Dhaka Courier

When non-diplomats enrich diplomacy

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The cause of diplomacy is often served best by people who have never been part of the diplomatic circle. Read that last bit as a profession and you might get a fairly good idea of what we mean to suggest. You think of Vijaylakhsmi Pandit and Krishna Menon in India and Maleeha Lodhi in Pakistan. There is then hardly way in which you can tell us that they have not done a good job. Much of the intellectual brilliance that we have often noticed adding substance to 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 in the times of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 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. Much the same can be said of Professor Shamsul Haq in the Zia regime.

Perhaps we have once more arrived at a point in time when Bangladesh’s diplomacy could be reinforced by an entry of non-diplomats in the foreign policy arena, particularly at the ambassadorial level? Of course, a goodly number of our career diplomats did a good job in the past and are indeed doing so today. They have kept the national flag fluttering in capitals abroad. Even so, intellectual content brought in from outside can only strengthen the nation’s diplomacy at a time when the country is buffeted by such crises as the Rohingya influx across the border from Myanmar. The issue ought not to be one of raising the number of diplomatic missions abroad. It should be about raising the quality of our diplomatic dealings with the outside world.

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, Khan Sarwar Murshid and Azizur Rahman Mallick at key spots around the globe. Syed Abdus Sultan in London did not fall behind either. But that 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 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 --- he was indeed sent off to Kuwait after he was repatriated from Pakistan --- 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 he was not doing them any favours. What then followed was the naturally predictable: he was recalled.

The trouble with diplomacy which relies a little too much on professional practitioners of it is that a sure sense of predictability, sometimes ennui, comes into it. Often for reasons that are quite inexplicable and yet, paradoxically, are to be easily fathomed, career diplomats are in little position to bring newer dimensions into the relations their countries may be enjoying with other nations. That is precisely why it often becomes necessary, in the historical sense, to send Averell Harriman as America’s chief diplomat to Moscow or have Andrei Gromyko serve for long decades as foreign minister in 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 has 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 had Condoleezza Rice.

But then, the picture is not always rosy when outsiders enter the corridors of diplomacy. When it comes to talking about non-diplomats who have served as diplomats for Bangladesh abroad, a few glaring examples of how spectacularly some of these diplomats failed to live up to expectations will quite naturally come up. Indeed, some extremely intelligent as well as intellectually powerful individuals have in the not-too-distant past 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 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 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.

  • When non-diplomats enrich diplomacy
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 21
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • DhakaCourier

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