Atlantica sat down with Ambassador Baiba Braze, via Skype, to discuss her career as a female ambassador representing Latvia for over two and half decades. Currently, Ambassador Braze is Latvia’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom. In May 2020, she will take up the role of NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy.
Atlantica: What were the steps you took to becoming an ambassador? Did you face any unique challenges as a woman?
Ambassador Braze: There was a natural interest in international affairs that came about when I was studying law. That was at a time when Latvia was restoring independence after 50 years of illegal Soviet occupation; we were fighting for it through the Latvian Popular Front. In this process I learned a lot about Latvia’s treaties and international affairs before 1940, before the Soviet occupation. Through that I became really interested in working for the benefit of reinstating Latvian independence in 1990. That’s how my interest in foreign affairs started. Then I joined the MFA in 1993.
The work was really interesting, and that’s how it has been since. I never thought in my professional life about how you do that work as a woman or a man. Yes, I can say that I never felt especially different because I was a woman, and our service has been very supportive in that respect. Work is work, it has to be done.
Atlantica: Throughout your two-and-half-decade career as an ambassador, have you noticed any differing or changing attitudes toward women in diplomacy?
Ambassador Braze: I think Latvia is quite special. Since the moment Latvia was established in 1918, nobody had to be given rights. There was, on the first day, equal rights to be elected or to elect. Even though there is no full equality anywhere, and we also have a fair share of problems, in law there has always been an equality of genders.
In diplomacy, I think the success of a good diplomatic service is a mix of experiences, diversity, a mix of different backgrounds, a mix of educational backgrounds. This is what we are trying to create in our diplomatic service. Probably there were fewer women when I joined, but currently I think the majority of diplomats in our service are women. Women have held all posts except the head of the diplomatic service, which is the Secretary General, but I am sure that will come.
But, I’ve noticed there is much more international interest and attention to getting women in a variety of roles in security policy. There are great women experts in various fields, and that is something that I think is really worth supporting. Through empowerment and promotion, we make really smart, good, high-achieving women also much more visible, and thus giving the younger generation very good role models. What I like in particular is that especially security policy is not anymore just a male type of occupation and profession. I’ve noticed that in many conferences there’s very clearly a commitment not to have so-called “manels”, or man-only panels.
Also, I think what is quite visible is that in diplomacy and diplomats as a profession there are many couples in which both men and women work instead of women just going along. There is also a change that I’ve noticed in terms of legislation. There are quite a number of countries that try to improve the support system for spouses of diplomats through additional social guarantees, work benefits, and so on and so forth, so that spouses and families will not have to lose out during or after the posting, and that they will be able to rejoin the labour force. We need to improve that in the Latvian service. That is something I think that is very relevant. Also, at a time when immigration in a number of countries is a taboo, the rational use of labour resources, existing resources, is a big thing. Women as an available labour force and having them included in the labour force pool is very important, and has to be supported through a variety of policies.
Atlantica: You were an ambassador for Latvia when it became a member of both NATO and the EU in 2004. How has Latvia’s role in the world changed over the past 16 years, and how has this affected you as a diplomat?
Ambassador Braze: It was, of course, the ultimate aim from the first day of restoring Latvia as an independent country in 1990 that we should return in the group of European democracies, where we naturally belong. In 1938, Latvia’s GDP was higher than Finland’s, Italy’s and Austria’s, on par with quite a number of other countries. After the Soviet occupation, when Latvia regained freedom, it was way below. The feeling was that we really have to work twice or three times as hard to rejoin the Western community politically, but also to recreate wealth in the society. And it has been a very clear path—political and economic reintegration. Both the EU and NATO membership also meant a lot of work in Latvia in terms of reforms. Everything had to be reformed or recreated – democratic institutions such as the parliament, the government, courts, citizenship, but also the free market, currency, banks, enterprises, essentially everything. The Baltic States are a big experiment that worked and is most successful.
As for the NATO—it’s the most successful defence alliance that exists. Our conviction is that our membership in NATO has been beneficial for us and for the whole transatlantic community, that it has strengthened the common Euroatlantic security space and NATO. We are committed, hardworking strong Allies and partners.
Joining the EU required more work and effort in terms of internal economic and political reforms, while defence reform, creating armed forces, national security—it was really in NATO that (everything came together). It was hand in hand—two pillars that worked really well. We’ve just celebrated 15 years of membership, so thinking back to those 15 years ago, it’s incredible what has been achieved.
Atlantica: You’ve been stationed in a, geopolitically speaking, very important country during a very volatile time: in the UK during Brexit. What are some of the challenges that have come with being an ambassador of an EU member country to the UK during this time? How did you deal with this uncertainty?
Ambassador Braze: The result of the Brexit referendum was, like for many other states, also disappointing for Latvia. We regret but respect the decision of the British people. It has also been painful to watch how split the society was after the referendum. For now, as Brexit has happened, we feel that it is necessary to look ahead rationally to maintain the closest possible links and cooperation among European countries, which include Britain. Because our common interests and values are larger than membership in the EU.
It will be different. Britain played a very important role in the EU. The single market was a British creation, as was the EU’s trade policy and quite a number of other initiatives. So, now when the authors of those policies have left, we have to build a new reality also within the EU. From one hand, the EU might become much more homogenous, because there is no tension with the UK anymore. From the other hand, the EU will also change, surely. But we do not know how.
