Interview with Julian Braithwaite, Ambassador & Permanent Representative, UK Mission to the UN | June 2015

After a career in bilateral diplomacy and frontline missions as well as multilateral diplomacy in Brussels, Ambassador Julian Braithwaite, freshly appointed Head of the UK Mission to the UN and other international organisations, is now settling in Geneva. He can count on an extensive experience and will lead a team of 50. During the induction phase, traveling to West Africa, he could see by himself how Geneva-based organisations were working in the field to fight against the Ebola outbreak. In this interview, he tells us about his background, the principles upon which he bases his action and his perspective on international Geneva, in addition to pointing out how the work carried out by Geneva-based entities could be made more apparent. 

Why did you choose the path of diplomacy?

Well, I hadn't planned to, partly because it's a very unoriginal choice. My father was a diplomat and I grew up in this world. I then went to the States and I did a degree in mainly economics and international affairs and got interested at that point in international economics and European monetary union. I got a job working at the Bank of England on potential British membership of the Euro but I joined the Bank of England the day the pound was ejected from the exchange rate mechanism in 1992 and therefore almost all the work I was doing was no longer relevant! So after a couple of years I thought well, I'll try the Foreign Office after all, and so I got sucked into my father's old career and here I am! You sometimes wonder in life what else you might do, but actually when I look at what you do as a diplomat, there are few other things I could think of that would have been as rewarding as what I've done over the last twenty years.

What leading figures or schools of thought have influenced your professional journey?

I think the thing that has had the most impact on me were the wars in the former Yugoslavia. I started the Foreign Office in 1994 on the Bosnia Desk in London. I then did my first UN job working for the fantastic Special Representative of the Secretary-General called Thorvold Stoltenberg in 1995 in Croatia, where I was involved in the single thing I'm most proud of. It was a negotiation where the UN, under Thorvold's lead, managed to prevent the expulsion of about 150'000 people from eastern Slavonia in Croatia. At the end of the war in Croatia, there were lots of people being made homeless and this was a negotiation that actually prevented that for tens of thousands of people. And that showed me what you can achieve through diplomacy.

What was your perception of Geneva before coming here?

My career had been mainly bilateral diplomacy and frontline missions: in the former Yugoslavia. So I worked as I said for Thorvold Stoltenberg in the UN, on the ground in some political missions, for Paddy Ashdown, the British politician, when he was the Head of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia, again a sort of field mission, and in NATO during the Kosovo campaign, very much operational. I've also done bilateral jobs in Belgrade and in our embassy in Washington. And for this first part of my career I thought those multilateral towns like New York, or Brussels or Geneva were just where people sit and talk and they don't actually do the real work. That's what I thought at that stage of my career.

And it's only really as I've got to the second half of my career that I've realized that actually if you really want something done internationally you have to do it in partnership, in agreement with others, through the patient and often frustrating, but essential processes, of the multilateral institutions: in Brussels, in New York and in Geneva.

And so I came to the realisation that it is here, in the multilateral towns, that you can make a difference.  That was true in Brussels with the EU, but it's also true here, although one of the big questions for me is how do you influence effectively in an environment as complicated as Geneva. It's one of the big questions I've been thinking about when preparing for this job.

As a communications expert, how do you assess the performance of Geneva-based international organisations? Do you think that the general public has a good understanding of their activities? What could be changed? 

I think it is challenging because people have the same perceptions that I had if you like at the beginning of my career, which is that Geneva is full of people in a very nice location just talking and going through bureaucratic processes. Which is, as I said, very unfair.

I therefore wanted to experience the impact that Geneva has for myself. So preparing for this job I decided to go to West Africa to see the UN in action there. I decided to go to Conakry, to see the World Health Organization (WHO) working with the UNHCR, working with UNICEF, working with World Food Programme (WFP), in really difficult circumstances, saving lives. And that is what these agencies do. To understand Geneva you have to leave Geneva to see what their agencies do on the ground. To see this for yourself.

So the best way to do this is by showing what the organizations based here are enabling in terms of operations in places like West Africa, in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq and the Horn of Africa, saving tens of thousands of lives, helping millions and millions of people and moving often very fast, and very operationally. The UNHCR is an organization that can move thousands of his professional staff around very quickly in ways that national bureaucracies would find impossible. So there are things that are done here that are really state of the art and first class. And by telling that story we can gain the support we need from the public opinion, and the tax payers.

So when our electorates are worried about what's happening to the people trapped in these awful conflict zones, and they think "what can I do about it", they think of the support that comes from their governments through agencies in Geneva. That’s the understanding Geneva needs.

Did you choose to come here? Why?

I did! As mentioned, ten years ago I wouldn't have chosen to come here. And then I decided to try multilateral diplomacy in Brussels and concluded that moving into the UN system was the logical next step. And for a number of reasons Geneva was the place I wanted to come.

In many ways Geneva is the most altruistic of the UN capitals. The agencies here on the whole are doing things that are not politically controversial, but they need the political support and financial support of countries like the United Kingdom. So you could come here and really be part of something that is not about a political battle but about enabling the noble cause of the UN. The altruistic mission of many of these organizations is one of the things that attracted me to Geneva.

I also like the fact that it works for another very important part of my life which is my family. My wife is a human rights lawyer and Geneva was always an interesting town for her professionally. The kids are also of an age where the schools here are a fantastic draw as well.

So you put all that together and Geneva ended up looking like the perfect choice!

Is there a particular event or encounter that has stood out to you since you took office?

I think it's just meeting the senior people here. There are about a dozen people I've met already who are fantastic professionals at the height of their careers, with enormous experience, working here on huge challenges: the big humanitarian crises, the Ebola health crisis.  Those encounters have been the things that have most impressed me.  

What do you most like in this new job?

I think it's the breath of the job and the complexity of the environment. What I mean by that is that there is a real opportunity here to look across these many different organizations and to think through what are the priorities that could bring them together.

When I was preparing for this job I talked to some of my predecessors and asked them to describe the job. One of them described it as being ambassador to 18 different organizations! In fact, the UK Mission is affiliated to 37 different agencies, funds and bodies. So you could just be following the processes of these 37 organizations, keeping yourself very busy, but always chasing your tail.

I think the interest and challenge here is trying to step back from that complexity and think through: what are the big issues that my capital cares about? How as a member State that sits on the board of all these organizations, can we help to bring them together and give them a common purpose? That's a really interesting challenge.

In my position, you can't be an expert on everything and go to every meeting. What I can do is, first of all, help define what the priorities are, and then secondly, to get the political support we need from London to take forward things here. I also believe it is important that we participate a small way in the wider public debate about explaining what this extraordinary system does and ensure that countries like the UK, support the system as a whole, as a global public good that the UK was instrumental in helping to create, and should be instrumental in developing further.

What are your first impressions of living in Geneva?

I always knew Geneva and I always knew Switzerland because my godfather lived here. He was the first violinist in the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande for many years. He was a very good musician and came here because he loved the mountains and he spent his whole life here, playing music and climbing mountains. So I came out here to visit him and we've had family connections with Switzerland for all my life. What I didn't know was what life in Geneva was about. What I have found so far is fantastic. My family are settling in well. I know already that we are going to love living here.


June 2015

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