Ambassador Nirupama Rao

Ambassador Nirupama Rao

Nirupama Menon Rao is a retired Indian diplomat, Foreign Secretary, and Ambassador. She joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1973. During her four-decade-long diplomatic career, she was India’s first woman spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs, the first woman High Commissioner from her country to Sri Lanka, and the first Indian woman Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China. She served as India’s Foreign Secretary from 2009-2011. In 2011, she was appointed India’s Ambassador to the United States and served a two year term.

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Riina Kionka

 Photo: Mario Salerno/Council Secretariat of the EU

 Photo: Mario Salerno/Council Secretariat of the EU

Chief Foreign Policy Adviser | European Council President Donald Tusk

Riina Kionka spoke to Women In Foreign Policy about adapting to changing international environment, seizing new opportunities and working in a multilateral institution.

Here are her three pieces of advice: 






  • Be open to new opportunities and do not be afraid to take them! 
  • Become a resilient critical thinker! 
  • Aim to understand the emotional content, interests and constraints behind a particular political stance! 

What do you do right now? 

I am the Chief Foreign Policy Adviser to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk. The European Council is the highest decision-making body in the EU and consists of Heads of State or Government of the EU member states. It meets at least four times a year, but in practice far more frequently.

How did you get interested in foreign affairs?

I have been interested in foreign affairs since childhood. We talked about foreign affairs at home, and I recall being politically quite aware even as a child. I remember I was the first to grab the Time Magazine, which at that time was the only weekly magazine that had a good foreign affairs coverage in the US, when it arrived home.

I grew up in the United States, in a bilingual home- I spoke Estonian with my mother and grandmother and English with my father. I think being different and having a strange nationality defined my thinking because I always had to explain, what and where Estonia is and why we cannot find it on the political map. Though I was interested in foreign affairs from the beginning, I did not think about it as a career until university.

Moving to your time at university, you were doing your PhD when the Berlin Wall fell. What kind of effect it had on you?

I have been very privileged to live in interesting times. The Berlin Wall fell when I was working at Radio Free Europe. Indeed, I was writing my dissertation at Columbia University, but it just got too exciting, and I wanted to work on the issues of the day, rather than sit in a library. So, I joined the radios.

There was something in the air at that time. Government after government was falling and it was like watching a tennis match or a sports game, you never knew who is going to fall next. Or which of your colleagues will spend several sleepy weeks covering the issues of the day.

The world changed entirely in the space of 2-3 years. It affected my academic career because it took me away from it. There was too much temptation and exciting stuff going on and consequently, I did not finish my PhD for a very long time [Riina Kionka defended her PhD thesis at Columbia University in 2000]. 

This time was a marketplace for ideas, and it changed a lot of the assumptions on which my and my peers’ work was based. I knew somebody who was writing a thesis on why the changes in the East did not affect the German Democratic Republic. The week after filing her dissertation, the Wall came down. This was just very bad luck academically although excellent luck politically.

Your career has been shaped by events happening in the world and less by what you imagined and planned for your career.

Yes, I think this has been one of the lessons as well. You can plan and prepare all you want, but the world may not agree. This means that you are much better off preparing yourself to be a resilient critical thinker, who can put these skills into use regardless of the shape of the change. You need to be open to chances and opportunities and take those risks that come along.

Some of the moves I made, sounded crazy to some people, but they ended up being good choices.

Riina Kionka taking part of a panel “Thinking the Unthinkable: What's Next in Store for Us?” at Lennart Meri Conference 2015 Saturday, April 25, in Tallinn, Estonia.

How did you end up being a diplomat?

When I was studying international affairs prior to my PhD, one of the requirements was to do an internship. US State Department was the coolest place to do an internship, though it was quite challenging to get in, however, it served as a good opportunity to try out the shoes.

I got the internship, and I spent the summer of 1982 in the Western sector of Berlin. It was a way to figure out if I wanted to take the Foreign Service exam and become an American diplomat.

After this experience, I decided no way. Things have changed a great deal from then on, but at that time it seemed that people were not happy. Most people seemed personally out of sorts. Their personal lives were limited. Most of the women were by themselves, not necessarily by choice. It did not appear that it was doable to have a family. I did not want that. This was one reason.

Secondly, the US State Department is part of a big machine and is a big machine itself. It takes a long time to reach a position where you can have influence and can do something. Like in any big organisation- innovation, creative and avant-garde thinking is not necessarily career enhancing and I fundamentally did not want to be a cog in a big machine. So, I did not take the exam, and I decided to become an academic instead.

