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The age of diplomacy

  • Published at 10:47 am December 1st, 2017
The age of diplomacy
The three day first-ever Bangladesh envoy’s conference of 58 ambassadors, high commissioners, and permanent representatives held in Dhaka ended on Tuesday. Other than newspaper reports of the prime minister’s inaugural address at the conference, nothing much else is known about what was discussed at the conference. The conference must have discussed the new challenges faced by the envoys, and resulting responses to improve conditions to help them perform better. It was a sign of wisdom from the foreign office to invite our retired ambassadors to the meeting. Their participation in the deliberations of the conference could have significantly contributed to the success of the conference. I have always felt that we would do well with the rich experience and counsel of our talent pool of retired ambassadors during crisis management and crucial foreign policy decisions. Consultation with retired ambassadors prior to the recent visit of our foreign minister to Myanmar could have reaped enormous benefits for us. Not just glitz and glamour Foreign service is not all about glitz and glamour, attending parties and receptions by diplomats in pin-striped suits and dazzling saris, and drinking champagne -- as is often perceived. It is a lot of serious and hard work. It is about impeccable job performance based on the knowledge of current affairs at home and abroad. It includes daily homework and research to be able to engage effectively in discussions, debates, and negotiations with counterparts and the civil society of host countries. A diplomat must be a highly accomplished person with charm, elegance, and grace to win friends and influence people. An assignment on a multilateral mission in New York or Geneva is a different ball game. It is about interacting and exchange of views with delegates of 193 member countries on a daily basis on a host of international issues of conflict resolution, economic development, climate change, counter terrorism, human rights, and trade and investment, along with 150 other agenda items. Only the best and brightest officers should be posted in multilateral missions, as the job assignment requires serious and scholarly study of a plethora of UN documents, country statements on different issues, participation in different committee debates on various issues, and negotiations for drafting resolutions. The use of “a” and “the” in drafting a resolution makes a big difference in meaning and purpose. Get the right people When I was posted in our UN mission in New York in late 1980s, there were three career foreign service officers with doctorate degrees in the New York mission. Unfortunately, none of the three ambassadors I served during my tenure in the mission were from a career in the foreign service. They, naturally and heavily, depended on the career foreign service officers in the mission. But others can be poor substitutes for an ambassador who is expected to be in circulation among his fellow ambassadors to produce the desired impact or output. Political appointments in bilateral missions are alright, but ambassadorial appointments for multilateral missions deserve serious considerations of exceptional merit and high competence.
Foreign service officers are our flag-bearers abroad; they must keep their heads high with pride, dignity, and honour
A diplomat who represents the country to protect and promote its political and economic interest must have excellent communication skills with wide and varied interests in arts, literature, and sports, apart from one’s specific job assignment -- in order to be able to establish personal contact and rapport with others. Diplomacy through interpersonal relations based on commonality of interest today is more important than sending situation reports, which now have become obsolete and superfluous in the age of email, mobile phones, Facebook, Viber, and YouTube. Back in our time, foreign service officers were mostly recruited from liberal arts disciplines like English literature, economics, political science, and history. But now in the age of science and technology, our foreign service officers mostly come from science and engineering backgrounds. They naturally lack in essential communication skills and a varied interest in humanities studies. The foreign service academy in its training course, perhaps, should concentrate on this very indispensable aspect. Given the talent and proper training, there is every reason to believe that trainees will come out as first class diplomats on par with any other diplomat of the world. Diplomacy now Economic diplomacy is very relevant for us as a developing country. The prime minister, in her address at the envoy’s conference, rightfully emphasised the importance of economic diplomacy when she underscored the need to explore foreign direct investment in our country, and markets for our products. She reminded the ambassadors that a large bulk of expenses of our foreign missions was borne by remittances of our expatriate community and workers, and it was essential to give adequate attention to their needs and sufferings. Our ambassadors, during long spells of foreign posting, may tend to lose touch with stark realities back home, and such envoy’s conference certainly provides an opportunity to refresh their memory about their moral obligation toward the poor and the wretched. Our officers need our support People are often critical about the perks and privileges enjoyed by our foreign service officers. Ironically, first class postings in London, New York, Ottawa, Canberra, and Tokyo provide the worst living standards to our diplomats because of the high cost of living. The foreign, entertainment, and education allowances are woefully inadequate to meet the essential expenses, and are extremely demoralising. The prime minister spoke about a raise in benefits -- but it is not enough. Our foreign service officers have to perform and deliver to the best of their abilities in all conditions, bad or good. Traditionally, since the 1980s, a big chunk of the foreign office budget is spent on VVIP visits with an inordinately large delegation often exceeding 100. Savings of a partial cost of this account would have helped to ameliorate the financial hardships of our foreign service officers, and raise their self-esteem. We need to remember that our foreign service officers live among a community of diplomats of other countries, and have an inferiority complex because of the stark difference in respective living standards. This is bound to influence their performance. Foreign service officers are our flag-bearers abroad, and as the prime minister appropriately pointed out, they must keep their heads high with pride, dignity, and honour about their potential and achievements and not suffer from a mendicant mentality. The days are gone when our diplomats suffered the indignity of carrying a begging bowl to the foreign donors. Abdul Hannan is a columnist and a former diplomat. 
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