On behalf of the NATO Association of Canada, I had the privilege of conducting an interview with Canada’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to North Atlantic Council (NATO), Kerry Buck. Ambassador Kerry Buck discusses her background and accomplishments that have led to her current position. Taking a look back at her career, Ambassador Buck gives a close insight into the duties and responsibilities of her position, how she rose to the rank of a Permanent Representative, and discusses the importance of the Canadian contribution as a NATO ally.
Andi: As many of our readers are students, could you please tell us a little about what you studied in University, and what skills you find are most important in your career field?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: Well I didn’t plan on becoming a diplomat. I started my undergrad degree in French literature and Political Science double major. I did French literature because I thought it would be a love literature. I thought it would be handy to do it in a second language, and not in English, so that served me well. Political Science I studied because I had the curiosity about how the world works. So, I didn’t plan on ending up in diplomacy, but I did somehow. I then went on to do law at McGill, civil law and common law, and then by chance a friend of mine in law school had been working at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, and he said it’s a great summer job in the legal bureau, but I’m not going back to Ottawa, do you want it? I said yes. So it was by chance, and I went to Ottawa, started to work at the International Development Research Centre. One thing led to another, I wrote the Foreign Service exam, and I got in. Thus began a career that has been absolutely great fun.
My job, everyone’s job as a diplomat, is to translate the world to Canada, to Canadians, and to translate Canada back to the world, back to where you’re accredited. For me, I want to tell the Canadians about what NATO does for Canada, and I also tell the Canadian government, my headquarters departments across the Canadian government, what’s happening at NATO. My view of what Canada should do to make NATO work better for us? So I translate NATO back to Canada, and then I explain to my colleagues at the North Atlantic Council, what Canada is doing for international peace and security, and it’s a lot. So those translating skills are necessary, you need to be able to listen, you need to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s headspace, and understand what their interests are. Then diplomacy is finding something meeting their interests and your interests, so Canada’s interests and that other country’s intersect. The most important skill is that capacity to be curious, to listen, and to understand somebody else’s perspective.
Andi: What advice would you offer someone who is considering this career path? Followup: What has changed from choosing a career path back when you started, to today?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: It’s important, well if you want to be a diplomat you have to write a Foreign Service exam, and it’s a great career. You get to move to different countries, representing your country, which is a huge honour. We like the idea in our foreign service of a generalist. Well, diplomacy requires a knowledge base, you have to learn it. It’s a craft, and you can also change jobs after three to four years, which is kind of fun. We used to joke if you’re an expert who is studying China in University, your first posting will probably be in Latin America. So I did law, I did international law, so I went into the legal bureau in the first 6 months, and then they moved me into the human rights division. You get to move around a lot, if you’re going into diplomacy and into the foreign ministry.
I would really suggest to people, if they’re going into diplomacy, to look at it seriously because it’s a fabulous career. You can do international work in many many different ways, so you can go into international civil society organizations, advocacy organizations, or organizations that do development programming. You can work in the private sector. You can work in multinationals, on corporate social responsibility. So there is not one path that leads to international work, so I guess my best career advice is to follow, for your undergraduate degree and even your graduate degree, do something that sparks your interest and sparks your curiosity, and there’s always an international angle to almost anything you’re going to study. Get creative too. I find the exposure of doing a degree abroad in another country really helps opens your mind up. Also another piece of advice would be to not launch into a career too early if you can manage it. There are opportunities to go off and work with international NGOs, sometimes it costs you a bit of money, but there are also ways of raising money: bursaries and foundations that kind of thing. If you can manage it don’t launch into a career too early, but go off and find some international adventure before you start. That way you have a better sense what countries and what issues you want to work on.
Andi: Was it challenging to move around?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: I actually have an odd career path as a diplomat. I lived abroad more before I joined the Foreign Service, than after. Before I joined the foreign service I had lived in France two different times, got a university degree there, I taught school there, and I had lived in Malaysia for a year, working with a Malaysian NGO. But once I entered the Foreign Service, I actually loved policy work. I found that there was more scope for doing that at headquarters. While I would travel a ton for work, some years I would be on the road half the time, and would travel more than some of my colleagues. Is it hard? Yeah, sometimes it’s hard. It is harder on family then we expect, you know relocating kids, and spouses putting jobs behind, it’s a big disruption. I think overall it’s very much worth it for family and children to have that exposure to living abroad, but you have to go into that eyes wide open.
Andi: What has changed from choosing a career path back when you started, to today?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: Well people entering the working world, I find that you need more degrees now then when I started. I entered the Foreign Service in 1991, and the job market wasn’t great then. The job market is hard now for people to find positions. It’s important to keep persevering; there are many different ways to get into the career that you want. Follow a different path to get there. The world certainly is complex from when I joined in 1991. I started my career working in the Balkan wars, we had a period of stability over the last 25 years, and we had flare-ups and conflicts. I’ve worked on peace and conflict issues and human rights that whole time. I worked on the Kosovo deployment; I started in the legal bureau collecting war crime allegations on people in the Balkans, and then working on the UN deployment and UN peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, NATO missions.
