Robert Kvile has travelled the globe to serve as the Norwegian Ambassador to Islamabad in Pakistan, to work for the Norwegian delegation in OSCE in Vienna, as well as becoming the Consulate General in Murmansk in Russia. Recently, he has returned to Prague to take on a role as the Norwegian Ambassador to the Czech Republic.
In 2010, the King of Norway Harald V promoted Mr. Kvile to the commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit “for official service”. While others strive to climb the hierarchical ladder within the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and never quite reach the top), it seems that the path was pre-determined for Mr. Kvile who managed the impossible four times. Yet, when being a young boy and later a young man, his dreams did never involve a career in diplomacy. This changed when fate took over and he couldn’t do anything else except say ‘yes’ to the arisen opportunity without objection.
Nearly 30 years later, I meet him. It’s 2019 and I’m a trainee at the Norwegian Embassy in Prague.
– People would probably think that I’m so superior if they see this photography of me, Mr. Kvile says and laughs with restraint.
We are at the Ambassador’s Office, the biggest room at the Norwegian Embassy in Prague. On the right hand-side corner, under the picture of the Norwegian Royal family, Mr. Kvile sits with his legs crossed on the desk. His hands are folded on the belly, sitting perfectly on top of his pristine ironed shirt with an autoritative tie. The sign in front of him proudly displays “Robert Kvile”.
He also happens to be my boss. Therefore, knowing him and his humour, I quickly find it amusing and share a giggle. In fact, before entering the world of diplomacy, I always envisioned the Ambassadors to be strict, cold-hearted and have little empathy. I also thought that people of his rank would look down on people who didn’t share the same status. I’m not saying it never happens, but in this case, I couldn’t be more wrong. Robert (the colleagues at the Embassy called him only by his first name), was the total opposite of my stereotypical judgments.
Robert is fun, warm hearted, positive, extremely knowledgeable and professionally calm. Maybe these personal assets helped him on his way to success. Or …?
Eva: What is your secret?
Robert Kvile: I think, for me, it’s all about the niche expertise. What is important is to get to a position where you become visible because of your expertise. For me, the springboard started in 2000, when I became Consulate General in Murmansk – a position that requires two things; Russia-competence and skills in Russian language. Without these competencies, it would’ve been very difficult to do a good job in Murmansk as you can’t get the same contact with local authorities and actors. When I returned from Murmansk to the Foreign Ministry, they asked me if I could take the job as the Ambassador to Pakistan, but that was six years later. However, there are many gifted and talented people who never become General Managers, it is because the organisation is a pyramid. There isn’t enough room for everyone at the top. I also believe that not everyone is capable of being a leader, and not everyone can be “flag-bearers”.
I knew I was going to complete my education, but what kind of profession I was going to end up with, was unclear.Robert Kvile
The way you ended up in the prestigious Foreign Affairs is remarkable and proves that the most unanticipated things in life can happen if you say ‘yes’ to the opportunities that emerge. What happened in 1987 that resulted in a complete life turnaround?
It’s probably a coincidence. I just finished university and had a master’s degree that today can be compared to a PhD in
Slavic linguistics, so the Eastern European languages were my specialty. When you have language skills, you also have almost automatic country skills, because the language is always closely linked to the culture. Culture is what carries the community, what people think and how they react. Therefore, when I finished my education as a 30-year-old, I had the expertise they needed in the Foreign Ministry that autumn of 1987. I also knew someone who was working there. They called me and asked if I would be interested in getting involved with them. A long story short; I was invited for an interview and when I had finished talking, I remember the two interviewers looked at each other, nodded, then they asked: “Can you start on Monday?”. It all went so fast! I started at the Eastern European office, working with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, as well as the then Yugoslavia. I also applied for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs trainee programme. If I didn’t, I would probably have quit after nine months. I passed the tests and became one of the ten who were admitted as a Trainee in the Foreign Ministry in 1988. So, it’s somewhat a very special entrance.
When one hears that someone is working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and especially as an Ambassador, it’s easy to envision an adventurous life abroad, full of prestige and luxury. Is the definition of the role correct?
No, I can’t say that. I think that basically diplomacy carries a specific aura, a tradition. Diplomats are brought into situations, meet government contacts and carry out tasks that other people in our society don’t, which makes it a unique profession. But there is no dance on the roses and there is a lot of hard work, I work more than most people do. My job is like many other jobs in modern society; it is without a beginning and without an end. My office hours are from nine to four, yet, already when I’m up in the morning, I’m already working. You see, I have to go through the Norwegian and Czech newspapers. In fact, often the working day starts in the morning when I get up and also ends when I plunge into bed – like yesterday at 11 PM. I worked 15-16 hours! Although yesterday was not a typical day, days like that can happen. I have to work on Saturdays and Sundays as well, because there is often something I have to attend to. And I can’t say ‘no’, right? If there is an event where the organizer thinks that Norway should be represented and I see it is an opportunity for us to show the flag and show commitment, then I must show up. Nevertheless, when I think about it, I don’t have the most demanding job in the Norwegian foreign service. Being a bilateral Ambassador to Prague is quite busy, but it’s not the most demanding job. Greater demands are required from the NATO Ambassadors or the Ambassadors in the major capitals, such as Washington D.C., for example. This is a large Embassy representing Norway in the world’s most important country. It’s the most powerful state in the world, of course it requires something completely different from you. It requires more.
