Sree Chithira Thirunal Memorial Lecture
Following is the text of the Sree Chithiira Thirunal Memorial Lecture 2004, which I delivered in Thiruvananthapuram last evening. The topic was: "Diplomacy--Charms and Challenges"
Distinguished Guests and Friends,
I have constantly carried two images of His Highness Sree Chithira Thirunal Maharaja in my mind. One of them is the image I have been seeing in pictures in schools and office buildings right from my childhood, with the paraphernalia of high office, the diamond studded crown, the dignified and authoritative demeanor and the regal attire. The other is of the person, who graciously received me in the Kaudiar Palace in later years, a fragile frame, a picture of simplicity and humility. In either image, he was every inch a king. If it was the grandeur of authority in one, it was the majesty of human warmth in the other. He was also a perfect diplomat, who maintained his integrity and equanimity in the face of revolutionary changes. In fact, he was very much a catalyst of the social revolution in the land of Sree Padmanabha, the hearts of whose people he still rules
Mahatma Gandhi said that it was His Highness, who became a Mahatma in reality by “breaking the age old custom and throwing open the doors of the temples to our brothers and sisters, whom the hateful tradition considered as untouchables”. I feel humbled to be invited to commemorate such a personality with a lecture in his honor, following a galaxy of achievers, who have delivered this lecture in the previous years. His memory is so consecrated in the hearts of his people that no words can add to or detract from it. I am grateful to the royal family, with which I have links with three generations, and the Sree Chithira Thirunal Smaraka Samithy for bestowing this honor on me.
To be back in Thiruvananthapuram, to be back in Kanakakkunnu Palace is to be back where my fond memories were made. This is the city that welcomed me as an outsider in 1959, nursed me into adulthood and equipped me for a career that took me to many countries and continents to represent a great civilization and a modern nation of a billion people. It is in this very magnificent hall that I took my marriage vows to embark on what turned out to be an enriching and rewarding journey. To be invited back here to share my experience of a lifetime of diplomacy is the ultimate recognition and reward.
The topic, ‘Diplomacy: Charms and Challenges’ arose from an exchange of e-mails with a member of the royal family, Shri. C.R.R.Varma. Having visited me in most of the countries I have served, he observed that it appeared to him that I was enjoying every minute of my profession, which involved only things I liked to do most, like reading, writing, meeting people, playing golf and attending parties. “Where is the sweat in diplomacy? he asked. Since he is not the only one to wonder thus, I chose to speak on the diplomatic profession in all its diversity and variety. I do not deny that I enjoyed its charms. But I would like it to be recognized that it has many challenges, even serious hazards. There is not only sweat in diplomacy; there is even blood as my own experience will show. I would also like to show how diplomacy influences public policy, what tools diplomats use in their profession and how diplomacy has changed over the years.
Like other professions, no single definition can capture the many facets of diplomacy. No single experience can reflect its many dimensions. I am sure that you have heard the well-known definitions of diplomacy and diplomats. “A diplomat is an honest gentleman, who lies abroad for his country.” “If a diplomat asks you to go to hell, he will say it in such a way that you look forward to the trip.” “If a lady says ‘no’, she means ‘may be’, if she says ‘may be’, she means ‘yes’, if she says ‘yes’, she is no lady. If a diplomat says ’yes’, he means ‘may be’, if he says ‘may be’, he means ‘no’, if he says ‘no’, he is no diplomat.” When I joined the Service in 1967, I was told that Indian diplomacy was fifty percent protocol, thirty percent alcohol and twenty percent T.N.Kaul (the then Foreign Secretary). Most definitions strengthen the popular perception that diplomacy is some kind of linguistic deception at worst and artful dishonesty at best. My father, who was instrumental in my choosing a diplomatic career, called me a ‘diplomat’ when he felt that I was less than honest or less than forthright with him. The popular image of a diplomat is still that of a man in sartorial splendor, who frequents cocktail circuits and engages in conversations, but says nothing.
In actual fact, diplomacy is the technical instrument for conducting business between states by peaceful means. Intelligence, tact, patience and judgment are essential tools for diplomacy. Communication skills are of paramount importance, but diplomacy is not made of words alone. A diplomat, posted abroad, finds out what his country requires from his host country by way of information and material, sifts and collates the information received, determines the options available to his Government to secure what it needs and once the Government’s decision is known, uses his skills to secure it on the best possible terms. In the process, he has to project his country in the best possible light, fighting all the way with the media that provides images that may not always be palatable. What he secures may be modern technology, an industrial product, a traditional craft or simply a great idea. In certain cases, it may even be a strategic piece of land. Failure of diplomacy can lead to espionage, coercion or even use of force. War is, after all, diplomacy by other means. The humanity, therefore, has a great stake in the success of diplomacy.
