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Volume 7 | Issue 01 | January 2013 |


Original Forum

2012: Lessons Learnt

Bangladesh in 2013: Dangling Between Hopes and Reality
-- Ziauddin Choudhury

Beyond the Rage
-- Sushmita S Preetha
Law, Culture and Politics of Hartal
-- Dr Zahidul Islam Biswas
Victory's Silence
-- Bina D'Costa

Photo Feature

A Tale of a Dying River

Let's Talk about Domestic Violence!

-- Ishita Dutta

An Unfinished Story

-- Deb Mukharji

A Tale of Political Dynasties
-- Syed Badrul Ahsan
“Bangladesh Brand”:
Exploring potentials
-- Makluka Jinia and Dr. Ershad Ali
Give Dignity a Chance:
Two observations and five takeaways
-- Lutfey Siddiqi
Diplomatic Snubs and Put-downs
-- Megasthenes
Hay Festival: International
Interactions of Literature, Culture and Creativity
-- Farhan Ishraq
-- Kajalie Shehreen Islam


Forum Home

Diplomatic Snubs and Put-downs

MEGASTHENES retraces a history of political brush-offs across the globe.

It happened during the Geneva Conference of 1954. The diplomatic conference, which would continue for nearly three months, had been organised to address two broad issues, the Korean peninsula and peace in Indo-China. The principal participants were the USA, the USSR, the UK, France and China. Some of the biggest names in diplomacy were there -- US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his deputy Walter Bedell Smith, Sir Anthony Eden of the UK, George Bidault and Pierre Mendes-France of France, Vyacheslav Molotov of the USSR, and the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of China, Chou En-lai. At some stage of the conference, Chou, coming face to face with Dulles, extended his right hand towards him for a handshake. Dulles pointedly ignored the outstretched hand; he was staunchly anti-communist and the US in any case did not recognise the People's Republic of China. Walter Bedell Smith was casual; he had a cup of coffee in his right hand, and used his left to shake Chou's arm. He did not, Chou would say later, “want to break the discipline of Dulles”! Nearly two decades on, Chou would reminisce about this, with dry humour, at his meeting with President Nixon.

The Conference did bring about a cessation of hostilities in Indo-China. The Geneva Accords, however, would not be implemented in their entirety; the US and South Vietnam had reservations. The history of Vietnam might have unfolded differently if, as was stipulated, internationally supervised elections for the unification of the country had been held in July 1956.

On July 9, 1971, Henry Kissinger made his first trip to China. He travelled in secrecy by a special PIA flight from Chaklala Airport in Rawalpindi. The plane was flown by Yahya Khan's personal pilot. A “senior four-man delegation” had been sent from China to accompany him on the flight. The “Dulles handshake”, or non-shake, was very much on Kissinger's mind, and even the subject of discussion, during flight. After his arrival in Beijing, Chou En-lai called at the guest house where he was staying. Kissinger greeted Chou “at the door of the guest house and ostentatiously stuck out” his hand. With a quick smile, Chou took it. In Kissinger's own words, it was “the first step in putting the legacy of the past behind us”.

On 21 February 1972, Nixon flew to China; it was a historic trip. He was determined that his own handshake with Chou, after arrival at Beijing Airport, would be the event to rectify Dulles' slight of 1954. Elaborate instructions were issued -- and according to Dr Kissinger repeated several times -- to this end. The President and the First Lady would be the first to alight from the plane after it landed. Everyone else would remain on board Air Force One, until the television cameras had filmed the first encounter between the two leaders -- a “burly aide blocked the aisle of” the plane to ensure this. President Nixon descended the steps of the aircraft “arm first, hand jutting forward, to reach the outstretched hand of Chou”. Moments after the “historic Nixon-Chou handshake had been consummated in splendid solitude”, Secretary of State William Rogers, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and other members of the presidential entourage, “appeared magically”. Chou, or according to another version Nixon, would later say that the “handshake was over the vastest distance in the world”.

