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: 

CV IN BRIEF:

EDUCATION: BA IN INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS AND GERMAN LITERATURE, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY | MA AND PHD INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS WITH SPECIALIZATION ON SOVIET UNION, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY

CAREER SO FAR: ESTONIAN AMBASSADOR TO GERMANY | UNDERSECRETARY ON EUROPEAN AFFAIRS AT THE ESTONIAN MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS | PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SG/HR ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE AREA OF CFSP AND HEAD OF HUMAN RIGHTS UNIT, EU COUNCIL SECRETARIAT | CHIEF FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER TO EUROPEAN COUNCIL PRESIDENT DONALD TUSK

FIND RIINA ONLINE: TWITTER @RKionka

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY PIRET KUUSIK, MAY 2018

  • 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.