M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies

Careers in Diplomacy

Iakovos Iakovidis


By Iakovos Iakovidis

EUPS Professor Iakovos Iakovidis is a Greek diplomat and current Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Fiesole. In this article, Iakovidis discusses some of his experiences as a diplomat and offers advice on what it takes to have a career in this rewarding but challenging field.

When I joined the Greek diplomatic service nineteen years ago, I wasn’t aware of the inherent challenges that this profession involves. However, it didn’t take me a lot of time to discover them. Thus far in my diplomatic career, I have been stationed in China, the EU in Brussels, and the United Nations in New York City. It wasn’t an easy task being posted at the Greek Embassy in Beijing in the early 2000’s. Although major controversial political issues caused some difficulties, in reality, communication was the biggest challenge I faced. Unlike today, everyone didn’t have a smartphone or an easily accessible form of Google Translate. Additionally, given that the English language had just started to emerge and was almost exclusively spoken by young, educated people, communication with locals was somewhat obstructed. Nevertheless, this language barrier didn’t spoil the joy of discovering an entirely different culture than the western one in which I was brought up. I found myself in some of the most unexpected places and met people who I never thought I would encounter. Many came from foreign nations and had storied pasts. These are the things that make diplomacy one of the most rewarding jobs imaginable and trump all challenges the job may entail.

Most people believe that diplomats spend their time in receptions sipping exotic cocktails (which is also part of the work, since you improve your networking and you collect information), but they often overlook the fact that diplomatic work sometimes means staying at the office until midnight to handle visa applications or to assist your nationals in need. Whether it is a middle-aged man who happened to suffer a massive stroke in Central China, hours from the nearest diplomatic post, or the transaction of a ship sale to its new owners turned wrong, the nature and content of cases that you’ll need to address is unpredictable. At the end of the day, a diplomat is going to nobly represent and defend the interests of his or her country. The classy part of the job is nice, but the gritty work is the true face of diplomacy.

From high politics, to the organization of cultural events, this work is made for people who need constant stimulation. In Brussels, I was actively working with the European Parliament, while trying to understand how European political forces are reflected in Brussels and how they manage to shape European politics. With the UN in New York, it was the international human rights world that unfolded in front of me as a delegate in the Third Committee of the General Assembly. As I previously mentioned, the work you do as a diplomat is often unpredictable. You have to be able to adapt easily and quickly if you wish to succeed.

In addition to the actual content of the work I did, what made my job even more personally appealing was the cultural osmosis: the interaction between different civilizations, learning why the phrase, “how are you?” literally translates to, “did you eat?” in Chinese, et cetera. In a way, this is what creates the path for a better understanding of who we really are and underlines our common points, rather than our differences. Though my effort to learn Confucius’ language was an epic failure, it didn’t prevent me from trying to understand this country and its history on a deeper level. Travelling throughout the country, from Xinjiang to Tibet, and from Shanghai to Xi’an, allowed me to have a brief - but informed - glimpse on what the most populous country in the world looks like.

I unreservedly recommend that EUPS students, past, present, and future, all explore the possibility of a diplomatic career. Each time that you board on the plane to travel to your next diplomatic assignment, you know what the job is all about: becoming wiser. As one of the greatest Greek poets, Constantin Cavafy, had put it in his poem Ithaka when writing about Ulysses’ return to the island:

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean”.

It is time that you set out for your journey.

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Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Last Updated: Saturday, January 2, 2021

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