Vol. 5 Num 1092 Wed. June 27, 2007  

Going Deeper
Our diplomacy is in need of intellectual substance

The cause of diplomacy is often best served by people who have never been part of the diplomatic circle. Read that last bit as profession and you might get a fairly good idea of what we mean to suggest. You think of Krishna Menon in India and Maliha Lodhi in Pakistan. There is then hardly any way in which you can tell us that they have not done a good job.

You see, much of the intellectual that we have often noticed substantiating diplomacy around the world has come from men, sometimes women, who have been brought in from outside to reinforce foreign policies that may otherwise have been reduced to lacklustre affairs. There is John Kenneth Galbraith for you. In much of Ayub-era Pakistan, it was clearly the non-diplomat Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who brought verve, and a certain flair, to the country's foreign policy.

In Bangladesh, Kamal Hossain kindles memories of a purposeful stewardship of the foreign office. To a certain extent, we are told, Anisul Islam Mahmud was a man who did a hands-on job as minister for foreign affairs in the years of Hussein Muhammad Ershad.

Perhaps we have once more arrived at a point in time when Bangladesh's diplomacy is in sore need of being saved from the careerists who have long sought to promote it. But, of course, a goodly number of our career diplomats did a good job in the past. In similar fashion, quite a few in the generation that followed them have proved useful in keeping the flag fluttering in capitals abroad.

Even so, when you reflect on the state the Foreign Office has been in for the past many years, you tend to wonder if a wholesale change in approach and attitude is not really called for. Just the fact that the country does not have a fully functional foreign secretary is symptomatic, or should be, of the ailments that Bangladesh's diplomatic arena suffers from. That is poverty of a kind. Worse, it is a debilitating thing to have a whole diplomatic establishment that does not seem to have the manpower to speak for it full-time or with fullness of purpose.

Why we have been going on without a full-fledged foreign secretary is a question you can place before the government. If you are lucky, you might come by an answer. And until that happens, go back to that matter of people from outside diplomacy actually enriching diplomacy through the sheer intellectual brilliance they can bring into what they do abroad.

In Bangabandhu's era, the emphasis on projecting Bangladesh's politics and cultural heritage abroad was most refreshingly noted through placing Khan Shamsur Rahman, K.G. Mustafa, M.R. Siddiqui and Azizur Rahman Mallick in key spots around the globe. Syed Abdus Sultan in London did not fall behind either. But it was a time that was to be too brief and too tenuous for our liking.

It soon passed, and what we had before us after that particular phase drew to a close was a time when career diplomats and retired or serving military officers took charge as our chief spokesmen abroad. To what extent such men succeeded in presenting Bangladesh before the outside world remains a question.

As a caveat, though, we will note that Pakistan's Sahibzada Yaqub Khan did a fine job, both as foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, long after his professional life in the army came to an end in the early 1970s. Perhaps Khwaja Wasiuddin could have accomplished a similar feat for us here in Bangladesh, but he died a little too early.

In times closer to ours, Major General Mahmuduzzaman happened to be doing a good job as ambassador to South Korea, until the hangers-on of the government of the day thought that he was not doing them any favours. What then followed was the predictably macabre: he was recalled with alacrity.

The trouble with diplomacy, which relies a little too much on professional practitioners of it, is that a sure sense of predictability comes into it. Sometimes for reasons that are quite inexplicable, and, yet, for those that are to be easily fathomed, career diplomats are in little position to bring newer dimensions into the relations their country may be enjoying with other nations. Which is precisely why it often becomes, in the historical sense, necessary to send an Averell Harriman to Moscow, or have an Andrei Gromyko serve for whole decades as foreign minister of the Soviet Union.

Henry Kissinger remains by far the brightest instance of a nation's foreign policy shaking itself back to purposefulness at the hands of an individual who had never had a career in diplomacy. The Kissinger reality, in turn, was to spawn a whole new breed of diplomats coming from outside the charmed circles of the State Department. Jimmy Carter had his Zbigniew Brzezinsky and Edmund Muskie, Bill Clinton had his Madeleine Albright and George W. Bush has Condoleezza Rice.

When it comes to talking about non-diplomats serving as diplomats for Bangladesh, a few glaring examples of how spectacularly some of these non-diplomats failed to live up to expectations will quite naturally come to mind. Indeed, some extremely intelligent as well as intellectually powerful men, former bureaucrats and poet-bureaucrats included, have in recent times been sent abroad as ambassadors and high commissioners.

They did poorly, not because they did not know their job but because they worked in the mistaken, pretty selfish belief that they were there to serve a partisan government rather than an entire country. There are, thus, the pitfalls associated with sending men and women from outside the foreign service abroad.

On balance, though, it is always people from academia, journalism and politics who make a bigger impression on the outside world than do those who have professionally been trained to speak for their country abroad. Girish Karnad did an admirable job heading the cultural wing at the Indian high commission in London.

In his time, as a diplomat abroad, Pablo Neruda built and widened a network of men and women deeply involved in studies of Chilean culture. It was a feat few have accomplished, in Chile or elsewhere.

Nasim Ahmed, for ages correspondent in London for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, served quite creditably for a while as his country's ambassador (not as high commissioner, for Pakistan had walked out of the Commonwealth in a huff in 1972) in Britain during the years of Z.A. Bhutto.

The case for non-diplomats in Bangladesh to play a coruscating role in the nation's diplomacy, at its various levels, is therefore fairly strong. The more non-diplomats we send to our diplomatic missions abroad the merrier, for reasons we have already, in so many words, cited.

Academics of high intellectual calibre, those who have retired from teaching, can be prime candidates as our spokesmen abroad. There are then media people whose comprehension of history and culture, not just of their own country but of places beyond their national frontiers, could certainly provide a dash of vigour to our diplomacy abroad.

The goal, after all, is to do away with the effete and the ineffectual, not to say the snobbish, in our approach to the world. When the truth is that Bangladesh's diplomats, with rare exceptions, are conspicuous by their absence on the global stage, of course, sometimes for reasons that we understand perfectly well, a change in course becomes a priority.

In diplomacy, there remains constantly the need for a subtle articulation of foreign policy objectives. Talleyrand, Metternich, Castlereagh, all men particularly admired by Kissinger, nearly always upheld such a formula of operation. That being the tradition, there is little reason why the intellectually big men in our crowded land cannot follow suit.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.