School for future peacemakers

If we think of nations as actors on the international stage, then diplomats can be viewed as the stage hands, busy behind the scenes diffusing tension, tackling disputes, averting wars, bolstering human rights, establishing trade deals and agreeing joint actions.

But what does it take to be an effective diplomat?

Acclaimed American diplomat and political scientist Madeleine Albright stressed the need, “to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, because unless you can understand what is motivating them you are never going to figure out how to solve a particular problem.”

A list of qualities possessed by the ideal diplomat and articulated by one ex-diplomat is somewhat longer: truth, accuracy, calm, patience, good temper, modesty and loyalty, not forgetting intelligence, knowledge, discernment, prudence, hospitality, charm, industry, courage and tact. Quite a tall order!

Teaching peaceful tactics

It’s perhaps not surprising then that diplomacy academic and author Geoff Berridge highlights the special requirements of the role. “We need professional diplomats for the same reason we need trained doctors: diplomacy, like medicine, is a specialised activity with a store of complex knowledge, well-tried procedures and a distinctive lexicon.”

The trouble is, there’s not such a clear career path for diplomats as for doctors.

So how do people with the potential to be as important as soldiers in shaping international order develop the skills, knowledge and wisdom to influence others through dialogue and negotiation? And, just as importantly, how do they learn enough about diplomacy in the first place to decide if it’s the career for them?

In Europe, there are a variety of diplomatic training programmes for graduates, run by national foreign ministries and organisations such as The European Academy of Diplomacy. There are also networking and learning opportunities for young professional diplomats provided by, for example, the EU’s European Diplomatic Programme.

But historically there has been little targeting those still in high school and university for whom diplomacy wouldn’t otherwise be on their radar as a job option – and who might make outstanding diplomats and add to the diversity of the profession.

Widening the talent pool

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, is one of a growing number of cities to realise the value of actively reaching out to young people. “In the Kharkiv region, diplomacy training is a fairly new area, which requires careful support, but which is definitely in high demand,” says Julia Zghurska, Deputy Head of the International Cooperation Office of the City Council.

“Diplomacy and politics are quite specific areas that cannot be mastered only within the boundaries of the university without having practical training. We wanted to enable students of international specialties as well as active youth to develop their knowledge and gain practical skills.”

Diplomacy training is definitely in high demand
— Julia Zghurska, Deputy Head of the International Cooperation Office , Kharkiv City Council

As the impact of the Covid pandemic started to become clear, the city quickly decided to launch the third season of its Young Diplomat School.

“Social exclusion was affecting all people but the pandemic hurt international relations especially hard,” explains Zghurska. “Training in the direction of international activity was becoming even more complex, with the closure of all opportunities for the potential use of diplomatic and international skills by young people.”

Offline in the Covid era

One big challenge faced the school’s five partners, the City Council, Youth Council, non-governmental organisation Public Diplomacy Platform, the Diplomatic Club of Kharkiv and the Karazin University: conducting its courses offline. “This is very important for this field of activity, where communication and teamwork play a major role, and which is impossible under quarantine restrictions,” says Zghurska.

And so it was that in between waves of the pandemic, the city organised classes in nine different locations, satisfying the need for live communication and social cohesion in memorable and historic settings.

Alongside the school’s commitment to real-world interaction is a determination to expose participants to the reality of being a diplomat. This is why its 25 volunteer lecturers and leaders are all experienced, knowledgeable professionals who have been there and done that and have stories to tell of difficulties, failures and successes – as well as the insights to help shape the course content.

Celebrating the diplomacy club
Official signing ceremony, or play?
Learning the ropes

At the heart of politics

During the Covid era there was even greater competition than before for the 25 places on the free, month-long course which offers two to three lessons a week, each up to three hours. A two-stage selection process was developed which meant each of the 144 applicants had to complete an electronic questionnaire and essay and attend an interview.

Diplomacy training is definitely in high demand
— Julia Zghurska, Deputy Head of the International Cooperation Office , Kharkiv City Council

For the lucky 25, there were also opportunities to get up close and personal with people and institutions at the heart of the country’s political machine. There was a trip to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and lectures by current officials, a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and visits to the main political institutions.

At the end of the course, during which students worked and were graded individually, there was a challenge that put their all-important teamwork skills to the test. Together, they had to prepare and simulate the reception of a foreign delegation by the city council – an event which was evaluated by experts and city council officials.

Diplomats for a worrying world

While the process of coordinating each session with new speakers and in a variety of locations was problematic, the third season of the Young Diplomat School was deemed to be a big success.

Participants were clearly pleased with the rich programme and offline experience after a long absence and their feedback was very positive. Former leading diplomats and foreign affairs officials present at the final event were also full of praise for the project’s quality and value.

For Zghurska and the school’s organisers, the main indicator of success was, “the obvious changes in the participants themselves: a change in their approach to work, significant maturity in their views, impressive team building and noticeable development as professionals.”

We need as many of these young, knowledgeable diplomats-in-waiting as possible. For while diplomacy will always have its limitations, it also has extraordinary potential.


Cities dream, act and lead our future. This example from Kharkiv is one of the finalists for the Eurocities Awards, in the category ‘Dream together – future generations transforming the cities’. The winners will be announced on 9 June 2022 during the Eurocities Conference.

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