The charm of diplomacy as a profession is on account of the honour involved in representing a nation in another country or a global forum. Living in world capitals itself is a privilege. To drive past the imperial palace in Tokyo, the Kremlin in Moscow, the White House in Washington and the Empire State building in New York for work every day for years, as I have done, has an excitement of its own. When people from all over the world squander their life savings to spend a few days in these cities, diplomats are paid to live there. To be able to speak for the country in the UN chambers in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi is truly an enriching experience. Diplomatic successes are not always measurable or tangible, but there is a sense of victory every time the Indian point of view is accepted by the international community or when an anti-Indian move is thwarted. Instances of Indian successes in international diplomacy are many, particularly at the United Nations. Some years ago, an independent survey placed the Indian diplomats just after those of the five permanent members of the Security Council in terms of influence and effectiveness.
Multilateral diplomacy, whether at the universal level at the United Nations or the regional level, has its own charms and challenges. It is only at the UN that the strengths and weaknesses of individual countries and the power equations of the world can be witnessed. The permanent members stand apart on account of their power of the veto. Their effectiveness has increased after the end of the cold war, as they are able, except in cases like the present Iraq war, to work together. But while they have the ability to veto an action, the rule that any action has to be supported by nine positive votes in the Security Council gives even the non-permanent members a voice in decision making. There are ways and means even for the non-members of the Security Council to influence the decisions of the body charged with the protection and promotion of international peace and security. India has not been a member of the Security Council since 1992, but it has succeeded, among other things, to keep the Kashmir question out of it despite efforts by Pakistan to rake up the issue. Indian diplomacy achieved another spectacular success by containing the fallout of our nuclear tests of 1998. India is not yet recognized as a nuclear weapon state, but the world has learnt to live with India’s possession of nuclear weapons and does not lose its sleep over our capability.
The challenge, however, is to bridge the gap between the popular perception of our importance and the reality of the world situation. To us, it is totally illogical that India, with a population of one billion, a civilization in its own right and totally committed to the UN, is not yet a permanent member of the Security Council. But the rest of the world has many other considerations in reforming the Security Council. Pandit Nehru had declined an offer in the fifties for India to take China’s place in the Security Council, as he felt that India should take its turn in due time. But in today’s global scenario, Indian aspirations in this regard remain unfulfilled. The unwillingness of the permanent members to share their privileges with others, the competing claims of other countries and our nuclear status are major hurdles. With the weakening of the Nonaligned Movement, India does not have a solid constituency of its own and we have to forge partnerships with different countries and groups of countries, based on the issues at hand. In this situation, Indian diplomats have to work even harder to attain their objectives in the United Nations.
The United Nations is neither a world parliament, nor a debating society. Delegations go there with specific instructions, forged by their Governments. When we lobby hard with delegations, some of them actually say, “You may be able to change my mind, but you cannot change my instructions.” But in actual fact, there is much that individuals can do to be friendly or unfriendly, even within their instructions. There are various ways in which delegations express their views in the event of a vote. They either vote positive or negative or abstain. But they can also “not participate” or be absent to take nuanced positions for one reason or another. In the early years of its membership of the UN, the People’s Republic of China had developed non-participation in votes as a policy position. According to one story, a Chinese diplomat happened to be absent when a particular vote was taken. When he returned to find that the vote was over, he took the floor and stated, “Mr. Chairman, I was absent at the time the vote was taken. I would like it to be recorded that if I was present, I would not have participated in the vote”, underlining the distinction between non-participation and absence.
Recently, I had the experience of a friendly voting gesture from the Republic ofSlovenia to which I was accredited as Ambassador from Vienna. In the last General Assembly session, a resolution on self-determination, traditionally adopted by consensus, came up for a vote at our request as the Pakistan Ambassador claimed that support for the resolution amounted to supporting Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Since the resolution itself did not mention Kashmir and in the earlier years, we had not asked for a vote, many delegations had no instructions and, in the ensuing confusion, many abstained on it. Most countries do not want to take a position when India and Pakistanclash at the United Nations. The Slovene Ambassador also abstained in the relevant Committee, which made our delegation happy; as that was what we had requested friendly countries to do since the resolution itself was not anti-Indian. But when the matter was reported to the Slovene capital, Ljubljana, the Government felt thatSlovenia should change its vote to positive in the General Assembly, as Slovenia was a great champion of self-determination. When this came to be known in New York, I received instructions to ensure that Slovenia did not change its vote. I went up the ladder in the Slovene bureaucracy to find that a final decision had been taken to change the vote to positive, with the approval of the Foreign Minister. Foreign Minister Rupel, whom I knew well, initially stuck to his position, but when it became clear that it was a test of our friendship, he told me that he would do his best without revealing what Slovenia would do. On the appointed day, when the resolution came to a vote in the General Assembly, the Slovene Ambassador went out for a walk, leaving his seat vacant. Foreign Minister Rupel was received with special warmth when he went toIndia later on account of this gesture of friendship to India. We understood well his compulsion not to appear to be opposed to the principle of self-determination. Being absent was the only option he had to show sensitivity to India’s concerns.
