ORLOWSKI: We were lucky (INTERVIEW)
Dariusz Bilski: We are meeting a few days after your latest book “Diplomatic Practice” went on sale. How long did the idea to write such a manual mature in you?
Tomasz Orlowski: Two things: first the proposal, then the maturation. The proposal was made to me by the management of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. The director of the Institute saw the need for such a study, which I wonder whether to call a textbook. It’s a question of the reader and how we treat it. So first I received a proposal, and then I began to consider to what extent it suited my needs and capabilities. The way I did this, of course, was to go back to the classic textbook by Ernest Satow Guide of Diplomatic Practice. I read it quickly, wondering what I could do that could be of some added value – something that at the same time alludes to the experience of a diplomat, but also provides some overall view inherent in Polish diplomacy. These two reasons caused me to accept the proposal. And all this was compounded by the pandemic, where our ability to function normally became very limited, the amount of free time to spend at home increased, and thanks to the blessing of digital libraries, I could work from that home without leaving. And so the story went, that is, on the one hand the need, on the other hand my reflections on whether I was capable of doing such a thing, and the third, that is, the conditions in which I had nothing better to do.
Who is this book for? Will the interesting content be found in it both by a student of our Academy dreaming of working in diplomacy, as well as a budding diplomat?
Exactly. I have to tell you that even the director of PISM told me that “it would be nice if even high school students from late grades would find something in it for themselves, so please think of a language that would not be too hermetic.” I, for one, am not sure that this has worked, although I try to make sure that the language is never hermetic. But I already have a lot of signals from the student communities, so I have reason to believe that young people want and read such items. Even today I saw a tweet from one of the users, who wrote that “thirteen years ago I devoured “Diplomatic Protocol”, and now I will take up Diplomatic Practice.” I think this is an encouragement to a large extent precisely for young people who are fascinated by foreign policy, international relations, the modern world, and perhaps already strictly diplomacy, and who are confronted today with many false opinions about diplomacy. On the other hand, I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that the experiences of a man who has spent years in this profession can be useful for diplomats, especially young ones, who can draw very practical lessons from reading, if only in the area of dispatch writing.
With more than 30 years of experience, you have encapsulated your service in 800 pages of this book. How much has diplomacy changed since you first crossed the threshold of the ministry in 1990?
Diplomacy has changed because the world has changed and Poland has changed. We are changing in terms of technology, in terms of democratization, but also in terms of equality, among other things. There is talk today, for example, of women’s diplomacy or diplomatic feminism. So we have numerous transformations. In addition, diplomacy has faced two phenomena: the era of so-called instant information and the development of social media. Let’s also note that the post-Cold War period is characterized by the increasing participation and growth of public diplomacy in the practice of this profession. Diplomacy, which is a different type of diplomacy from classical diplomacy, and which today is the absolute benchmark. Why? Because it has been recognized that societies are more durable carriers of certain ideas than governments. After all, governments change, politicians change, their views can change, while we can find more permanence in societies. Public diplomacy also has the advantage that it works both ways: towards one’s own society, as well as the society of a foreign country. One instrument of public diplomacy was created when Radoslaw Sikorski was Foreign Minister – it was a network of RCIDs, or Regional Centers for International Debate, located in the capital of each Polish province. These RCIDs primarily involve young people from academic backgrounds who can plan one’s future with Polish diplomacy.
You have met uncommon figures on your path. Which of them, precisely as practitioners of diplomacy, exerted the greatest influence on you? In a word: did Ambassador Tomasz Orłowski have his masters when it came to the art of diplomacy?