What Work is like:
Andi: Could you please tell us more about a day in your career? What are you day-to-day duties as an Ambassador?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: I sit at the North Atlantic Council, which is the table where 28 Ambassadors sit, presided over by the NATO Secretary General who is the former Prime Minister of Norway. I’ve got a lot of senior and very experienced colleagues from Alliance countries that I work with, and we make decisions, all sort of different decisions. So, we keep track of the pressing international security environment. We will get a briefing on the situation in Ukraine, in Iraq, in Syria. There is an emerging issue for instance in Tunisia with terrorist threats. So we will keep constant situational awareness of rising security threats. We also sit at the table to take decisions to deploy forces, ships, planes. Sometimes it’s just to build up the consensus and deterrence of the Alliance, and other times its full scale operations like the mission in Afghanistan.
So for instance the North Atlantic Council decided that NATO would get engaged in Afghanistan in a big way, and they formed the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and then 2 years ago that morphed into what we call a resolute support mission in Afghanistan. We decided that the Afghan National Security Forces were getting sufficiently capable, we decided with the Afghan government, that it would assume full security responsibility, so the NATO role moved back to doing more training and advising and assisting, rather than being actively in the field with the Afghan forces. So those are the decisions taken at the North Atlantic Council. I sit there and represent Canada when those decisions are made. We can make decisions to have planes and ships out in theatre very, very fast. Another example is with the migrant and refugee crisis where there were a lot of boats crossing the Aegean a few months ago; it was a very high death toll with human smugglers, putting people in boats, and boats sinking, it was horrifying. So the coastal states Turkey and Greece said we can’t handle all of this. So the NATO Defence ministers took the decisions, OK we’ve got ships in the region, and we can send some of our ships to help coastal states to provide them with more intelligence of what illegal boats are leaving and support them that way. So in 24 hours we had our ships in the Aegean. So we take decisions that have immediate impact.
Andi: What do you like most about what you do?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: I’ve got a really great team here, at the Canadian Delegation to NATO. We are a joint delegation, which means we’re half civilian and half military, and we share the work, and we are fully integrated. They’re smart people who are really committed to their work, and a lot of them have very serious experience in the field and multilevel security work. So for instance, the Canadian Military rep, he and I go way back, we worked on the Afghanistan file together. A Number of my staff have worked on peace and conflict issues through the course of their diplomatic careers. So there’s a lot of expertise and commitment coming from the team here, so that’s the best part of the job.
Andi: What challenges does your position pose?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: The biggest challenge is ensuring work-life balance. You know people have this image of diplomats and they make jokes of canapés and cocktail parties, and it’s difficult to hear, because the fact is we work really hard. We work on peace and security issues. You never know when the next crisis is going to hit, and you have to be ready for it. You have to be ready for a marathon, not a sprint, and to do that you have to balance work and life. You really have to, I’ve been ruthless about never getting your work done, ruthless cutting out of here on time. I’ve got a 10 year old and I like spending a lot of time with him, so I’m ruthless about cutting out and I’m ruthless about telling my staff to go home. It’s really hard to make them go home on time because there’s always too much to do.
Andi: What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: I mean related to that, they have an idea of canapés and cocktails, I have staff that work really hard, year after year and work on hard issues, they get deployed to areas where they wouldn’t be armed. You go into hairy areas of the world, work on conflict problems, national disasters, and the work itself is rewarding, but then there’s the misconception that diplomacy is all talk no action, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Andi: What are your relationships with other NATO permanent representatives?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: They’re a really excellent group of colleagues, they’re very experienced, very senior, and very collegial. NATO is about a number of countries, I mean at the core we share common values; it was written into the Washington Treaty; it was part of the negotiation. NATO is a military alliance, but also a political alliance, which means it has a political role. That was enshrined in what’s known as the Canadian article, put forward by Canadian negotiators at the time of the Washington Treaty. So it’s a full service alliance, not just a military alliance. So common values bind the NATO allies at the North Atlantic Council table. It’s a great group of colleagues. As multilateral work goes, it’s pretty collegial, not a lot of differences at the table, there’s a lot of unity.
Andi: Is there anything else you want people to know about your job?
Ambassador Kerry Buck: Two things. First, It’s an immense honour to be able to serve my country abroad, and to be able to serve my country abroad as an ambassador. It’s cool, more than cool. I feel pride in what I’m doing, and pride in what the team is doing. These are issues I care about. Second thing I want people to know, is to consider a career path in diplomacy, certainly consider a career path on international stuff on international peace and security issues. We need more Canadians working on these issues, and it’s immensely rewarding.
I would like to thank Ambassador Kerry Buck for taking the time to interview with the NATO Association of Canada, and for the insightful wisdom and advice she has offered our readers.
Photo: Ambassador Kerry Buck, via NATO.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.