YJEA: Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your job.
Leonie van der Stijl: My name is Leonie van der Stijl and I’m a Dutch diplomat. I currently work at the directorate for Inclusive Green Growth (IGG) in the climate diplomacy team. The directorate houses a team of about 80 people. We cover food security, water, energy, arctic policies, and climate change. The climate team does two main things: on the one hand, we work on development programs, for example, a lot with the GIZ on renewable energy in sub-Sahara Africa, or forestry. And we have a diplomacy hub where we work with other ministries, such as the Dutch ministries for agriculture and for economic affairs and climate amongst others. We try to push for more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) globally and use our entire diplomatic toolbox for more climate ambition and climate action.
What is your academic background? Did your academic education prepare you well for your job?
I’m a historian. Fresh out of high school, I could have studied so many things. But I’m glad I picked history. I think history is like a Magpie, you can just pick out anything shiny from the past to study. My main field is middle and eastern European studies, looking very much at Russia, for example in the geopolitical sphere and the Cold War. And, I studied contemporary antisemitism for my thesis. So, I believe that studying history really prepared me to try to understand the past and maybe even our collective identity. Where do we come from? As a person, you are defined by your past and by your surroundings, but I think communities or countries are also very much defined by what has happened in the past. It also helped me realise that there is always too much to learn. The more you learn the more you realise how little you know. So, I guess studying history has made me modest as well.
When did you decide to get into diplomacy?
That’s a funny story actually. I won a national competition to join our then foreign minister, Uri Rosenthal, at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2012 as a Social Media Reporter. So, I was there, running after the entire delegation with a flip camera, just making video blogs, reporting on everything that was going on there. Afterwards, I went to work with an NGO for refugee students in the Netherlands. Then, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked me to support their communications work for the application for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). So, there I was, suddenly on the shortlist. I applied and they picked me. Working in a ministry was always kind of a black box for me. I never saw myself going into diplomacy, but once inside, I realised there was just a fountain of opportunities. Thus, I applied for the diplomatic training course from that position. I don’t think I would have done that if I hadn’t been working there already. After my successful application for the diplomatic training, I was then sent to India.
What was your responsibility in New Delhi (India)?
Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs every year has to lay out a massive puzzle of everybody moving on and everybody shifting position. So, when I came out of the diplomatic class, there were six positions abroad open, and they asked me to go to India. Usually, you start your diplomatic career after the training within the ministry, but I had already been at the ministry, so they thought I should go abroad. And usually you can apply for positions internally, but they asked me to go to India. Our first positions abroad are for two years. So, what do you know about India growing up here and through your studies? Most of my studies and training focused on Europe and transatlantic relations. I went to India with an open mind and read up on the country. I was posted at the economic department where I worked on responsible business conduct, start-ups and sports. I was lucky to guide four interns and did a lot of communications and public diplomacy work. India is a country brimming with opportunities. There are start-ups that are coming up with apps that make the exchange of information through handshakes possible. It’s super scary when you think of the privacy implications, but at the same time, business inventions on the fringes of science just happen there. I helped Dutch businesses with their work in India, but mainly the start-up scene, which is complex, with incubation and failing young entrepreneurs, but also angel investors and unicorn businesses.
“The Paris Agreement was such a landmark victory.”
Do you actually negotiate with other countries yourself and when did you first learn how to negotiate?
Diplomacy work is super diverse and not everyone gets to negotiate all the time. So, what I did at the economic department in New Delhi had nothing to do with negotiation. Maybe informal ones, but not the multilateral ones that I think you’re referring to. Now, there are several ways that I’m currently involved in these kinds of negotiations, but my job is more, just to give you a context, focused on moving countries bilaterally and through coalitions. The main negotiations for climate change happen at the COP. We do have some climate negotiation texts, for example at the UNGA this year. My role is not sitting at the table. I’m not the one staring other countries in the eye, trying to make the text work for all of us. I’m the one at the foreign ministry, which is kind of like the mothership, where policy is made and from where the red lines for negotiation are sent to the negotiating teams. So, in this case, the UN team in New York. I help draft the instructions, that’s my current job.