Diplomacy is not just about doing business with Governments; it is also about winning friends and influencing people. Common pursuits outside the professional sphere help to create bonds that eventually benefit work. Bridge and golf groups, theatre and music circles and others have been of immense value to cultivate people. Even the much maligned diplomatic cocktail circuits are important in the diplomatic world as food and drinks provide lubricants for conversations. One ready made constituency diplomats can use consists of compatriots settled abroad either as expatriates or local citizens.
In countries where there are large communities of Indian origin, Indian diplomacy has special charms and challenges. In recent years, India and her children abroad have rediscovered each other. On the one hand, India has begun to rely on the Indian communities in industrialized countries for technology and investment and on the other, the communities abroad have realized that they need an Indian safety net in the event of unforeseen events in their countries of adoption like it happened in Burma, Ugandaand Fiji. The PIO card and dual citizenship have been accepted in response to these new phenomena. Indian diplomats enjoy special privileges in countries, where there are large Indian communities. In Fiji, for instance, the Indian High Commissioner was treated on par with the Prime Minister as half the population was of Indian origin. Even in the United States, the increase in the stature and profile of the Indian community has enhanced the prestige of the Indian Ambassador. But our diplomats are caught between the high expectations in India and among the overseas Indians about what each can do for the other. The sensitivity of the host country is another important factor, which inhibits freedom of action for both.
In Fiji, I remember how the Indians there had unrealistic expectations about Indian intervention when, following a military coup, they were virtually disenfranchised. Our limited intervention in terms of trade sanctions and moral support had some impact, but it led to charges of interference in internal affairs. The military Government overlooked our non-recognition of its authority for two years, but when the pressure mounted, it gave me exactly seventy-two hours to leave. I left in forty-eight, expressing the hope that I could return to Fiji for a holiday for twenty-four hours some day. Mercifully, my wife was permitted to stay on as long as she wished. But having packed a suitcase each time the Prime Minister spoke in Parliament on the Fiji situation or I made a speech to the Indian community in Fiji, she did not have to stay long to pack our belongings.
In Kenya, the so-called Asian community had a commanding position in commercial and economic activities, but its relative prosperity made it vulnerable to accusations of corruption and other evil deeds. They also came to be associated too closely with those in power. This sure recipe for hatred took the form of prejudices even about the Indian High Commission. The prevalent atmosphere of crime provided the cover for a politically motivated armed attack on my wife and myself, which left us with some broken bones. I myself played down the political significance of the incident to take the sting out of it and not to cause panic in the Asian community. Still, the incident had a profound impact on the migrant community in Kenya.
It is in the United States that the powerful Indian community has been making a significant contribution to Indian diplomacy. The India Caucus in the US House of Representatives, which has more than 115 members and the Friends of India in the US Senate, which was formed recently, owe their origins largely to Indian American activism. No other country has been able to have such recognizable lobbies in the US Congress. More and more Indian Americans have become active in the electoral politics of the United States. Although many of them wish to remain distant from Indian positions as such, their agenda, like India’s, is fostering of mutually beneficial relations between the two countries. Indian American support for India is neither automatic, nor uniform. They were totally opposed to the Emergency in 1975, but they were solidly supportive of the nuclear tests in 1998. They were critical of the Government when reports of harassments of Christians reached the United States in 1999. They were quite prepared to energize friendly U.S. Congressmen and Senators to take up the issue with India at a time when we were still dealing with the aftermath of our nuclear tests. Winning Indian American support on different issues is a challenge to Indian diplomacy in the United States, but once they are convinced of the merit of an issue, they are able to influence US policy in India’s favour.
