The Other Side of Diplomacy
Megasthenes ponders the intricacies of statesmanship
Foreign policy and diplomacy are terms that are cognate in concept, but not quite synonymous or interchangeable. Lord Gore-Booth, who headed the British diplomatic service during 1965-69, explained the difference very lucidly: "Foreign policy is what you do; diplomacy is how you do it."
Walter Lippmann once wrote that in foreign relations, as in all other relations, a policy "has been formed only when commitment and power have been brought into balance."
The two essential ingredients for an effective foreign policy, or for that matter any policy, are thus commitment and capability, and these have to be in tandem. In the 1960s the US had a well-defined Vietnam policy. There was commitment to the policy and also the capability to pursue it. When the policy seemed to be leading nowhere, commitment began to wane, although capability still existed. All too soon the policy became untenable.
When the USSR intervened in Afghanistan in 1979, it was surely in pursuit of a policy. The policy collapsed nearly a decade on, when both commitment and capability flagged. Developing countries are generally more susceptible to pressures that bear upon sensitive foreign policy issues.
The UN Charter is emphatic that all member states are sovereign equals. It does not follow though that they are also political and economic equals, or militarily equal. Conventional wisdom suggests that in international relations, a country should seek a role that is commensurate with its power. A small country, which cannot shape or significantly influence events external to it, has obvious constraints in the sphere of foreign policy. Often enough, such a country may only stoop to conquer. In the area of diplomacy, however, countries enjoy greater latitude. Third world diplomacy, though, lacks the "tinsel and titillation" associated with diplomacy of major powers, a recent example of which would be the music diplomacy -- featuring the New York Philharmonic -- in North Korea.
Diplomacy of old was said to be a world of "nuance and scruple, influence and interpretation." Today, diplomacy is all that and more. It has lost much of its glamour, is more complex and, at times, even technical. Subtlety and skill in conveying a message or sentiment has always been integral to diplomacy. Between late 1958 and early 1960, Prime Ministers Nehru and Chou En-lai exchanged a series of letters which in effect constituted a "connecting thread for the whole diplomatic debate" on the Sino-Indian border issue. The exchange did not resolve the matter, but did culminate in a meeting of the two leaders in New Delhi in 1960. Nehru's early letters used the salutation "My dear Prime Minister." This changed gradually to "Dear Prime Minister," which was construed as a less cordial, even coldly, formal salutation. Perhaps it signaled disappointment that the exchange of letters did not quite narrow the gap separating the two sides. In his invitation letter to Chou in 1960, Nehru was, of course, warm, and returned to the address "My dear Prime Minister."
It is even possible for diplomatic signals to be too subtle. By 1970, the US and China had begun to view each other in the geo-political rather than the ideological context. Both countries moved charily to explore options that could lead to a fruitful bilateral relationship. It would be an epochal development in international relations. On China's national day in 1970, American writer, Edgar Snow, an old friend of China, and his wife were placed next to Mao Tse-tung on Tien An Men. Photographs showed Mao reviewing the anniversary parade with Snow at his side; the first time that an American had been so honoured. Only later did Henry Kissinger grasp the purport of this diplomatic signal: Sino-US relations had the personal attention of Mao. It was a signal, Kissinger would observe dryly, that was simply too oblique and subtle for "crude Occidental minds."
Diplomacy is, in the main, executed by resident diplomats, and also increasingly in modern times by visiting dignitaries and peripatetic special envoys. A special envoy is entrusted with a specific mission, and is received by the host government at a level deemed appropriate, which could vary from head of government to senior officials.
In February 2008, the information minister of Senegal, Dr. Bacar Dia, visited Bangladesh as special envoy of the president of Senegal. He was received by the chief adviser. In March, Ambassador Bahattin Gursoz visited as special envoy of the foreign minister of Turkey. He was received by the foreign affairs adviser.
In September of last year, US deputy assistant secretary of state, John A. Gastright, briefly visited Bangladesh, not as special envoy but in his official capacity. The office of deputy assistant secretary of state is a senior position, comparable to joint secretary in the officialdom of Bangladesh. During his crowded two day visit, Secretary Gastright was received by the chief adviser and the foreign affairs adviser.
This was surely a diplomatic gesture. It was important that Secretary Gastright should receive a first hand account of what the government is seeking to achieve, the institutional reforms it has put in place, and its plans for elections and transition to an elected government. US support can be crucial in so many areas. Where national interests are concerned, one may not stand on ceremony.
On December 22, 1971, Pakistan's new president, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, dispensed with protocol to call on US Ambassador Farland at his residence. This extraordinary gesture, Bhutto explained, was to signal a new period of US-Pakistan relations. Farland's report on this meeting to Secretary of State Rogers was published in a collection of declassified US State papers. In November of 1973, Dr. Kissinger visited Pakistan en route to China; his sixth trip to that country. Bhutto waived protocol and ceremonial to receive him at Islamabad airport, with all honours normally due to a head of state. Diplomacy is a supple instrument of the state.
Last year, Bangladesh sent a highly respected former diplomat as special envoy to the US. He was given ministerial rank for the purpose of the mission. In Washington DC, he had discussions with a very senior official of the State Department. There are two aspects to any such mission, namely the message to be conveyed, and the level of the envoy's reception. The first is the substance, and the second, the show. A special envoy, particularly for a one-off mission, does need a specific or notional rank, to determine his entitlements, and also to emphasise to the receiving state, the importance of the mission. There is a good reason though for this information not to be made public; if, for whatever reason, the envoy is not received at least at an equal level, it could grate on sensitivities.