It’s important work. The pieces of paper that countries negotiate give civil society or other organisations the possibility to hold their own governments accountable on a political level.
Would you agree that most of the time this is a reason for governments to refrain from deciding on more ambitious goals and measures?
Yes, exactly that. And this is why the Paris Agreement was such a landmark victory. In the Dutch national government accords it says, it’s our obligation to do everything in our power to make the Paris Agreement a reality. Those types of texts form our policies. It’s all because in 2015 we had that unique moment of very hard negotiations.
What are the most important characteristics a young diplomat should have and what’s the importance of talent?
An important character trade for diplomats is honest curiosity. Related to that I would add empathy for where other people come from. I think you really need that for whatever country you’re sent to because every country in the world will be very different from Germany or the Netherlands. For formal moments you’ll have to be able to adapt to different settings, so flexibility would then be another important character trade. But empathy for where people come from will help you understand dialogues on a deeper level.
Building bridges is an easy term to coin, but it’s super hard to actually do that. And I think a trap that many diplomats fall into is that they become broadcasting machines. Instead of broadcasting, we should be listening more. When you’re in negotiations or when you’re in a country working, you need to understand where your counterparts and your partners come from. And that also applies the other way around, to understanding where the Dutch people come from. Because I’m working abroad for the Netherlands and the Dutch people, so they can seem very far away when you’re in Myanmar or in Zambia or wherever in the world you might be. So, I need to stay honestly curious, also for what’s going on in the Netherlands in my case.
Have you had intercultural competence already before you applied? How important is international experience before applying to be trained as a diplomat? Where did you gain foreign experience before becoming a diplomat?
You’re never done learning, that’s for sure. You’ll always stumble upon new surprises. Especially for me in India at every corner. Intercultural competence is, I think, also part of your character trade, being open-minded. I studied in Norway for my Erasmus exchange and I went to New York, for six months. These are both western countries, but they really helped me gain the confidence to rely on my own. Having that foundation of trust in yourself allows you to grow. But well, surprises are around every corner.
For example, what I found difficult to understand in India was the white privilege that I had. Indian layers in society are complex. An example: in 2016, India went through a demonitization, several rupee bills were declared useless in 24 hours in order to tackle corruption. New bills were being printed, but the transition was chaotic. There were lines and lines and lines in front of the ATMs. I was in one of those lines and the security guard asked me to step in front because he saw I was a white female. So, what do you do? I mean everybody was waiting there. Why is my time more valuable than theirs? I stayed in line for about three hours, people around me didn’t understand. You’re never in these types of situations in your own country. The unwritten rules that you’re born into and that you understand don’t apply. So, important questions to keep asking yourself are: what is my privilege here? How do I make sure I stay aware, use that privilege for the right things and don’t start acting like I deserve everything that is presented to me because of my diplomatic position or, worse, the colour of my skin?
How do you prepare for a negotiation? Do you prepare the strategy or is that the negotiation team’s part?
Negotiation instructions, lines and strategies are always an outpour and a reflection of national policies. Strategies are built by clusters of teams. For example, we have a directorate for integration Europe that coordinates our European negotiations, including on climate. We, the climate team, will be the ones to provide them with the substance, technical details, possible difficulties and the playing field as we see it. Which they would also know very well. In the European Union, there are also more ambitious and less ambitious countries. Those types of national interests within the European Union block are very interesting to deal with. We make up our strategies together but we’re not in Brussels sitting at the table. We have colleagues in Brussels doing the actual negotiations with our instructions at hand. They then report back to us on the playing field. Which countries supported what. Which countries brought up which specifics. We collect all of that and relay information to other ministries in the Netherlands if needed.
How open are countries in these types of negotiations with their motives? Do you try to go in very high so you can tune your demands a little bit down in the negotiation or is it something that countries are very open with from the beginning?
It changes depending on the forum and the political level represented. I don’t think there is one case. It also changes per country. In the EU, I would think we know each other’s policies and governments well. Sometimes it’s harder to find out, what the root cause of a certain position is and how to maneuver around it. I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer to that question.
How do you deal with countries that are pursuing a strategy to just oppose everything and aren’t cooperative in any regard on the matter?