Diplomatic practices have changed over the years, but principles have remained constant. Resident missions are a modern phenomenon. In the ancient days, diplomats were dispatched on special missions to uncharted courses, with no guarantee of successful return, with nothing but a general brief about the objectives. They negotiated alliances, treaties, and agreements and threatened use of force on behalf of their nations. They were true Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, a title that Ambassadors still use more in form than in substance. They were left to their own devices to accomplish their missions and there were cases of some of them perishing either on the high seas or on enemy territory. According to one legend, a cannibal king told an Ambassador that his predecessor was delicious!
Diplomacy is no less hazardous today. Even before terrorism began to threaten Governments and their representatives world wide, diplomats were targeted by disgruntled elements, criminals and crazy people. More than forty years ago, an eminent diplomat from Kerala, Shankar Pillai was shot dead by a mad man who was denied a visa by our High Commission in Ottawa. Many diplomats around the globe have been victims of attacks, motivated by real and imaginary grievances against their Governments. The charm of representing a nation inevitably carries with it the challenge of coping with threats to physical security. The messenger being held responsible for the message is not new. In the ‘Mahabharata’, Kauravas order the detention of Krishna for the message he brought from the Pandavas and in the ‘Ramayana’, Ravana tries to humiliate Hanuman, who went to Lanka to negotiate the release of Sita.
The skills that are required of diplomats vary from place to place. Knowledge of foreign languages is an obvious advantage, but the exigencies of service land our best Chinese experts in Brazil or Japanese experts in Bhutan. Some of us never got posted back to the countries where we went to learn the language. In any event, swift movement of diplomats from country to country is not particularly conducive to mastering any language. Some acquaintance of languages with the ability to exchange pleasantries can be useful, but use of inaccurate language can lead not only to misunderstanding, but also embarrassment. A little knowledge of a foreign language is indeed a dangerous thing. I recall how a Soviet Admiral said to an audience of Indian Naval officers how happy he was that India always sent the cream of the Indian defense forces to the Soviet Union for training and expressed the hope that this practice would continue in the future also. An Indian Naval officer, who prided himself in his knowledge of the Russian language, interpreted his words thus: “I am glad thatIndia exports good cream to the Soviet Union. I hope that you will send us better cream at least in the future.” No wonder that many seasoned diplomats prefer to speak in their native language even if they know the language of his interlocutor reasonably well. Needless to say, it is not only foreign languages that cause embarrassing moments, but also nuances in our own first language. There is a story about a Party functionary in the old Soviet Union, who got jailed because of “terminological inexactitude.” When he was asked why he missed the last Party meeting, he said in all innocence: “Oh, was it really the last Party meeting? If I knew that, I would certainly have come.”
Language is not the only challenge that diplomats face in foreign lands. Mastering local customs and social graces to get accepted in different cultures can be even more demanding. Drinking the brew served at a tea ceremony in Japan, sipping tea with yak butter in Bhutan or gulping down kava, the bitter national drink of Fiji, with a straight face is no easy task. To compliment the hosts on the aroma and taste of these national delicacies is the real test of diplomacy. Being received in Papua New Guinea by men charging with spears and retreating at the last minute can be unnerving. They do that in memory of the old tribal custom of treating every outsider as an enemy till he is proved otherwise. In Solomon Islands, the High Commissioner, on his first arrival, has to kill a huge pig with one hit at its head with a club and accept the carcass as a gift. I spent a couple of hours wondering how I would carry a dead pig in my baggage, but I was relieved to learn that it was served as lunch to the assembled guests in my name. I also learnt that my “spokesman” had already acknowledged the compliments paid to me on the quality of the pork served.
No diplomat can be effective in Austria if he does not understand wines or cannot fathom the intricacies of the music of Mozart or Beethoven. The only way to secure access to people in power in Burma or the South Pacific is by spending long hours on the golf course. Culinary habits differ not only from country to country, but also from region to region. Imagine the challenges of a foreign diplomat in India coping with Indian languages, Indian cooking styles and social customs from Kashmir to Kanyakumari! There is a story of a Head of State, who came to India and returned to his country with a bindi on his forehead, thinking that Indian women were brilliant as they had “something up there”, that he did not have.