However, when Estonia regained its independence, all the state structures were newly set up. I had many friends working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they seemed to do an interesting job. It seemed an opportunity that I will always regret if I did not take it. So, I quit my job and joined the Ministry.

How is working in national structures different from working in a multilateral setting?

Working in a multilateral setting is much more complex. In a national setting, you have to take into account domestic considerations, resources and interests. However, in a multilateral context, you have to take into account the concerns, aims and interests of other nations and institutions as well. You have to take it all into account when moving from the idea stage to the policy stage. This makes it more complicated, sensitive and slower process.

What skills are essential to being successful in such an environment?

It is important to listen and have a well-honed emotional intelligence. It is essential to understand the emotional content, interests and constraints behind a particular political stance. You have to be a good negotiator, perceptive, resilient, tolerant and motivated.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career?

I am part of a dual career couple. [Riina Kionka is married to an Estonian diplomat Lauri Lepik.] It is extremely challenging to try to figure out how to make it work so that it also works for the family.

Professionally speaking, the trickiest time was the creation of European External Action Service. A new organisation was set up with different people from different backgrounds. It is usually exciting to set up something new if you are in a position of leadership. However, it can be chaotic to others. I found myself in a situation, which I had been avoiding since that summer in Berlin- I had become a little cog in a big machine.

How did you deal with this situation?

I continued to do my work as best as I could under the circumstances. I take great pride that I managed to keep my team together since many people were leaving. I tried to create a safe environment for my people and so that they understood that I was looking out for them.

What has been the best advice that someone has given to you?

Carpe diem! Seize opportunities as they come, even when they seem crazy and the least safe thing to do. If you have the gut feeling that this is something that you want to do, then go for it. Take chances!

What book are you reading currently?

I am reading an Estonian novel that won the 2017 Writers Union Novel Award by Vahur Afanasjev “Serafima and Bogdan”. It talks about the historical minority of Russians who live in Estonia on the shores of Lake Peipus, starting with WWII until the collapse of the Soviet Union. How a certain village coped with all the changes in the 50s, the Stalinism and the deportations, the changes of perestroika. It is interesting from the historical point of view, and it is beautifully written.

What are some of the most significant developments happening in the EU at the moment?

How much time have you got? Well, Brexit. Migration- how does the next Multiannual Financial Framework builds in more resilience regarding resources, structures and procedures to deal with illegal immigration. Neither those have direct foreign policy bent, but they have implications for foreign policy. Defining the new normal for the EU in transatlantic affairs since it touches upon trade policy and a number of issues where the EU and US have been working closely together. Russia and its continued occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And what comes next? The very strategic direction is not particularly savoury at the moment. The Western Balkans and the strategic geopolitical question- where is this region going? It has a European perspective, but how do you connect it to the EU is the question. China is a perennial and continues to be so.

Marina Kaljurand

Chair | Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace

1. What do you do at the moment? 

CV in brief:    Education:   University of Tartu  |  Estonian School of Diplomacy  |  Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University     Career so far:  Estonian Ambassador to Israel, Russia, the United States and Mexico | Minister of Foreign Affairs | Presidential candidate 2016    Find Marina online:   website  |   Twitter @MarinaKaljurand  |  Facebook      Exclusive interview by Piret Kuusik, November 2017

CV in brief:

Education: University of Tartu | Estonian School of Diplomacy | Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

Career so far: Estonian Ambassador to Israel, Russia, the United States and Mexico | Minister of Foreign Affairs | Presidential candidate 2016

Find Marina online: website |  Twitter @MarinaKaljurandFacebook

Exclusive interview by Piret Kuusik, November 2017

I lead the Global Commission on the Stability of the Cyberspace. It is an international platform of 28 experts from different countries with various experiences and backgrounds. Among them is, for example, professor Joseph Nye from Harvard University, former American prime hacker Jeff Moss, a private sector representative from Russia and an academic from China. 

2. You started your career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia. How did you end up there?

In 1991, my first job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was at the Press and Media Department, where I wrote press overviews to then Foreign Minister Lennart Meri (Foreign Minister 1990-1992; President of Estonia 1992-2001). Since Russian is my mother tongue, my task was to read Russian newspapers and write summaries of them. A number of people did a similar job from different languages like English, French and German for example.

Back in 1991, Estonian Foreign Ministry was full of young people, who had an opportunity to build their own country. It was a small circle of friends since Lennart Meri decided that he would not use any Soviet diplomats and would start with new people. I was invited to join. At that time, we were not sure that in August of the same year, we would have our own country to run. I was the 21st member of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and today we have over 600 people working in the Ministry. 