Building the future relationship with the UK should involve as little emotions as possible, just cool and calm—building and maintaining ties, based on our joint values and interests in the world, finding ways to work together instead of thinking, “oh, we will blame the EU if something doesn’t go our way,” or the EU side thinking, “oh, we have to show others what happens if they leave the EU, that you can’t do well”. Latvia doesn’t believe in that type of approach. We believe that we have to maintain and build all ties in all fields, whether security, defence, economic affairs, our citizens interests, trade, culture, digital, everything.
Atlantica: What do you see as the greatest threats to both the future of your own country as well as the transatlantic alliance? What do you think is Latvia’s greatest strength in combating these threats?
Ambassador Braze: I think one of the biggest issues that we all face is maintaining the international system of rule of law. Meaning that as states we have entered international agreements on our free will, promised to respect them, we have created international institutions. Respect for the agreements and institutions is the basis of the international system. Regretfully, we currently see that a number of state actors, such as Russia, openly violate international laws that they have freely agreed to respect and thus threaten the international system. Bringing those countries back to observing international law—be it respect for agreed borders, respect for human rights, ban of certain types of weapons—is in the interest of everyone. It is a task for the whole of international community. No rules, no accountability in the world will be a disaster for all.
The other big issue that worries us are global disruptions—technology, climate change, spread of diseases, and others—where genuine global cooperation, political will, participation, and taking responsibility of the private sector is needed. All these disruptions adversely influence political, economic, financial stability.
Latvia was negatively affected by the crash of the international financial system. One might think that whatever happened in New York, why would Latvia be concerned. But actually it was a ripple effect. Those unsustainable, disastrous, careless practices and attitudes by financiers in New York, London were copied elsewhere, including in Latvia. It bankrupted one of our local banks, and that had a very negative impact on our economy. That’s why we have so many Latvians in the UK—during those years of 2009 and 2010, quite a number of people had to look for work elsewhere. Their companies had gone bankrupt, they couldn’t pay their loans, find work, they couldn’t take loans, so they had to look for work abroad. It took a huge strain on our budget. It was quite a serious national security crisis during that time. So, the stability of the international financial system, our financial institutions, is a hugely important issue for us. Also, of course, combating all types of illegal financing, money laundering, preventing the flows of money out of Latvia. That is something monitored closely by Latvian institutions. Illicit financing, corruption undermines fair competition. It undermines trust in society. It creates bad practices, administrative practices, criminal practices. Basically, it’s contrary to what we stand for.
Augmenting overall resilience of our societies is an important endeavour, because with the development and advances in technology, quite a lot has changed. The threats do not necessarily have to come from the tanks posted next to your border. They come from cyber, they come through propaganda, they come through attacks on the very mind of people—splitting society, atomizing society, weakening trust in democracy. The key is to take down silos among different sectors and groups, creating real connections, mutual understanding and interest for each other. So what we are doing in Latvia is a comprehensive effort to create resilience in society. Our comprehensive defence concept has several pillars. One is obviously a core military pillar. NATO allies’ and national defence capabilities are crucial, and here we are fully supportive of our American and other friends with regard to spending 2% of GDP on defence. The second pillar is economic resilience, public and private sectors working together, knowing what they have to do in times of crisis and to prevent it. And the third pillar is societal resilience, psychological resilience, which relates to the people: how they perceive things, how they analyse information, their attitudes. That is why the strengthening of public broadcaster, information space, promotion of media literacy, critical thinking, and understanding of social media patterns, AI, data are so important. Support and work with civil society, media, NGOs, academia is a big effort. One interesting initiative is a pilot project to introduce a national security curriculum in schools. Currently, about 10 percent of schools have the national security curriculum as a pilot, and from 2024 the plan is to introduce it in all schools. It is important to learn to think about the society and interests of the country, not just ‘I’, ‘me’. Learning to volunteer, to participate in a variety of voluntary groups and activities – to learn to give, not just to take.
Atlantica: What is your advice to any young woman, or any young professional, who wishes to pursue a career in diplomacy?
Ambassador Braze: Just think of yourself as a young professional. Thinking in gendered terms is something I don’t think is particularly necessary. Just do what you want to do, get the best education, the best experience, best practices, don’t let anyone talk you down for whatever reason, be tough, hardworking, wise, don’t pick small fights, think where your really big aims are. Just move ahead. It’s hard work. Don’t think it happens by itself. In diplomacy there is day’s work and there is evening work. Evening working is networking, meeting people, attending events, and also thinking and writing. There’s weekend work. Almost every weekend I have a diaspora or community or other event. It’s a lot of work, but it gives a lot of satisfaction, and it’s quite exciting. Every three/four years you are able to start a new field of work, and you can also largely chose and influence what you want to do, where you want to specialize. Different backgrounds are appreciated. You can come from a technical profession and still be a diplomat. You can come from having studied history, or politics, or being an architect. We have such a mix of people in the service. Again, you can specialize in a particular field, or you can be more general and work four years in one field and specialize the next four years in something else. So it’s great. Languages help, obviously. To understand the countries to which you are posted, it’s very useful to have a foreign language.
Atlantica: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about you or your career?
Ambassador Braze: I have managed to choose a career that was also fun for me, so it never felt just like work. It has been intellectually challenging, never boring, both a lifestyle and enjoyment and fun in terms of meeting interesting people and having interesting subjects to deal with. Also very idealistic work, because, again, we were rebuilding our country and now are moving it into the future. So it’s been exciting. Let’s see what the future brings.