Skip to content

Ambassador Robert Serry gives advice to SHU Diplomacy students on How to Build a Successful Career

On 9 December 2016, I met with Ambassador Robert Serry and asked him to share his advice on how to start a career within such organizations as the United Nations (the U.N.) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ambassador Serry generously offered his advice, which will be valuable for Seton Hall University Diplomacy students when starting their career as Foreign Service Officers or Diplomats.


Ambassador Serry biography:

Robert H. Serry (born 1950 in Calcutta) is a former Dutch career diplomat with extensive experience in multilateral diplomacy and crisis management having served with NATO and the United Nations. In March 2015, he completed a seven year assignment as the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, based in Jerusalem. For NATO, he served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Crisis Management and Operations (2001-2005) and was involved in NATO’s operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

As a Dutch diplomat, Mr. Serry was posted in Moscow, New York (United Nations) and as the first ambassador to newly independent Ukraine. He is the author of Standplaats Kiev (Amsterdam 1997), a reflection on his experiences in that country. Mr. Serry also served as Dutch ambassador in Dublin, Ireland.

Mr. Serry was involved in ‘second track’ diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians and took part in the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid (1991).

During different assignments, Mr. Serry also gained experience in contacts with non-state actors in conflict areas.

Currently, Mr. Serry holds the Sergio Vieira de Mello Visiting Chair in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations of Seton Hall University. His book The Endless Quest for Israeli-Palestinian Peace: A Reflection from No Man’s Land is published in December 2016 in New York.

Mr. Serry obtained his degree in Political Science (MA with honors) from the University of Amsterdam. He is married and has three children.

(Biography provided by Ambassador Serry)

Vera: You started your career as a Dutch Career Diplomat and served in a variety of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy positions representing your country. Can you tell our students more about this experience? Which was the most memorable post? Why?

Ambassador Serry: I started my career as a Dutch Diplomat. The entry requirements are different in every country. I can say, across the board, there is always a very difficult exam. Many students are interested to enter initial Foreign Service. I was one of the lucky ones when I did this long time ago. My main motivation at that time was the Soviet Union. I was learning Russian during my studies and I wanted to have real experience in Eastern Europe. My first post wasn’t Moscow, but was Bangkok. Moscow became my second post. There’s a difference between smaller and larger countries. If you join Foreign Service in a country size like mine, usually the Foreign Service wants to work with generalists. There is some specialization in the Foreign Ministry, of course. However, the bulk of the new diplomats should be willing to go to a country they are sent to. Don’t be too picky and choosy about what your first job is going to be. You will learn during the job, what you like to do and what you don’t like to do. That is important. After Moscow, I came to New York. This was during early 80’s. It was my first experience with the United Nations. I worked for the Dutch Mission with the U.N. During that time, I started to work on the Middle East subjects. I became the head of the Middle East office for the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Sudden developments in the Eastern Europe (the Berlin Wall came down, then the Disintegration of the Soviet Union) opened up new opportunities for me. I became the first Dutch Ambassador to the independent Ukraine (in the early 90’s). I would consider it a highlight in my bilateral career because it doesn’t happen too often that you open up a new Embassy from scratch. That was a very interesting experience. After that, I had the opportunity to have my first experience with multilateral diplomacy, first for the Dutch in NATO as a Deputy Permanent Representative. Then I became NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Crisis Management and Operations. I was mainly involved with the Balkans (Kosovo, Macedonia). I stayed with NATO for about 7-8 years. Then I briefly became the Dutch Ambassador to Ireland. Ireland is an important country for the European Union, which gave me the opportunity to get some European Union experience. And then, my dream came true: I had never forgotten the Middle East. I applied for the job of the Secretary-General Special Envoy to the Middle East peace process. To my big surprise, I got it. It led to seven years in Jerusalem, stubbornly trying to contribute to peace on behalf of the U.N. After that, I learned about the position of the Sergio Vieira de Mello Visiting Chair in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations of Seton Hall University. This opportunity came at fantastic time for me. I wanted to write, but at the same time, convey my experience directly to students. Being a Sergio Vieira de Mello Visiting Chair at Seton Hall, gave me an opportunity to come to New York twice, work with academia and write my book. Now my book is published: The Endless Quest for Israeli-Palestinian Peace: A Reflection from No Man’s Land.

Vera: What makes a successful Diplomat? What skills should an effective diplomat possess at the beginning of his/ her career?

Ambassador Serry: You need to be flexible. Language is very important. It is always a big advantage if you speak the language of the country in which you serve. It’s not always possible, but I always tried to do it. I used my knowledge of Russian twice in my career both, in Moscow and Kiev. Two skills particular important in the field of crisis management are patience and empathy. You should have lot of patience and empathy for all sides in a conflict situation. You need to understand what their needs and red lines are. You need to build a relationship with actors. You cannot do that without empathy. When I say “empathy”, I don’t mean “neutrality”. You cannot be neutral.

Vera: Is it important for a diplomat to see both sides of a conflict?

Ambassador Serry: Yes, very important. I would also add transparency. Particularly when you work for the U.N. You cannot work behind the back of any of the parties. Very soon, they will distrust you. Knowledge is very important also. You have to have deep knowledge of the conflict. You should not come in to discuss a conflict with preconceived ideas of how to resolve it. You need to know the context of a conflict and you deepen this context while working with the parties.

Vera: I also heard from a person who is deeply emerged in the field of diplomacy that understanding is very important. That people need to be understood why they are undertaking certain actions. Is it true?

Ambassador Serry: It’s subsumed in empathy. Empathy means, you are trying to understand. Sometimes it is difficult. Especially when you talk to terrorists. Even if they are your enemies, it’s important to keep contact with all actors. Particularly in conflict situations.

Vera: Many students at the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy dream about having a career at the U.N. or NATO. What advice would you give them in terms of the ways to get noticed while applying for positions within such organizations? What prior experience could help getting a job there?

Ambassador Serry: Students should try to get enrolled into the U.N. system. It’s a vast system. Don’t be too choosy in the beginning. Volunteer when you can. Sometimes, volunteers get to do more interesting work than permanent employees.

Vera: In your experience, you were passionate about something in the beginning, but your career took you somewhere totally different. Therefore, we shouldn’t be choosy at first because we can never be sure where certain experience is going to take us to.

Ambassador Serry: That’s right, you can never predict where your experience will take you. Also, keep on trying. If you really are as passionate about something as I was about International Affairs and Diplomacy, I would only encourage you not to be picky about what you do in the beginning and get in. Later on, you will find your path.

Vera: In your presentation at Seton Hall, you mentioned that promotion system is not automatically accessible to the U.N. employees and that those seeking a possibility of promotion should look for such opportunities on their own. If so, could you provide a piece of advice in this regard.

Ambassador Serry: The U.N., unlike a National Foreign Service, doesn’t have a very efficient personnel system. For that, the U.N. is simply too big. Too many Member States try to play the role in selection. At the same time, I have seen that for many young U.N. officials I worked with, it is very important to network and make yourself known. This will help you in situations when there is no clear career path to follow in the U.N. It also depends on where (within the U.N.) you enter into a job. For example, if you are interested in crisis management and humanitarian affairs, the Secretariat and the office of the Secretary-General would be an interesting path to pursue. However, there are many specialized agencies and NGOs.

-Vera Dimoplon

This guest post was written by Vera Dimoplon. Vera is a graduate student at the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Her specializations are International Organizations, Global Negotiations and Conflict Management. Vera’s interests are the operation of international organizations in multilateral community, negotiations among multinational actors, and conflict management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest