 104 countries, but I have not yet been to Peru and seen Macchu Picchu, so that will be my answer. As for books, I would recommend both Bertrand Russell’s autobiography and Dag Hammarsköld’s book Markings.
Pelle Axelsson, a Swedish journalist and founder of intellectinterviews.com. He has many years experience from interviewing experts and intellectuals and his broad range of interests span from international affairs, world politics and diplomacy to history, technology and religion.
This first appeared on IntellectInterviews and was reposted with permission.
Photo by Ricardo Esquivel