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Diplomats in their state of vulnerability

  • Published at 06:02 pm July 10th, 2019

They need to be morally courageous individuals

Diplomats, especially ambassadors, often walk a tightrope. Sometimes they slip and find themselves hanging in the balance, just. What has been happening around Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the US, this past week is a reflection of the difficulties envoys often find themselves in, even in the best of times. 

And with an obviously less than presidential occupant of the White House around in these times, there can hardly be any predicting circumstances that may arise and roil a whole diplomatic scene. Donald Trump, in whom civility and diplomatic finesse have never mattered, has been abusing Darroch in gutter language over the leak of certain comments made by the latter about the ineptitude in office of the former.

Even without those leaks, we know all very well that ambassadors sent by their governments abroad form their own, distinct opinions about the governments to which they present their credentials. Those opinions are kept sealed in their hearts or in the classified documents of the embassies they administer. It is simply unfortunate that Kim Darroch’s comments have been leaked by someone close to him or privy to his reports. The damage has been done.

But there are too the times when ambassadors cause damage to themselves and their countries, leaving everyone red in the face. And this they do when they are driven by the zeal to correct what they see as wrongs being perpetrated in their host countries. Of course, there are loads of governments which do wrong to their people by way of a violation of human rights and a lack of democracy. 

The normal practice for an ambassador, assuming he comes from a country way high up in influence than the nation he is posted to, is to proffer subtle criticism and advice to the host government. Where an ambassador chooses to go public with his sentiments, indeed his criticisms, he undermines himself.

And that is precisely what Craig Murray did when he served as British ambassador to Uzbekistan in the early years of this century. Shocked by the short shrift given to human rights by the entrenched regime of Islam Karimov, Murray went on the warpath, publicly. He was so loud in his condemnation of the regime that he was eventually dismissed by his government. 

It was the end of what initially appeared to be a brilliant career in the making. There is little question that Murray was moved by the repression into which Uzbekistan had been put by its authoritarian rulers. His problem, though, was his inability to bring diplomacy, despite being a diplomat, into the job of persuading the Uzbek regime to scale back on its harsh rule. 

There are those times of disbelief when ambassadors find themselves in a spot, to a point where their careers are put in jeopardy by circumstances. One will not easily forget April Glaspie, the American ambassador to Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Shortly before the Iraqi leader sent his troops into Kuwait, Glaspie met him and gave him to understand that any aggressive acts by Baghdad would be a matter of concern for Washington. 

Unfortunately, her detractors back home painted her in dark terms, conveying the impression that her dialogue with Saddam was of a kind which encouraged him into believing that the administration of President George HW Bush would look away if he acted against Kuwait. It was not the truth, but for years thereafter, Glaspie remained the butt of criticism.

Ambassadors are vulnerable at important points in their careers. Glaspie remains a fine though uncomfortable instance of this reality. Archer Blood was not an ambassador, but the US consul general in East Pakistan in 1971 when the Yahya Khan regime’s military action led to the Bengali guerrilla movement for Bangladesh’s independence. 

He repeatedly conveyed his concerns over the excesses committed by the Pakistan army to his superiors in the State Department in Washington, but his worries were dismissed out of hand by the Nixon administration. Henry Kissinger, then serving as national security advisor and perhaps already planning his clandestine July trip to China by way of Pakistan, was clearly irritated by Blood’s cables. In the end, Blood was unable to rise any higher in his career. Conditions that would lead to his exit from the Foreign Service were created by Kissinger and his cohorts. Blood never became an ambassador.

Sujatha Singh, a professionally competent Indian serving as her country’s foreign secretary when the Modi government took office in 2014, surprisingly did not earn the confidence of the new prime minister, and blame for the gap between Modi and Singh goes to the former. He sought to replace her, and did replace her with his ambassador to Washington. 

Singh did the honourable thing: She resigned and went into retirement. Her story was a reminder of the way Rajiv Gandhi treated AP Venkateswaran, the foreign secretary in his time as prime minister. Venkateswaran had let it be known that Gandhi would be visiting the capitals of SAARC nations. Later at a press conference, the prime minister stated unambiguously that he had no plans to do so. When a newsman pointed to the discrepancy between his statement and that of the foreign secretary, the Indian prime minister stated brusquely: “You will be talking to a new foreign secretary soon.” A man of great dignity, Venkateswaran chose the option of resigning before he could be dismissed or given another position.

There are diplomats who defend their countries in foreign capitals and soon find themselves asked to explain their positions by host governments. A few days ago, concerned at the British government’s stance on the anti-administration protests by young people in Hong Kong, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador in the UK, condemned what he saw as London’s interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. 

He was promptly summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London to explain himself. Summonses served on diplomats by host governments are hardly anything to be cheerful about. And there are the stories of ambassadors earning the displeasure of host governments and so ignored at the time of their departure. Dan Mozena, US ambassador in Bangladesh not many years ago, is a case in point.

There are ambassadors not unwilling to demonstrate their intellectual superiority and hubris abroad. India’s VK Krishna Menon irritated the British and annoyed the Americans and even Jawaharlal Nehru. Abrasive as ever, he conducted diplomacy on his own terms. 

Diplomats need to be morally courageous individuals. In 1971, Iqbal Athar, a proper Pakistani diplomat, felt revulsion at the criminality of his country’s soldiers in East Pakistan. He switched allegiance to Bangladesh and despite being a non-Bengali, served the new nation as its ambassador abroad. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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