In February of 1959, Harold Macmillan paid a 10-day visit to the USSR. It was the first visit to the Soviet Union by a British Prime Minister after World War II. Macmillan's talks with Soviet leader Krushchev covered a wide array of issues, including bilateral trade and cultural ties, West Berlin, German re-unification, arms reduction and nuclear arms-testing. At one point the talks seemed to have reached an impasse, and Krushchev abruptly announced that he would not be accompanying his guest to Kiev -- as was earlier agreed -- for the second leg of the visit, because of a toothache. This was perceived, and intended, as a snub. Macmillan had been nicknamed “supermac” because of his unflappability; he was seriously perturbed though. The visit itself was in some jeopardy. It took quiet diplomacy by Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd and Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vasili Kuznetsov to retrieve the situation. Macmillan and Lloyd proceeded to Kiev without their host. There was a conciliatory message from Krushchev the next day; his dentist had successfully treated his toothache using a British drill. The final session of talks between the two leaders was held in a more cordial atmosphere after Macmillan's return to Moscow.

In October of 1962, an undeclared border war broke out between India and China. The Cold War was on, and the USA and Britain rushed military aid to India. There was an exchange of letters between Kennedy and Nehru, and a high-level survey team led by Averell Harriman visited India. Kennedy, of course, did not wish to drive Pakistan towards China. He wrote to assure Ayub Khan that military aid to India would not be used against his country, and that it would not affect the more substantial military aid that Pakistan received regularly from the US. Ayub was not mollified. According to Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy's Special Counsel, Ayub told the US Ambassador to Pakistan that “he would be unavailable for a week to read the President's letter”. He also complained that “he had not been consulted”. Pakistan, Kennedy felt, never quite appreciated that the US-Pakistan alliance was “aimed at the Communists, not at the Indians”. In his book on Kennedy, Sorensen relates a singular incident. On a visit to the President's office, the Pakistani Ambassador “launched into such an undiplomatic tirade that Kennedy coldly stood up and terminated the conversation”. The next Ambassador brought a special gift for Mrs. Kennedy, “a stunning pin”. It was a “peace offering” from Ayub Khan. In return, Kennedy asked the First Lady to paint a picture for Ayub. The Pakistani Ambassador at the time of the Sino-Indian border war was the archetypal British Indian civil servant, Aziz Ahmed. In 1963, he was succeeded by his elder brother, G Ahmed.

Aziz Ahmed moved from Washington to become Foreign Secretary, and served in that post until his retirement in June 1966. A declassified British document gives an insight into how he was perceived in India. In early September 1965, just before the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistan war, the British High Commissioner in New Delhi, John Freeman, reported to Commonwealth Secretary Arthur Bottomley on his meeting with LK Jha, Secretary to the Prime Minister of India. Ayub Khan had launched Operation Gibraltar; armed irregulars had been clandestinely sent across the cease-fire line into Kashmir, and the State was in turmoil. Jha was not sanguine that war could be avoided. He told Freeman that Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had earlier “envisaged his own solution of the Kashmir problem”, based on a rationalisation of the cease-fire line. A “secret personal message” in this regard had been sent to Ayub at the time of the Rann of Kutch negotiations “through a trusted intermediary”. The message conveyed that Shastri was “ready to negotiate on Kashmir” after general elections in India, and “incidentally after the retirement of Aziz Ahmed, which would make the atmosphere easier”.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher were among the titans of their time. They differed on some issues, and relations between them were never particularly cordial. Mrs. Thatcher's authorised biographer, Charles Moore, wrote in an article that they “reacted allergically to each other”. In their discussions, Mrs. Thatcher would at times “endlessly” lecture Kohl, so much so that he “could not get a word in edgewise”. Sometime in the early 1980's, the two leaders met at Salzburg. An hour or so into their session of talks, Kohl asked to be excused; there was an urgent matter that he needed to attend to. A little later, Mrs. Thatcher, who decided to use the unexpected free time to tour some of the city's shops, spotted Kohl in a sidewalk café, having coffee and eating cream cakes. Kohl was reputed to be something of a trencherman, and had the figure for it! It was perhaps an inadvertent or unintended snub, which, of course, did not do much for British-German relations.