3. What do diplomats do and what are some of the most prominent misconceptions about this occupation? 

The most significant misconception is that the life of a diplomat is very glamorous- big parties and fancy gowns. Actually, a life of a diplomat is very similar to any bureaucrat’s, where you need to write a lot, analyse information and communicate. This role is unique since you will spend half of your career abroad. 

In addition to changing location, changing topics has been a substantial part of my career. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia is small, and thus one cannot be a specialist in one field- be it security, development or environment for example. Estonian diplomats are generalists and must continually adapt their skills and learn. Currently, I am 55-years old, and I have changed the topic I have worked on in every 3-4 years. I started at the Press and Media Department, then I worked as a lawyer in the Ministry, after that as a Consul. Then, I was Deputy Secretary of Trade and Development. I was part of Estonia’s accession negotiations with the European Union. Then, I led the accession negotiations to OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). There have been so many different topics I have worked with over the years. 

4. Which skills have supported your success as a diplomat and how do you adapt to new environments? 

As a diplomat, every beginning in a new country is hard. 

I try as much as possible to learn about the country and the people beforehand. I believe that personal touch is very important. For example, when I met John Kerry, I knew that he was a dog lover. I did not start the discussion with dogs. However, he asked in the middle of the meeting if he could allow his dog, whose name is Diplomat, to enter the room. As a dog lover myself, I had no objections. But this meant that he had also familiarised himself with my profile, and this type of small detail brought the occasion to an entirely different level. 

Secondly- communicate, communicate, communicate. Contacts start from the first face to face meeting, and as a diplomat, one must begin creating connections immediately. Networking is a big job, especially if you are representing a small country because everybody wants to talk to the Ambassador of the United Kingdom. The only solution is to approach people and introduce yourself. Networking only happens by being brave and pro-active. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than a diplomat who does not like to communicate. 

In diplomacy, women have an advantage in the sense that women are remembered. For example, when I was an Ambassador in Moscow (2007-2011), then there were 141 male ambassadors and me. This meant that everybody remembered me since I was the only woman. You have to make the maximum use of that. 

Thirdly, it is crucial that you try to understand the other side. Why is your opponent thinking this way? It does not mean that you agree with them, but if you understand where the other is coming form, you can explain your position much better. 

5. You were the Estonian Ambassador to Moscow in 2007, when Estonia-Russia relations were very tense (In April 2007, riots and unrest took place in Tallinn, Estonia, due to the relocation of WWII Memorial Statue, the Bronze Soldier. Riots were mostly perpetrated by the Russian community in Estonia, and Russia's involvement has been identified. During the unrest, Estonia was also a target of the first recorded cyber attack. In Moscow, local youth activists surrounded and attacked the Estonian Embassy in Moscow). What did you learn from this experience? 

First of all, we are talking about three years, which is a very long time. Unrest around the Embassy of Estonia in Moscow took place within a week. 

Estonia-Russia relations have always been very special since we are neighbouring countries. The relations were difficult already back in 2005 and there was lack of trust and respect. What can an ambassador do in this type of situation? 

Since Russian is my mother tongue, I tried to talk to the locals and explain that Estonia is a normal country. Relations with the press were also critical since there was a need to share objective and transparent information. 

I think it is easy to be a diplomat, when you know that you are doing the right thing. I have been fortunate since I have not had to talk something that I do not believe in. The situation is complicated when there is a conflict between personal and policy objectives and I know diplomats who have stepped down because of that. 

Finally, it is vital to keep calm. You can cry in your bedroom, but you cannot show it. A smile on the face, you have to explain your positions even when they are very complicated. 

6. What kind of skills do you recommend for young people to develop if they wish to become diplomats? 

Knowledge of international affairs is important. However, the practice in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has shown that people with different backgrounds can be very successful diplomats. 

I recommend to study and live abroad. This experience allows you to understand if living overseas is actually a thing for you. There are difficulties attached to working and living abroad like no family and friends close by, new environment etc. 

It is also essential to develop your communication skills. They are learnable, however, when talking to people makes you feel uneasy, then maybe being a diplomat is not just for you. 

Finally, I would recommend developing your adaptability and analytical skills. As a diplomat, you have to learn something new every 2-3 years, since as an Ambassador you do not represent only one field. Namely, you also must be able to answer questions about the education system, social challenges and health policies of your country. It does not mean that you have to know everything in detail, but you must have a general understanding and an idea where one might get more information. 

7. How have you managed to bring together being a diplomat and having a family?  

Working abroad has an immense effect on your family, and you have to think through if your family is ready for this change. Are you prepared for a situation where part of your family stays behind, or your husband will accompany you? Are you prepared to put your children through this change and expect them to go to school, do sports, be active and also successful? 