Definitely. I’ll get to that in a moment, but before that, a few words of introduction: well, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to which we came, was in a situation that in a way resembles the current situation and to which we will probably soon have references, namely: one of the first ideas of Minister Skubiszewski, which was controversial, because, after all, it was not known how it would end, was to change the image of Polish diplomacy by replacing the existing staff with new faces. Please remember that this diplomacy, which we replaced after 1989, was created by people who often did not work in the Foreign Ministry at all! Well, during the communist era, the employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs constituted some part of the diplomacy, while the rest was mainly the nomenclature, i.e. employees of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Let me tell you my example: I went to my first post to replace a “diplomat” who was a full-time employee of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Nomen omen: when I first arrived in Paris it was the embassy staff who told me that the military attaché returning from the country, before reaching our embassy, would still stop at the Soviet embassy. That was the system. To this day, it is still said that the permanent representations of the former socialist countries to the United Nations in New York are located at the Soviet embassy, because that’s where you came for orders, that’s where key meetings were held. Thus, with our faces we were to brand the change in the image of the representatives of the Polish state. At the same time, I admit that although at that time we were people full of hope, optimism and faith – to be honest about ourselves – from a professional point of view we were amateurs. However, the values we professed were appropriate to a democratic state, and, as you can see, I put a lot of emphasis on these values as necessary for the proper exercise of our profession. In addition, we had some university education, we knew languages. I remember that our foreign colleagues comforted us: “don’t worry, you will learn work techniques quickly“.
How do you remember your first weeks-months at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? What kind of a ministry was it?
The MFA building we entered looked desperate. Rubbed rugs, unpainted offices. Monstrous neglect. After all, the logic that guided the previous system was this: four years of sacrifices at headquarters, in order to earn a trip outside the post and there, make up for this “lost time”. I remember such voices of some employees: “you know what, I’ve run out of all the savings from the post, I need to leave again as soon as possible“. If you look at the resumes of Polish diplomats from the communist era, you will notice that the terms of office last perfectly four years, like clockwork, not a month longer or shorter. At the same time, as I mentioned, a large part of the positions were filled by the political party, but there were also a a lot of special service officers, who later told us that they were, of course, engaged in economic intelligence, which of course is nonsense – to a large extent this was an activity aimed at Poles living abroad. I remember that the press department of the embassy in Paris in 1990 functioned directly on the basis of methods and tasks taken from the Security Service! To a large extent, this also applied to the consular service. Such was the image. Skubiszewski took new people who were to testify with themselves that they represented an already different Poland.
Let’s go back to the masters.
My first master, and it should always be a superior, was Ryszard Fijałkowski, whom I remember very well. Fijałkowski came from the old MFA cadre, he was an experienced diplomat. In 1990, when I arrived in Paris he already knew there was no future for him. However, I watched with great respect how he performs his duties with great dignity until the end, while being aware that he will be recalled. This is something I certainly learned from him and, I can say years later, we remained in a camaraderie relation. Then came Jerzy Lukaszewski, who opened the doors of the embassy wide open, which until then had been a traditionally closed institution. I’m also speaking in terms of mentality, the understanding that we were surrounded by strangers, but also the need to maintain an excess of security that could not be justified in any way.
Was the embassy in Paris also tightly “barred”? Ambassador Stemplowski mentions in his diaries that the first thing he did after taking up his post in London, and it was already 1994, was that he removed the bars from the windows.
Of course! But it was worse than that! The embassy in Paris had closed shutters, which were opened only during ceremonies. I remember that during one of the dinners, when I was already the ambassador to France, someone asked me why it was so. To tell you the truth, it was glaring to me too, but at the time I had not yet done anything about it. So I replied that it was probably to keep the gilding from fading from the sun. To which the person replies: “but Mr. Ambassador, gold does not fade! Pastels or sanguines do, but not gold.” The next day, after returning to the embassy, I called the administrative manager and said, “Mr. Peter, from today all the shutters of the embassy on a daily basis are to be open.” But what was even worse! No flag was being flown at the embassy! It was done only on national holidays. Well, the regulation says that the national flag is raised on the embassy building on national holidays of the Republic of Poland and the host country, and if local custom requires it. However, it is known that flags on offices and on embassies, and this is the case in Paris precisely, are raised permanently. In ours they were not. Why? Two aspects: the sloppiness, because although it’s a small job, it has to be done every day, and the second thing – and from what I hear we’re dealing with this even today – one would most like not to be recognized that here in this place is the Polish embassy, where one can ask about state policy. I, of course, present this in a somewhat caricatured way, but I have information from many outposts that this is what it looks like, which is: we lock ourselves up in the embassy, we do not answer questions, and especially the press, because we have a problem explaining why, for example, such a change in Poland’s position on, for example, Ukraine. I remember such puzzlement from those around me, which took the form of inquiries about the reasons for our policy, for example, after Poland voted against Donald Tusk’s candidacy. I was in Italy at the time and was asked about the reasons for this decision. They said: “it doesn’t happen to vote against your citizen, we don’t understand it“. Such things are difficult to explain, and very many diplomats don’t want to explain it, because they either don’t believe it, don’t agree, or don’t know how they could do it.