Your job entails a lot of relocation after certain periods. How has the dynamic rhythm of the profession affected your life and your loved ones?
There are two things that hit me right away. First of all, this job is very stressful for the family. I’ve worked at two stations that have been “non-family postings”. In Murmansk, nothing really stopped you from bringing your family, but you’ve nothing to offer the family. Taking Norwegian children out of the Norwegian school for only two years and putting them in a Russian school becomes too difficult. As a result, you get a split family situation. After a few years, I moved to Pakistan. There you can’t bring your family due to security reasons. It was a huge burden. When I look back on this, it has been a very difficult time for the family, but we are still married and now I live with my spouse. Our kids are adults, so it’s been fine, but it’s been a burden. The second thing is that it is quite emotional. Such small workplaces like this one in Prague, or larger workplaces like in Pakistan. You come so close to the people around you, whether they are Norwegian or Pakistani, but then comes the day when you have to travel home. That’s when you know that you will most likely never see any of your colleagues again. If you’re not made of stone, then I think it’s actually not that easy to go through this. For me, it was very emotional and difficult to travel away from Murmansk and especially from Pakistan. In Pakistan we were exposed to so much, we’d been happy together and we’d been scared together, because of the security situation and the threats we’d been exposed to.
I think I’ve always given the maximum of myself. I strongly believe that it is important to be a human being, if you are not, you will fail. You have to show that you care.Robert Kvile
What do you think is important in order to stay together as a family when one has to be away for many years?
What’s important is that if you are travelling alone, then you must get your family to visit you quickly, especially if you have children. Because, those sitting at home, they have some notions of what kind of life you have, and if they have been visiting, then that notion becomes concrete. The kids imagine where their dad lives, where he has an office and it’s much easier for them to relate to it or else it becomes so damn abstract: Where is he?! What does it look like there? What is he doing? So, doing this is important and I’ve done it throughout my career.
Have you ever felt guilty in your job as an Ambassador?
No, not at all. I think I’ve always given the maximum of myself. I strongly believe that it is important to be a human being, if you are not, you will fail. So, you have to show that you have feelings. You have to show that you care. This was particularly important in Pakistan where the security situation meant that it was actually a burden for local employees to work at the Norwegian embassy as well. Then you have to have empathy. You have to support people and if you don’t care about those around you then it won’t work.
When we now talk about the position itself, it requires a lot of responsibility. Which decision has been the most revolutionary and, perhaps, even difficult, in your career?
This is a difficult question. For me, the hardest decision of all was to say: “Yes, alright, I take Murmansk”. At that time, the children were only 11 and 13 years old. Travelling away from them was difficult. In terms of work, I see that I’ve done stupid things, but there’s no point in looking back, you just have to look ahead and think, “Maybe at that time I screwed up a little …”. So, speaking of this, at least once, I gave a presentation at the OSCE councils that I regret a little, because I was too tough. I went to the throats of the Russians. I used pictures and had a design that was very undiplomatic, and some felt I was crossing the line. I think the content of the presentation attacking Russian intolerance in terms of different people, was totally justified, but there are many ways to make a message. At that time, I might have gone too far, and I regret it. Now, when I look at it in hindsight, I would say that I could’ve designed that speech in a different way.
Does it mean that a diplomat should be very neutral?
It means you have to treat people with respect. But at the same time, “neutrality” doesn’t mean you must not show the “flag”, it is important for us (Norway) to stand for something – and we all know what it is we stand for; democracy, human rights etc. Of course, I have to tone down my personal views, but then, what is so promising, is that the Norwegian governments have had the same values since 1945. There may be some nuances here and there, but just think of other diplomats serving in countries that have shifted away from democracy, perhaps Turkey or Hungary. Maybe those diplomats have a more difficult situation than I have? They may need to promote views of a government, while at the same time feeling that those views are not theirs. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to promote views on behalf of Norway that I haven’t supported.
Have you ever missed something, perhaps a more A4-life?
I miss Norway and I miss my own house, my own garden, my own bench, I miss the cabin – the opportunity to do something practical. And those opportunities are very limited when you move around so much whilst being a diplomat. This means that the summer holidays, especially, are of great importance for me. During summers we are home, there are things to do with the house and garden and other practical things. I’ve a profession that is basically abstract, I deal with intangible things; with languages, opinions, but can I see and touch the traces of my work? No. I think that if you can’t compensate with something that is quite concrete, such as woodworking on a bird box, then you risk becoming mad. You are left with a feeling that there are no traces after you here in the world after all! That’s why I like to do something with my hands.
What was your boyhood dream like when you were growing up?
I dreamed of becoming a carpenter, but of course I didn’t become one. The most fun subject at school was woodwork. I’m actually pretty good with my hands. However, I knew I was going to high school, then to the military and then to the university. My brothers did it, I did it and my whole family did it. Becoming a craftsman was therefore an idea that left me as soon as I started high school, because my path was made for me. I knew I was going to complete my education, but what kind of profession I was going to end up with, was unclear.
When you look back at the phone call that changed your whole life back in 1987, do you regret taking it?
No, I must say that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a career where I’ve been given both very fun and demanding tasks. I’ve quickly learned that I had to step into a role that I’ve filled with my persona. For example, some people think: “He’s met with the President. Were you nervous?”. Of course, I was nervous as hell! But at the same time, you become kind of an actor. This profession requires a lot of practice, practice and even more practice. So, my career has brought me into situations that I think back on with great joy and sometimes with great horror.