Ambassador Matt Field: “the pandemic changed absolutely everything about how we worked as an Embassy”

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Ever the modern diplomat, the Ambassador Matt Field’s social media provides an active insight into his day-to-day life as UK representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fascinated by Field’s patronage of Bosnian culture and his personable approach to diplomacy, I reached out to Field for interview. Having written for Palatinate himself, the Ambassador was more than obliging to speak to Profile about the evolution of his career ever since.

Remembering Durham

Before he worked for the British Embassy, Field studied Theology at Van Mildert College (1996 – 1999). Though Field enjoyed his degree, he admits that he “never quite knew what I was going to do with it”. Despite having no master career plan, Field fully immersed himself in University life. The Ambassador’s Durham years fostered his curiosity for culture, sport and charity work — all of which Field weaves into his diplomatic work today.

“A lot of the overall enjoyment that was down to the extra-curriculars things… university and college sport, a semester abroad, Amnesty international, college and university council, music, and of course writing for Palatinate. Not being sure what I wanted to do next, all of this gave me a great opportunity to find out what I liked to do, and what I was good at.”

“Looking back, I stumbled into this career”

Since his graduation from Durham in 1999, Field’s career progression has been anything but linear. Constantly fuelled by the need to explore other cultures and languages, the Oxford-born diplomat has traveled the globe. Having previously spent time in Sweden and Kenya, the Durham graduate decided to teach in Japan — “yet another mind-blowingly different experience”. It was largely thanks to these diverse travels and his work with international organisations, like Oxfam, that Field realised that he “could make a career as a diplomat”.

As hoped, Field’s career path up through the Foreign Office brought him yet more diverse international roles: from advising the EU in Macedonia to being stationed at the British Embassy in Brazil. When he first joined the Foreign Office in 2003, Field was plunged into working on the Middle East Process, a controversial project which exposed him “to an incredibly difficult and challenging set of issues, one of the most intractable problems in the world”. When Profile asked Field whether he thought the Middle East Process was a success for the EU, Field answered frankly:

“I cannot say there were major successes during that time – though perhaps a few small wins along the way, or at least some bigger problems avoided or managed. I learnt a great deal, especially about myself, and about working with others, especially in the EU”.

Undoubtedly, the major and most challenging step in Field’s career path would come in 2018, with his appointment to serve as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Having relocated himself and his family, Field saw the West Balkan state as “an amazing place to get my first experience of being an Ambassador. I know the region, speak the language, and am familiar with some of the challenges. I also have a brilliant team in the Embassy, most of them citizens of the country.”

Yet, thirty years on from the atrocities of the Bosnian War and genocide in Srebrenica, the country remains a volatile and divided nation. The territory is of the most corrupt in Europe, with bribery permeating most state institutions, from the education to the healthcare systems. Field has previously expressed the challenges of co-operating with public officials who “steal from public budgets… block reforms… manipulate election”. Field openly, albeit diplomatically, admits the difficulties of “leading the UK’s contribution in a country that only recently has lived through exactly the kind of terrible experiences being played out in Ukraine today. I am often confronted by hate speech, ethnic-based division, and the exodus of many of the country’s best and brightest”.

But how can the UK confront such deep-seated instability and corruption? For Matt Field, any diplomatic approach must start with an honest assessment of the political landscape and crucially, a receptive understanding of the citizen’s own desires. For the British Government of today, diplomacy must be a two-way street: “This is their country, I am a guest and a visitor here, and change will only come if it starts from within. The more I speak to people across the country, see their talents and determination, the more optimistic I become.”

Onto the Brexit question, when I asked Field whether he felt the UK’s influence in Eastern Europe had been depleted, Field conceded that this “was a question that met me nearly every day. I answered honestly then, as I do now. Of course the UK’s role has changed, but… If anything we are more visible, more engaged, more agile in our approach.”

Certainly, evidence can be found of active UK involvement: the UK dispatched a senior military official as Special Envoy to the Western Balkans in December 2021. Just recently, UK sanctions were imposed on two Bosnian-Serb politicians who, emboldened by Russia’s dismissal of international laws, threaten the complicated power-sharing system with divisive, nationalistic and racist rhetorics.

Refusing to be dampened by Bosnia’s “uniquely complicated and frustrating political system”, Field spoke to me highly of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a “remarkable country”. Enthused by the determination of its youth, Field spends “much more time now engaging with young people, listening to them and their hopes for their future… I meet a number of hugely inspiring people, from the organisers of the country’s first PRIDE march to IT entrepreneurs, environmental activists and people dedicated to helping vulnerable children. That keeps my frustrations in check, and my head up”.

For diplomacy in the digital era, social media is an increasingly useful tool to visibly foster the UK-BiH relationship and be a “cheerleader” for Bosnian culture. Matt Field regularly uses his Twitter and Instagram as a platform to showcase the best and brightest of Bosnian culture. Keeping his social media presence “authentic, credible and purposeful” is important to the Ambassador who enjoys documenting “the curiosity and interest I have for this country”. Field’s personal promotion of BiH art, film and society stems from a genuine love of “exploring the outdoors, snowboarding, film, music and diverse histories” which “are all found here in abundance. It is why I personally, and we as a family, have enjoyed our time here so much”.

As his tenure as UK Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina comes to an end, Matt Field speaks to Palatinate with raw hindsight about the last four years: “I am quite self-critical of the opportunities I may have missed, or the things I could have done better. The pandemic changed absolutely everything about how we worked as an Embassy, as of course it did for everyone. I think I will though look back on this all as a remarkable privilege, and an enjoyable one”. Looking forward, Field anticipates the arrival of his successor, Julian Reilly, this summer as a “time for some fresh energy and ideas” in Sarajevo.

With an impressive and diverse career behind him, Palatinate asked Field what advice he would give to current students, teetering on the edge of their own careers:

“What linked all of these experiences was my curiosity, and my readiness to put myself out of my comfort zone. That’s my best advice – be curious, and put yourself out there. University is a great time to find yourself, and try things on for size”.

Image: Foreign Office

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