But back to Lukaszewski: he had no diplomatic experience, but the College of Europe in Bruges, of which he was rector for 20 years, was the college where representatives of the European Commission were trained. At the time, the EC was the EU’s main executive structure, also with an external representation function, and it had a pivotal role in the so-called relex, which means in external relations, mainly trade cooperation. Jerzy Lukaszewski therefore educated many people who either worked in the EC or for the member states. I knew many French diplomats who went through the College, were Lukaszewski’s disciples and took over his art.
What did Ambassador Lukaszewski teach you?
Two things. Once he calls on me, and I was – it seems- his favorite employee whom he felt he could shape, and he says: “Mr. Tom, you are a historian. What is the task of a historian when he examines documents? External and internal criticism of the source. That is, first to determine whether the document is authentic or forged, and then whether what is written is internally consistent. And if you carry this out then you have de facto done the work on the information that you pass on to headquarters as a deposition.” That is, first you need to characterize who our interlocutor is, whether this person could have had access to such information, and then whether the content of the message is internally consistent. In other words: whether we were “let off the hook” or were given true information. Speaking of “letting off the hook,” I remember such an incident, which was reported to me from Warsaw, that at the same time that the minister received an important three-sentence dispatch from me, a dispatch with the opposite information came down from another head of an important post. The minister forwarded it to the deputy minister with the comment: “the ambassador in Paris received such information, the ambassador in another important capital received such information. Someone was misled, but it is not the ambassador in Paris.” Communicating reliable information, which I write about a lot in the book, is the key task of a diplomat, and that’s what Lukaszewski taught me, namely, he told me to use his workshop as a historian. And the second thing: almost every afternoon he would invite me to his office and for an hour and a half I would have a one-on-one lecture on European integration. At that time, maybe two other Poles had such knowledge as he did: Jan Kulakowski and Georges Rencki. European integration as a process, its goals – all this I understood thanks to Lukaszewski. He was my first master.
In 1994 you return to the headquarters.
Yes, I was brought in by Stefan Meller and am immediately thrown in at the deep end. I become deputy director of the Europe department after him. And then I collide with a completely different job, because working at an outpost and working at headquarters are two completely different forms of work for a diplomat. The MFA says that you can’t be a good ambassador if you don’t know the techniques of working at headquarters. Why? Because you know what headquarters expects and you don’t have to ask. A professional knows what to do and doesn’t have to ask for instructions. The same works the other way: the director of a directional department who has returned from an outpost knows that he can’t demand impossible things from an ambassador, because, for example, he knows that in the world’s largest countries an ambassador will never be received by the foreign minister. When I managed, through some ploy, to get an audience with the Italian Foreign Minister, a colleague-director from the Italian Foreign Ministry called me and said: “I don’t know how you arranged it, but the minister will receive you. However, we have a great request to you not to tell anyone about this, otherwise all the accredited ambassadors will demand such a meeting.” So in 1994, I’m learning how to relate my post experience to my work in Warsaw. And I have to say that yes, I was thrown in at the deep end, because managing foreign missions is not a simple thing. In addition, I had a structure above me in which two traditions clashed – the new and the old, which were often – towards each other – very distrustful.
The ministry was then headed by Minister Olechowski.
Andrzej Olechowski, Władysław Bartoszewski.. We were fortunate that all foreign ministers in the early days of the Third Republic were strong personalities who pulled their weight, gave motivation to work. You could agree or disagree with them, but you watched the show with pleasure! Olechowski brought a business element to the Foreign Ministry, he was a bit like that English lord, from whom belonging to the elite shone. He inspired tremendous respect. As for Wladyslaw Bartoszewski.. A smile, jocularity, ease of speech.. and at the same time an almost extraordinary inner strength and toughness. This was something you could learn from him. And importantly, these personalities also accepted dissenting opinion. It never occurred to me that the aforementioned characters treated such dissent as, for example, an expression of disloyalty, smugness or confrontation. It’s very important, especially when you get to that level close to management, to be able to say “no” to a minister and justify your opinion. This is not easy, but in the Foreign Ministry it is an absolute necessity. When you have such ministers the comfort at work is incredible. Today this lack of personality is downright dramatic, which makes us face a huge crisis in Polish diplomacy.
