Diplomacy is changing radically. It is no longer the strict purview of governments and traditional institutions. Everybody can be an ambassador for their country. The Global Diplomacy Lab promotes this development with the aid of bold, pioneering thinkers.
Trinidad Saona is one of them.
“I had the feeling that something was not working like it could, but I was not able to explain what and why exactly,” says Trinidad Saona, a diplomat from Chile. In recent years, she began to have doubts about her job and whether traditional diplomacy was still the right way to tackle the problems of the 21st century. She was above all missing the dialogue with other actors: NGOs, researchers, and experts.
Global Diplomacy Lab
The Global Diplomacy Lab (GDL) brings together academics, artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and diplomats from all over the world. Together they reflect on what the foreign policy of the future should look like. The 6th Global Diplomacy Lab took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In this series, we present four members of the Lab. The GDL is an initiative of the Federal Foreign Office, the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, Stiftung Mercator, and the Robert Bosch Foundation.
Her search for how it could be done differently has led her, among other places, to Buenos Aires.
Here, she and five other participants of the Global Diplomacy Lab sit in a workshop and listen to Andrei Serbin Pont.
Serbin Pont works for CRIES (Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales), a network of think tanks, NGOs, foundations, and researchers in Latin America. CRIES aims, first, to study and, second, to improve the relations between politics and civil society.
“This is exactly what I am interested in, but until now I didn’t know where I could find it,” says Saona and flips open her laptop to take notes of what Pont has to say about building relationships.
For example, between Cuba and the United States. The starting point was below zero. The two countries basically had no relations, at least no official relations. When former U.S. president Barack Obama announced to resume relations, it was a turning point.
Pont and his colleagues immediately began to write countless e-mails, make phone calls, arrange appointments. And they began to mobilize forces in both countries to build a strong network of social, economic, and political connections. But what does a good relationship between two states and their citizens really look like? Who measures it, and how?
Pont again and again hints at the difficulty of making contact with state and government representatives. It does not happen often that he sits across from a diplomat such as Trinidad Saona who explicitly desires this kind of collaboration.
Two years ago, Saona’s doubts grew into a major crisis and she almost quit her job. What difference could she make as a diplomat?
“When I joined the diplomatic service, I thought it was the best way of improving life in my country, since no country can solve its problems on its own,” says Saona. “In Chile, for example, water scarcity is an increasing problem, and since water, of course, knows no boundaries, we need to collaborate with our neighbors.”
"It became clear to me that we will not make progress unless we collaborate proactively with NGOs, foundations, and experts."
At the same time, the topic made her realize how much one had to rely on external experts. During part of the period of the great drought in Chile between 2010 and 2015, Saona was posted to the embassy in Mexico, where she experienced how fragile and brittle the few collaborations between water experts in both countries were even in this emergency situation.
“I don’t know whether disillusionment is the right word, but it became clear to me that we will not make progress unless we collaborate proactively with NGOs, foundations, and experts.” There were efforts in this direction, but for Saona they were not forceful enough.
She was frustrated and talked with superiors about her doubts and reservations. She was granted a one-and-a-half-year leave, during which time she was able to get to know the other side: She worked for the Alfredo Zolezzi Foundation in Chile, a nonprofit that aims to link innovation with big social and environmental challenges.
“At the moment, the world is changing so rapidly, and I believe that we have not really understood the challenges of the 21st century. At the foundation, I began to learn to deal with just that, with this uncertainty and rapidly changing scenarios, and to respond to it through innovation. I have gained so many new insights, which I can now apply in my work as a diplomat.”
She still remembers one sentence in particular: “I always thought innovation had to do with technology and efficiency, but Alfredo always said: ‘Innovation is the ultimate expression of personal freedom.’ I have taken away this attitude.”
“I am still looking for answers, but when I look around, I believe we can make it.”
It was during her time at the foundation that she also first heard about the Global Diplomacy Lab.
“I am not exaggerating when I am saying that this is exactly what I had been looking for. There are so many like-minded people here. It is wonderful to see that there are many of us who want to explore new avenues.” Though “intersectional cooperation” has long become a buzzword, collaboration between and among the political, economic, and civil-society sectors happens much too rarely in real life. “But it is happening at the Global Diplomacy Lab.”
When her leave ended in March, Saona was happy to return to the foreign ministry. At the GDL meeting in Buenos Aires, she is optimistic about the future: “I am still looking for answers, but when I look around, I believe we can make it. We can find new tools and be at each other’s disposal. We just have to keep our curiosity open.”