Wolfgang Ischinger on why we should talk to adversaries, a small-country play for the UN Security Council and why Japan is opening an embassy in Kosovo.
“In diplomacy you mustn’t have moral hesitations about talking to unsavoury governments,” says Wolfgang Ischinger. “You have to keep trying to find an opening for some sort of rapprochement.” That conviction led the German diplomat, who has served as his country’s secretary of state and ambassador to both the US and UK, to invite North Korean representatives to this year’s Munich Security Conference (msc) for the first time in its 56-year history – an invitation that was accepted but then thwarted by precautions due to the coronavirus.
Prior to Ischinger’s appointment as head of the MSC, a confab of defence and security officials that takes place every February, he had worked at the heart of some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, starting in former Yugoslavia, where he helped negotiate the end of the war in 1995. “A tricky question was how to build trust with someone like [Slobodan] Miloševic,” says Ischinger. “It was crucial to show that we could each rely on commitments that the other one made.”
What was the secret? A mix of forceful projections of power and personality. “Diplomacy can be a dirty business of acting and threatening,” says Ischinger. “And it certainly helped that we could frankly tell the Serbs that failure of the negotiations might lead to substantial military consequences.” On the personality side, Ischinger points to US secretary of state Warren Christopher, who “negotiated through day and night, and his very physical presence helped inch Milosevic to the last concessions.”
Ischinger’s career has also taken him to peace talks in Kosovo in 1999 and to the German embassy in Washington, where he ominously started his post on 11 September 2001. He needed a different type of conflict-resolution skill to mediate between German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and US president George W Bush over the war in Iraq in 2003.
But it’s at the msc where Ischinger has made a name for himself by bringing in adversaries for talks. Against some opposition, he kept inviting Iranian delegations – an effort that he says helped build trust and contacts for negotiating the nuclear deal signed in 2015. “In the narrow corridors of Bayerischer Hof in Munich, we could facilitate discreet meetings or simply try to steer the Iranians toward Western delegations to encourage initial dialogue,” he says. If only he could do the same now with North Korea.
Canada, Norway and Ireland are vying for two UN Security Council seats in June. While Norway and Ireland announced their bids about a decade ago, Canada only joined the race after Justin Trudeau’s election in 2016. All three countries claim that they would tackle climate change and advance gender equality.
So what’s Canada’s pitch? Marc-André Blanchard, Canada’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, believes that its focus on economic security sets it apart. “The relationship between development and security is closer than ever before,” he says. “Innovative partnerships are needed to produce sustainable security.” Extra motivation for joining the Security Council stems from Canada’s hopes to improve its rocky relations with China: being on the council would mean a seat close to China’s ambassador.
But it’ll be a tight race. “Norway has a peace and reconciliation tradition of more than 25 years,” says Ragnhild Imerslund, head of the country’s Security Council campaign. May the best country win.
Twelve years on from its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, Kosovo is stuck in diplomatic limbo. It is unrecognised by many countries and cannot gain membership to the UN or many other international organisations. So the opening of the Japanese embassy in Pristina in January represented a ray of light in the gloom of isolation. For now, the ambassador remains in Vienna but Kosovo’s counterpart in Tokyo, Leon Malazogu, is not allowing that to dampen his excitement, describing the reactions in Japan as “numerous and completely positive”. Whether that translates into much-needed investment is another matter. Japan’s aid agency, Jica, has been active in environmental projects in the Balkan country but Kosovo’s only significant Japanese-owned firm is a shiitake farm. Pristina hopes that, with the new embassy, similar ventures will mushroom.