Who else would you like to single out?
My guides to practice were also excellent diplomacy technicians. The greatest role in my formation was played first by Andrzej Towpik, then by Marek Jędrys and Jerzy Nowak. Andrzej was the political director and, as deputy minister – my superior. He worked in an extremely precise, clerical, careful manner. Every morning he would call me and invite me to his office, where, with a pencil in his hand, he would analyze each section of my memo. He studied every word, and this was something you could learn from him – to use the right words in the right context, so that they were as close to the truth as possible and so that you wouldn’t be ashamed of them later. He never used words that are too harsh – this moderation is extremely important in reporting. Marek, on the other hand, taught everything that pertained to administration: the basics of how to conduct interviews, how to manage a team.. I owe a great deal to him. I met Jerzy Nowak later, when he was ambassador in Vienna. At that time, the OSCE dealt with, among other things, the resurgent statehood of the Baltic states, the problems of the Russian minority, recognition of the border, etc. His dispatches, after all, written from Vienna reconstructed events as if he were in Tallinn! He taught me how to write dispatches, which I told him years later. In diplomatic practice, this is an extremely important thing: reading the dispatches of others, learning how it should be done. Then, years later, I was told – and I will say this without false modesty – that people learn from my dispatches. And for me this is a tremendous satisfaction.
In 2005, Ambassador Niesyto, whom we warmly greet, leaves for Switzerland. Is he anointing you as his successor in the role of Director of Diplomatic Protocol?
In the spring of 2004, while I was still working at UNESCO, the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Matuszewski called me up and says: “You are now to take up a directorship. In what field would you most like to find yourself now?“. I told him about my experiences so far, adding that I was now finishing a textbook on diplomatic protocol being written in Rome. Matuszewski replied that this fit in with their plans, as Ambassador Niesyto should now take over the foreign post, while pointing out that the candidacy of the head of protocol must be approved by both the small and large palace – that is, the Prime Minister’s office and the President’s office. Janusz Niesyto, of course, was introduced to these arrangements. He invited me to his place and says: “Listen, you have 3 times more knowledge than me, but no practice. In view of this, you will sit with me, work for 3 months as a deputy, and I will teach you everything“.
Skipping ahead a few years, but staying on the topic of protocol: is the organization of the funeral ceremonies of the presidential couple after the Smolensk catastrophe the biggest challenge you faced in this area?
Definitely. The uniqueness of the event makes it certainly the greatest of protocol challenges. I remember that on April 10, around 9:00 a.m., President Kaczynski’s former head of security called me. “Did you see what happened? Turn on the TV!” The first thing one feels in such situations is a sense of powerlessness. When Minister Sikorski later called me and said: “I have a request for you from the Prime Minister,” I thought that I could not dream of anything more, because to be able to do anything, to get involved in any way was already to break through this vulnerability. Of course, you can’t undo what happened, but you can at least offer everything you had to honor the fallen in the way you would want the nation to honor this great tragedy. Unknown in this magnitude, under conditions of peace. The challenge consisted of the immensity of the tragedy, but also the lack of direct references as to how the mourning ceremony could be constructed. You had to compose it yourself based on Polish tradition. So I consciously gave up some foreign patterns and applied elements we know from the funeral ceremonies of President Narutowicz, the two Krakow funerals: the symbolic funeral of Juliusz Słowacki and the funeral of Marshal Piłsudski, and the London funeral of General Sikorski. The Krakow funerals are related in the sense that some believe that bringing Słowacki’s body from Paris to Wawel was a protocol preparation for Pilsudski’s funeral. There are indeed quite a few similarities. But going back to those days: I started work on Monday, April 11, knowing the date of the funeral, which was to take place on Sunday, April 18. So we had seven days to prepare, the first two of which we did not know where the funeral would take place. So for the first two days, I worked on the scenario for organizing the ceremony in Warsaw! So in fact, work on the Cracow funeral began on Wednesday, April 13, on Thursday we flew to the vision, and on Friday everything was already closed. Throughout that week, every day at 9pm at the Chancellery of the Prime Minister we had interdepartmental briefings with everyone involved in the preparations, after which I would go home and start emailing instructions at night, which lasted until about 1am. In turn, responses were coming in from 5 a.m., which shows how important it is for one coordinator to pin this down, and under what extraordinary circumstances we were operating. The challenge was the time itself. On top of all this was the story of the Icelandic volcano.
