An interview with peacemaker Jan Eliasson

Diplomacy as an indispensible art form

Jan Eliasson

Photo: United Nations / Jean Marc Ferré
Career diplomat Jan Eliasson is chair of the board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden.


Diplomacy has become a drug in my veins. I wish it would become more addictive in today’s world.”

Jan Eliasson can be ranked among the world’s top diplomats, and his list of credits is very long and impressive: a highly respected diplomat, an ambassador, a former minister of foreign affairs, president of the United Nations General Assembly (2005-2006), United Nations Deputy Secretary- General (2012-16) and now chair of the board of the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden.

In addition to being a very skilled diplomat, he is also a warm and friendly person, who, despite a very busy schedule, agreed to answer our questions. We now leave the floor to him.

Marit Fosse: You have a long and outstanding career as a diplomat, an international civil servant, and a peacemaker. You ended your international career as the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. When you look at the world today, how would you characterize it?

Jan Eliasson: The world today is a troubled place: COVID-19, wars, the climate crisis, and mistrust and polarization both between and within nations are some of the reasons. But there are also reasons for hope. The empowerment of women and girls is one [and] the great potential of youth is another—if we learn to work not only FOR young people but also WITH them.

I also believe in the power of education and science in solving many of the complex problems in the modern world. And of course, I believe strongly in international cooperation and multilateralism. The United Nations and several international organizations and agreements have been under attack recently, not least from the United States. It is gratifying that the new U.S. administration is coming back to working in dialogue and trust with other nations.

MF: Diplomacy is an art. What are the qualities of a good diplomat, and which of these do you consider yourself to have you excelled at?

JE: Diplomacy is an indispensable art form—regretfully, not fully utilized. To use the word carefully, to analyze, to use good timing, to realize the importance of culture in negotiations as well as personal relations are crucial elements of diplomacy. Prevention and peaceful settlement of disputes are also key parts of the United Nations Charter, elements that require dialogue and diplomacy.

I must admit that diplomacy has become a drug in my veins. I wish it would become more addictive in today’s world.

MF: In these COVID-19 times, the General Assembly this year was turned into a cyber-event. To what extent do you think the future of diplomacy—or at least a part of it—is digital? What are its advantages, and what are its drawbacks?

JE: We need the physical meetings, the personal touch and the informal encounters in negotiations and mediation. This was missing in the United Nations General Assembly in 2020. Still, I believe we must be innovative and adapt to the realities created by COVID-19. For example, last spring, the SIPRI, where I am the chair of the board, organized a digital forum on “Peace and Development,” which was extended to over 160 countries.

MF: You have been the man behind the Human Rights Council, behind the concept of the right to protect, identified with peace negotiations, just to note a few of the things you have been involved in. What is the activity that has given you most personal satisfaction?

JE: The work on human rights and humanitarian action and principles has given me great satisfaction and inspiration, despite setbacks and disappointments. To work out humanitarian corridors in Sudan, to launch the 100-day humanitarian program in Somalia in 1992, and to finish the negotiations on the Human Rights Council in 2006 were steps on an arduous road to preserve life and defend human dignity. The same goes for the launch of “Responsibility to Protect” in 2005 and the initiative “Human Rights up Front” in 2013 in the United Nations.

MF: Today many feel that the future of multilateralism is at stake. Have we completely lost this ideal of international cooperation and solidarity in international relations? What can be done to remedy this?

JE: We need a renaissance of multilateralism after the serious strains on international cooperation in recent years. We need to realize that a good international agreement is in the national interest of states. The Paris Agreement is an important example—and it is a relief that Untied States will rejoin it, soon after President Joseph Biden’s inauguration. [Since the time of this interview, Biden reinstated the United States’ membership in Paris Agreement on Jan. 20, immediately after his inauguration.]

Another test of global solidarity will be the distribution and costs of the COVID-19 vaccines. Let us hope that across the board we draw the right lessons of positive interdependence after the COVID-19 crisis.

MF: The 21st century is often thought of as a century without an ideology. Do you share that point of view, and, how would you characterize the 21st century?

JE: I see in the world a disturbing polarization, both between and within nations. On one hand, there is a social and liberal democratic traditional leadership continuing in the tradition of the world order set up after World War II. On the other, there is an authoritarian, nationalistic, and populist wave of movements protesting this order—sometimes successfully—as we have seen in the United States and elsewhere recently.

It is important that all good forces now unite around international cooperation and solidarity. But it is also essential for us all to build societies at home based on social and economic justice. Otherwise, polarization and confrontation will persist.

MF: Finally, if you were to give a message to our readers, what would that be?

JE: My message is a formula from the 2005 Summit declaration: there is no peace without development, there is no development without peace and there is no peace or development without respect of human rights.

Unless we live up to this, we won’t be able to safeguard the future for both humankind and nature.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.