Balancing family and work is already tricky when you aren't living in the same town. When my two kids were small, it was a massive logistical exercise. When you take this family into a new environment with another language, it becomes very very difficult. 

I discussed every career move with my husband first, and throughout the years, we have tried all sorts of models. When I was a Consul in Finland, my husband took a paternity leave and stayed at home with Kristjan, our son, for a year. Today, I can say with confidence that during this year, they developed a strong relationship, which without this year would not have happened. In Washington DC and Moscow, I was by myself. The kids were big, but my husband's support was still critical. He took care of our family so that I could progress in my career. I do not know how many couples go through this. However, I was ready to come back from the States and Russia in case it had not worked. My children have been great and my husband has been just fantastic. 

Everybody does not have to have the support of a husband. It can also be parents, friends, colleagues. However, everybody has to have someone, who they can call when their kid is ill, or one just needs to talk about the joys and sorrows of the day.

Also, today it is not only the diplomats, who have to balance family and work in a foreign country since numerous occupations require working abroad- be it in Finland or some other place. 

8. Before the events in Moscow, you were a diplomat behind the scene; however, after Moscow, you became a public figure. How did this change your life and how have you managed? 

I do not enjoy being a public figure, and I have always preferred to be behind the scene. 

For example, I do not like public speaking, and I always tend to be nervous and rewrite my speech several times. However, at some point, I just learned to live with this feeling.

My public profile has created a greater interest in the work of diplomats, and I have pushed many of our diplomats to go to schools and talk about our occupation and work. 

9. What books are you reading now and which books have had an impact for you?  

At the moment, I am reading two books. One is Donna Brazile "Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House” and the other is Joe Biden’s “Promise me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose”. Both of the books talk about last year’s Presidential Election in the States.

However, I am a big fan of biographies, especially of inspiring women. As a child, I read about Alexandra Kollontai. I also enjoyed the biographies of Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright very much. 

10. Today, you work at an international level on cybersecurity. How did you adapt to this change in the later stages of your career and what have you learned? 

Indeed, it has been a significant change. I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 26 years, and I did not have a clue about the outside life. 

It is my first year out, and I am still finding the right balance, however, already at the Ministry I worked with cybersecurity and thus the topic, and people are not new to me. 

Today, I can work more on topics that are dear to my heart - gender equality and women, integration and international affairs. Since I can accept more invitation than before, I try to visit schools and the Eastern part of Estonia as much as possible.  

However, I dare to recommend to people who have worked more than 20 years in the same position to venture out. I am not saying that you should quit your job before finding another but I do recommend to look around and search for new opportunities. 

11. International affairs still tend to be male-dominated. Do you have any recommendation on how to feel more comfortable in a male environment? 

Things have changed a great deal in the last 20 years, mainly thanks to U.S. Secretary of State being a woman several times. 

The most important is self-confidence and bravery to express your positions and ask questions. In general, women do not ask questions, thinking that they do not know how. In reality, when you have listened to 2-3 first questions, you understand that these questions are not better in any way than yours would have been. Women must start asking questions. 

Women should also support each other more. It does not mean that we should vote for women purely because they are a woman. However, if you see that the other woman is going through a rough time, then we need to support each other. Sometimes, sharing your experiences and the ways you dealt with it makes all the difference. 

12. When you were a candidate in the Presidential race in Estonia, your handbag notoriously gained a lot of attention. This is a problem for professional women in the public life: their looks gain more attention than their positions and ideas. How could we divert the attention away from the way women look towards our expertise and insights? 

It is a complicated topic. During the Presidential campaign I faced a dilemma- when I answer the questions about my bag, then I am foolish because I have interest in bags. When I do not, then I am arrogant. 

A lot depends on the listeners and journalists. There are a lot of women among journalists, who could set up an example. If they want to talk about fashion, then let’s talk about fashion seriously, but not  to gain more clicks. 

Also, let’s be much more selective about the questions that we ask female professionals. Why do we ask how a woman brings up her children? Why are we not asking the men? 

The same applies to our use of language. We have female prime ministers, but we do not have male prime ministers. Let’s try to narrow the gap and use the word, prime minister. 

And when someone is well dressed, let’s also compliment the men that they are looking good or have a nice tie. Let’s be pro-active about narrowing the gap ourselves and talk about the looks both with men and women. 

13. What are the future trends in international affairs?

Analysing and processing big data. It was the case that there was a need to seek out information. Nowadays, the problem is not the lack of data and information, but making sense of large amounts of data and verifying what is true and false.