What key qualities should a chief of protocol have?
What is most often missing and recognized immediately is the lack of cold blood. The head of protocol, but also a protocol employee, is the last person who has the right to lose his cold blood. I remember the looks on the faces of Presidents Kwasniewski and Kaczynski when something went wrong. What should one do then? With your whole self, show and testify that you are in control of the situation. Absolute phlegm, even when something happens that eludes our plans. And then in the eyes of the president you see “manage yourself, it’s in your hands“. And the second fundamental thing – the trust of the boss. This is fundamental to the quality of cooperation. It is also important for us to remember that we are not prejudging matters of life and death, war and peace, but only the course of the ceremony and possible delay. Therefore, let us not exaggerate! I have this one experience that I remember to this day…. 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Janusz Niesyto was still the director then, and I was his deputy. 60 heads of state and government – all the greats of this world, starting with the king of the Belgians, the queen of the Netherlands, the presidents of Germany, France, Russia, the vice president of the US….
Dick Cheney in his famous down jacket….
That’s exactly right! Well, and it’s late evening, the President of Israel is speaking, I’m standing about 6 meters from him, by my side his military advisor – an Israeli general, and suddenly we see an elderly lady who starts to undress. She pulls off her jacket, coat, sweater and is left in a slip.. This general shouts at me: “do something, call security, overpower her!“. I ask him: “do you see a security threat to your president?“. He denies it. After a while, this woman comes up to the microphone and says: “I am a former prisoner, a girl who grew up here, who every day half-naked had to stand for roll call in this place in this cold. I’m glad that my president is speaking here today, and that you can feel the cold that we felt every day standing here for roll call.” So let’s now imagine that we call on the BOR to overpower this woman.. we don’t have to tell ourselves what a scandal we would be dealing with. So the ability to anticipate and assess the situation is also crucial here.
A moving story.
For a change I will tell you another one, also related to the work in the protocol. I remember it like today. The welcoming ceremony in Vienna under the Imperial Palace. We arrived late due to fog. The honor company is in place, the ceremonies are starting, the anthems are sounding, and suddenly I see one of my employees, quite a distinctive figure, running with all his might behind the back of that honor company, everyone is looking at him…. There is no worse thing in this profession than running. After all, everyone has the feeling that something has happened, and even more so when a protocol employee runs. I called him up afterwards and I say: with a quick step yes, but please never run. You asked me about key skills. In addition to cold-bloodedness and such a classic set of soft skills, however, knowledge of politics is very necessary. It’s not that the head of protocol can only be a technician and only a master of ceremonies. I have had situations where, being the only person around the president, I had to advise him as a diplomat, as a man working for the Polish Foreign Ministry. The head or protocol officer must therefore also be a substantively prepared diplomat who understands foreign policy.
Mr. Ambassador, at the end of our conversation, I would like to ask you a few closed questions that can only be answered with “yes” or “no.” You can use “tomato” once. May we?
Yes, I love it.
Great. So here we go: the next book I write will be a record of my memories.
I know Paris better than I know Warsaw or Krakow.
The mission in Paris was more difficult than the one in Rome.
But the biggest challenge was the Protocol.
I guess I have to say “I don’t know.” No.
I spent nearly 20 years in the missions. Sometimes I regret that lost time.
However, diplomacy is a great and exciting adventure. I can’t imagine myself in any other role.
Thank you for the interview.
Interviewed by Dariusz Bilski – Executive Director of the European Academy of Diplomacy Foundation.
*The conversation will most likely live to see a continuation, to which you are already cordially invited.