Speaking of the possible bewilderment of foreign diplomats over the diversity in India, the challenge of reporting events and opinions from foreign countries comes to mind. With the availability of tons of news and views in English alone, not to speak of regional languages, it must be difficult to separate the grain from the chaff. I have been fortunate enough to serve in “two-newspaper countries” such as the Soviet Union andBurma. In both these countries, it was sufficient to read one newspaper to know the official view as well as what passes off as public opinion. In Burma, even the choice between two newspapers was illusory as the two had identical content. Conversations with officials did not reveal any different perspective. On the other hand, in countries with vibrant media and open intellectual debates, diplomats have the additional challenge of analyzing the massive amount of material to sense the pulse of the people. Diplomats are generally cautious about making predictions, but many diplomats in India must have predicted victory for the NDA Government in the last elections inIndia, on the strength of the media projections and astrological predictions. In theUnited States, it is an impossible task even to follow just the writings on India in the media, not to speak of the internal debate on domestic and foreign policies. In addition, there are the think tanks, the Universities and others who provide in-depth analyses of events on a continuing basis. The advent of the Internet has made this material available at home simultaneously and it is quite possible that the headquarters may be better informed than the diplomats on some of the events abroad.
The information revolution has indeed altered the nature of diplomacy beyond recognition. The days of diplomatic representatives acting on their own are long gone. The only occasion on which I had to act without instructions on an important issue was when Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, my one-time golf partner, carried out a military coup inFiji, declared himself Head of State and invited me to meet him, with other Ambassadors, to listen to his case. I had no way of consulting New Delhi as he had cut overseas communications before he marched into the Fijian Parliament to take the entire treasury bench to prison. I was in a dilemma as the envoys of Australia andNew Zealand, which had alternative communication channels, were instructed not to attend. I decided to go, particularly to voice my concern about the lives and property of the people of Indian origin, against whom the coup was aimed. Fortunately, New Delhi saw the wisdom of my decision as it gave us a central role in later events. On all other important occasions, I had clear instructions from home even when there was very little notice.
Today, Heads of State and Government meet more often than before and they actually discuss business as against rubber-stamping agreements worked out by diplomats. Foreign Ministers talk to each other at the drop of a hat and Ambassadors get to know the outcome only subsequently. But even the information revolution has not rendered diplomacy redundant. There are many issues in bilateral and multilateral spheres that do not need to come to the attention of policy makers at home. Personal diplomacy still plays a role in explaining positions and implementing agreements. The consular problems around the globe are complex and it is only the resident diplomats, who can deal with issues such as illegal immigration, visas and passports. Diplomats have, of late, turned their attention to trade and economic matters to make up for lost political leverage. Then there is the need for public relations and personal conversations to focus attention on relevant facts and figures. For instance, even area experts and intellectuals are often surprised to learn in personal conversations that India has the second largest Moslem population in the world. It is not enough that statistics are available for reference; it is necessary to highlight them to drive home a particular point. Diplomacy as an art is, therefore, not likely to diminish in importance or die.
Pandit Nehru said in Parliament once that in the Indian Foreign Service, the Government gets two people to work on one salary. The spouses play an important role in diplomacy, not just as hostesses and “glorified cooks” as some of them characterize themselves, but as visible symbols of their nation. Many wives have sacrificed their professional careers to cope with their diplomatic responsibilities. In the old days, lady officers had to leave the Service if they got married, but now Foreign Service couples are posted together to the extent possible.. The spouses have to remain intellectually alive and knowledgeable in order to be able to have intelligent conversations and to correct impressions about their culture. This was part of the reason for the Government to discourage Foreign Service officers from marrying foreigners. The recent liberalization of this policy has only enriched the corps of Foreign Service wives. Diplomatic life plays havoc with family life and education of children, but many wives, like mine, have seen life abroad as an opportunity to develop their talents, to acquire new skills and to give their children the best possible education. Considering the stress and strains of their lives, it is truly creditable that there are many success stories of spouses as professionals, musicians, dances, painters and writers.
Diplomacy demands strength of character and physical stamina like very few other professions do. An immense culture shock every three years, the need to be an instant expert on current affairs and local customs in new locations, the very pressure of locating schools, doctors and dentists frequently and the simple physical labour of moving belongings from place to place take a toll on diplomats and their families. Once I met an American tourist at a swimming pool in the salubrious weather of Addis Ababa, who told me that he was taking a holiday to relieve himself of the stress of having moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan after twenty years. By that standard, I shall have to spend the rest of my life near a swimming pool to relieve the stress of thirty-seven years. But I would rather spend my energies spreading the gospel of diplomacy and urging younger people to brave the challenges of a diplomatic career to enjoy its many charms. If this lecture in the memory of His Highness Sree Chithira Thirunal Maharaja enthuses someone to take the plunge into diplomacy, one of the purposes of this lecture will be fulfilled. His Highness fashioned his educational policy to inspire the younger generations to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield. His noble soul will be glad to see his vision come to fruition.
Former Ambassador of India to the United Nations,Vienna,
Former Governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency,Vienna.