The level at which a special envoy is received by a major power would depend on several factors; the nature of the mission, the agenda, policies and priorities of the major power, and the closeness of bilateral ties. Pakistan's relations with the US may be traced in time to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan's nearly month-long visit to that country in May of 1950. Liaquat's decision to visit the US rather than the USSR -- which had invited him earlier -- was a pointer to Pakistan's foreign policy orientation. This trend would be reinforced in the years ahead. Pakistan would become "the most allied ally" of the US -- CENTO and SEATO -- and the period 1954-62 would be the "aligned years" of Pakistan's foreign policy.
In the early 1960s, President Kennedy described Pakistan as a friend of "immediacy and constancy." It was against this general backdrop of bilateral relations that in October 1969, Pakistan's information minister, Maj. Gen. Sher Ali Khan, and the deputy chairman, Planning Commission, M.M. Ahmad went to Washington. Sher Ali was in the US for the UN General Assembly, and M.M. Ahmad for IBRD-IMF meetings; both sought appointments with US national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. M.M. Ahmad had a letter from his president for President Nixon, which they wished to hand over to Dr. Kissinger.
Hal Saunders of the National Security Council addressed a minute to his superior on the request for an appointment: "No sooner had I successfully -- I thought -- begged off for you on Ambassador Hilaly's request that you see Sher Ali Khan than he was back at me with the following problem. M.M. Ahmad is now in town with a letter from President Yahya to President Nixon …He and Sher Ali Khan feel some obligation to deliver this letter to you. I explained to Ambassador Hilaly the great pressures on your time and he agreed that it would be satisfactory if he brought the two ministers to my office for a long substantive chat and then have them drop over literally for five minutes to put their letter in your hands. Substantively, this doesn't make a lot of sense. The problem is simply to have these fellows go home and say that they were able to to you."
It was a candid internal memo, somewhat tart in tone. Clearly there are heavy demands on the time of senior members of the administration in Washington. The memo indicated how requests for appointments with them are handled. Only months later, Pakistan would assume the sensitive role of a conduit to facilitate Sino-US rapprochement, and Ambassador Agha Hilaly would have almost unfettered access to Henry Kissinger.
Last year on November 15, the foreign affairs adviser, speaking at the launching ceremony of a think tank on foreign affairs, stressed the need for a shift of focus in Bangladesh's foreign policy apparatus, from defensive to offensive interests. The adviser touched upon the possible role of policy research and advocacy groups in policy formulation. Speaking to the media, he assured that Bangladesh would move aggressively to pursue its strategic goals. Important speeches are usually tailored to the occasion. Brave words, good intentions and high objectives can be stimulating and boost morale.
The adviser's speech and comments were most apposite. Coincidentally, as he spoke, coastal districts of Bangladesh were struck by a hurricane of awesome ferocity. Sidr most certainly was not a diplomatic event, but it made two points that are not unlinked to diplomacy.
Firstly, there was great goodwill and friendship for Bangladesh in many countries, which so generously and spontaneously extended much needed help for relief and reconstruction. And secondly, it cruelly underscored the vulnerabilities of small countries to elements over which they have no control. International relations are intimately related to power equations.
After Sidr, Bangladesh has diligently lobbied the US administration for the grant of temporary protected status to undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in that country. Bangladesh has pleaded that to apprehend and deport any undocumented migrants at this time would add to the heavy burdens of post-Sidr recovery. This is a bold and innovative diplomatic gambit. It is bold because governments of countries that have undocumented migrants abroad are normally reticent on this issue. It is innovative because it seeks to retrieve something from what was an unmitigated humanitarian disaster.
Diplomacy has evolved and adapted over time. In the 19th century, Lord Salisbury saw nothing dramatic in the success of a diplomatist. Rather, his victories consisted of a "series of microscopic advantages, of a judicious suggestion here, of an opportune civility there, of a wise concession at one moment and a farsighted persistence at another, of sleepless tact, immovable calmness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake." Still largely true, even today.
Nearly 50 years back, Chester Bowles emphasised the need for "total diplomacy," not simply "wining, dining, reporting, analysing and cautiously predicting." And more than two decades after Bowles, Sir Geoffrey Howe felt that the various elements of diplomacy, namely commercial, political, information and consular should support and strengthen each other for one purpose, to further national interests -- strategic or commercial. These two points are absolutely true.
The trend in modern times is for diplomacy to focus on core areas of national interest. For Bangladesh, these would include access to markets, investments, transfer of technology, more substance in bilateral relations, the maritime boundary, a liberal regime for migrant workers, the environment and climate change. Effective diplomacy, while exploring all options and avenues, can only be constructed and premised on a robust sense of the realities. In other words, gaze on the horizon, and feet planted firmly on the ground.
Adlai Stevenson's Christmas cards to close friends would invariably contain a message selected by him, usually a quote from a philosophical tract or literary work, reflecting his concerns and thinking.
For the Christmas of 1965, which he did not live to see, he had chosen his message, an excerpt from Max Ehrmann's best known work, Desiderata: "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world."
The spirit and essence of diplomacy, and also its rationale can seldom have been articulated more succinctly and felicitously, and with such clarity.
Megasthenes is an eminent Bangladeshi columnist.