Boris Yeltsin was the first President of the Russian Federation. He was a significant player in the events that led to the dissolution of the USSR. Over time he had transformed from a committed communist to a proponent of the free market economy. By the time he decided to leave high office in 1999, his popularity, after a series of political and economic crises, had waned. In September 1994, Yeltsin, on his way back to Moscow from a visit to the US, was to make a brief halt in Ireland for talks with Irish Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds. Prime Minister Reynolds was to receive his distinguished guest on arrival; a lavish lunch had been arranged at nearby Dromoland Castle. Yeltsin's plane circled over Shannon Airport for an hour before landing. As the aircraft landed, Reynolds and other dignitaries waited at the end of a red carpet on the runway of the airport to greet Yeltsin. They were informed after a longish wait that Yeltsin was unwell and would not leave the plane. It was an acute embarrassment rather than a snub. Yeltsin himself would say later that he had overslept and had not been woken up by his aides. The accepted version of what happened was different; Yeltsin had a weakness for vodka and may have had a drop too much! Reynolds and Yeltsin did meet not long afterwards at an EU summit in Sweden. At their meeting, Yeltsin, at the request of Reynolds, did the latter a special favour. He intervened to resolve some problems with airports that Aer Rianta, Ireland's airport retailing company, was having in Russia. Reynolds would say, after the passing of Yeltsin, that this was a special gesture to make up for the Shannon Airport episode.

Historian Taylor Branch in his recent book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President -- based on hours of taped conversations with former President Clinton -- recounts a bizarre anecdote about Yeltsin. In September 1995, Yeltsin, during a visit to Washington DC, was staying at Blair House. Very late one night, Secret Service agents found him outside the gates of Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue. He was in his underpants. In slurred speech he explained that he was waiting to catch a taxi cab to take him to a pizza restaurant.

US-Israel relations are very special, if also lopsided. Israel, very much the junior partner, clearly benefits more from the relationship, and also seems to call the tune. In negotiations, Israel is invariably tough and tenacious. Henry Kissinger has described Israeli negotiating tactics thus: “In the combination of single-minded persistence and convoluted tactics the Israelis preserve in their interlocutor only those last vestiges of sanity and coherence needed to sign the final document”.

In March of 2010, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to the US. He had fruitful discussions with members of Congress; his meeting with President Obama, however, was less smooth. Obama emphasized the need to build Palestinian confidence before the resumption of Middle-East peace talks, and towards this end presented a list of demands to the Israeli leader. The key demand was a halt to new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu would not budge. At one stage, the President announced that he was leaving the meeting to have dinner with the First Lady and their daughters. The meeting resumed an hour or so later but the impasse could not be broken. Two weeks earlier, Vice President Biden had conveyed a similar message to Netanyahu. Biden was on a visit to Israel when plans were announced for an expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. He arrived 90 minutes late for a dinner hosted in his honour by the Israeli Prime Minister. The announcement of new settlements, the US felt, had undermined Biden's efforts at peace-making. Netanyahu has not always been on the receiving end of a snub. In March 1998, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, during a trip to Israel, called for an end to new settlements in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu, then in his first term as Prime Minister, promptly cancelled a dinner he was to have hosted for Cook.

Diplomacy of modern times focuses more on the functional and substantive than on the ceremonial. This is especially so for developed countries. And yet ceremony and protocol still have an important place. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a brief visit to Bangladesh last May. She arrived on May 5 and left the next day. It was the first visit by a US Secretary of State since 2003. The Secretary's programme was crowded. She met the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Their talks covered US-Bangladesh cooperation in a variety of areas. The Secretary hosted an exclusive breakfast meeting for two distinguished Bangladeshis, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Professor Yunus. She also had a lively interactive televised meeting with a group of young Bangladeshis. One or two aspects of her visit, relating to ceremony and protocol, however, seemed to depart from what would generally be the norm. Hillary Clinton's special flight reached Dhaka late in the afternoon. She held a half hour briefing session with US embassy officials in the plane before alighting from the aircraft. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh welcomed her distinguished guest as she disembarked and set foot in Bangladesh. No official dinner was hosted for the Secretary of State; presumably she had other plans for dinner.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, came to Dhaka on November 9 last year, on a specific mission, to convey an invitation from President Zardari to the Prime Minister to attend the eighth D-8 summit in Islamabad on November 22. Shortly after arrival, Hina Khar met with her counterpart, Dr Dipu Moni, who broached the issue of an unqualified apology by Pakistan for the atrocities of 1971. Later, Khar called on the Prime Minister to hand over the letter of invitation. The invitation was duly accepted. Three days later the planned visit to Pakistan was cancelled. There were media reports and speculation about the possible reasons for the abrupt reversal of decision. Hina Khar was quoted as saying that because of an eye-ailment, the Prime Minister had been advised not to travel by air. Security concerns were cited as a possible factor, and there was also a conflict in the Prime Minister's schedule. She had a commitment to attend the Armed Forces Day celebrations on November 21, and would not be able to reach Islamabad the next morning in good time for the summit. In the public mind there was another very plausible reason. Many felt that without an apology by Pakistan for 1971, a visit there at this time would not be worthwhile or politic.