That’s very, very tough. But even then, there are usually carrots and sticks. Finding out what they do want and what they try to avoid is crucial here. For example, when a middle-income country would block a climate paragraph in a big statement the EU stepped up and said: fine, we won’t support your resolution on that other subject you found so important. There are always things countries want to avoid and there are always things they want to achieve. Finding those out, what makes them tick, what resonates and what could hurt them and what’s in your toolbox to use is what you need to do.
“It’s an important lesson that climate action on the ground is not always represented in the negotiation room.”
What do you do when you fiercely reject your government’s opinion, but you’re still bound to it?
I never experienced this. But our ministry is very focused, and rightfully so, on diversity of thought. Of course, we are civil servants. Once policy has been defined, we are tasked to carry it out, the directions are clear. When policies are being developed, that’s when discussions can happen and that’s when the ministry is working on having diversity of thought and dissenting opinions and opportunity for civil servants, high and low, to help shape the policy.
Theoretically, it could be a very interesting situation when civil servants fiercely reject government opinions. Do you stay on board and try to change things slightly from within or will you leave out of protest? If you stay, you’ll have to do the work. You are a civil servant. You’re there for the policy that’s set out and outlined. Of course, you can help shape it in a constructive way but if you really fundamentally disagree with things you might want to look at another career path.
You talked about your work in New Delhi, you talked about your work now. So, what was the link between Delhi, where you worked with economic issues and start-ups, and your current job? How did you then enter climate diplomacy?
Every year in the Netherlands there is a list of all the positions freeing up and that you can apply for. What do you choose when the world of opportunities is at your feet? From New Delhi, I applied for positions in St. Petersburg, Pretoria and the climate team. When making those decisions for the next steps, things I take into account are the adventure, the substance of the job and what the team is like. The type of boss you work for is also a defining feature for me.
When I moved back to the ministry, the climate subject really drew me in as did the leadership of that directorate. My bosses are amazing, really. So here I am. But I might do nuclear disarmament or rule of law next, who knows?
How do you convince countries to take decisive climate action if you are not doing that well yourself? Or if your history is not carbon neutral like many western or European countries?
Transitions are complex. The Netherlands is not there yet, but we have turned a green page. With the new climate objectives in the EU (55% emission reduction in 2030).
But ultimately, moving the green needle in other countries is not about us. It’s about them. South Africa is not going to improve its ambition in its NDC because the Netherlands is doing well or bad. Influencing countries or helping countries or working together with them is always about them. What resonates with them? What opportunities are there for more collaboration? Of course, you might get the question: What are your plans for your NDC? But a more important question is: what do you have to offer bilaterally and in coalitions? For a lot of countries, the Netherlands is a partner for any adaptation theme: water and agriculture.
“Prepare yourself for opportunities when they come, but don’t stare at your path blindly.”
How did negotiations change after Donald Trump was elected?
At the COP25 in Poland, there was a big delegation from the United States. It was called “we’re still in” and it was comprised of businesses, civil society and states. The state of California was the 5th largest economy in the world in 2019. They are still in. In many countries, there is a multitude of players working on circularity, sustainability and green jobs. On the action front, action is being taken. Renewable energy investments in offshore wind in the US have grown significantly in the last years. It’s an important lesson that climate action on the ground is not always represented in the negotiation room.
How did your job change due to Corona?
It has become harder. Meetings everywhere have turned into a bonanza of statements. The informal moments, the dialogue, the brainstorms fall away in virtual meetings. Usually, you know where your coalition partners, the champions and the spoilers are. Talking to doubters at the coffee machine during your break might give you leverage that you couldn’t have gotten in a very official setting with your microphone on. All major negotiations got pushed to next year because it’s really impossible to replace them with a digital version.
What would you recommend to any student interested in diplomacy?
Prepare yourself for opportunities when they come, but don’t stare at your path blindly, because sometimes doors open left or right, and you just can’t prepare for everything that comes your way. There are plenty of options out there and you might take detours to come wherever you want to go. Or you might think that career path A is the one for you, but you roll into B and that’s even better. You’ll never know.