An apology is a symbolic act and, above all else, a catharsis, both for the one making it and to the one to whom it is offered. Since 1974, Pakistan has at different times expressed regrets, but has stopped short of an outright apology. Last year Pakistan's iconic former cricket captain, Imran Khan -- who presently heads a political party -- called for an apology by Pakistan. Other distinguished civil society leaders have expressed similar views. An apology would surely be an impetus to the strengthening of bilateral relations between the two countries. Opinions may differ though as to whether the issue should be linked to participation in a multilateral forum of which Bangladesh is a founder-member. The Daily Star commented editorially that the manner in which the cancellation of the Prime Minister's Islamabad visit was handled was disturbing.

Theodore Sorenson once observed that most “military chieftains -- Presidents or Cabinet Members or otherwise -- don't admit error, ever”. In August of 1945, for the first time in human history, atomic weapons were used in war. Two bombs were dropped, the first on Hiroshima, and then, three days later, a second one on Nagasaki. An estimated 250,000 people perished, in the blasts and from radiation effects later. The decision to drop the bombs was taken by President Truman. To Truman, it was a “simple, necessary military decision”. A land invasion would have involved horrific casualties, possibly as high as 500,000 dead and 1000,000 crippled for life. The bombs thus not only ended the war but also saved American and Japanese lives. Truman was a person without guile or artifice. Till the end of his days he never had qualms or second thoughts about the use of the bomb. Author Merle Miller, in his oral biography of Truman, relates that in the early 1960's, a suggestion was mooted -- in connection with a television programme or a documentary film -- for Truman to visit Hiroshima and speak to school children at the museum there. In his talk, Truman would not need to justify the use of the bomb or apologise, but to simply stress that the bomb must never be used again. The former President was prepared to go to Hiroshima, but emphasised -- in his inimitable manner -- that he would not “kiss their ass”.

Questions persist to this day as to whether the bomb was absolutely necessary at that stage of the war. Japan was exhausted and ready to capitulate; all she wanted was a mechanism to ensure minimum loss of face. Information that has come to light in recent decades would suggest that many of the senior military leaders of that time, including Generals MacArthur and Eisenhower, Admirals Leahy, Nimitz and Halsey, Air Force General Hap Arnold and even the hawkish Curtis LeMay, did not think that the bomb was the only option, or even the best option, to bring about the surrender of Japan. One wonders whether timely diplomacy could have averted the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In July of 1996, the International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The salient points of the opinion were:

1. There was no comprehensive or universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons in customary or conventional international law.

2. The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.

3. The judges could not conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful in self-defence in extreme circumstances when the very survival of a State was at stake.

The world of diplomacy is a world of subtlety; delicate gestures can be the medium of messages to both friend and foe, and also the public. Humorist Caskie Stinnet, in one of his books, described a diplomat as “a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip”. This would suggest extraordinary powers of persuasion and, implicitly, patience. Much earlier Oscar Wilde had famously defined a true gentleman as “one who is never unintentionally rude”. In other words there may be a point in human interaction when the best option is simply to convey whatever is to be conveyed, bluntly and without frills. A diplomatic gambit or ploy should fall in the wide range between Stinnet and Oscar Wilde. In diplomacy, of course, as in so many fields of human endeavour, one has to deal with the world as it is, and not as it should be.



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