Changing diplomacy

Print edition : November 18, 2005

The 21st Century Ambassador: Plenipotentiary to Chief Executive by Kishan S. Rana; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005; pages xxviii + 258, Rs.495.

WHAT is an ambassador? What does he do? Why is he needed? The questions are perennial; answers, however, have varied with time. Ambassador Rana has therefore done well to pose the question at the beginning of a new century, at a time when technology has propelled procedural innovations. He sheds useful light on the debate, bringing to it the insights of both a skilled practitioner and a good teacher. The end product is a very useful volume that should be read both by professional diplomats and by the general public.

The central thesis of the book is that the old-fashioned ambassador has been replaced by the `system engineer', `relationship manager', and `chief executive'. These designations are reflective of the nature of work now being handled by an ambassador, and of the approach needed. One could perhaps quarrel with the last designation since an ambassador as chief executive in country X reports to a chief executive (Foreign Minister) who, in turn, reports to another chief executive (Prime Minister)

Diplomacy was invented when the earliest human societies decided it was better to hear the message than eat the messenger. Over time and in all societies sanctity had been attached to the messenger (ambassador). Kautilya's Arthashastra has a section on envoys. Only persons fit to be counsellors to the king are to be sent as ambassadors. Their duties are defined; these include acquisition of gems and valuable material (read yellow cake and associated technologies). The conduct expected of them is spelt out: he shall not allow honours to go to his head, shall not do anything rash or tolerate disagreeable speech, shall avoid women and liquor, and sleep alone to prevent secrets being revealed while asleep.

Ambassadors, wrote Nizam-ul Mulk in the 11th century, "are generally censorious and always on the lookout to see what faults there are in kingdoms and kingships, and what virtues." They may be sent with a letter or a message "but secretly they have a hundred other points and objects in view".

At the end of the 15th century an ambassador in Italy was required "to do, say, advise, and think whatever may best serve the preservation and aggrandisement of his own state." Practitioners of the craft may find it difficult to disagree; aggrandisement in the 21st century, however, would be read differently.

The outbreak of the First World War propelled many in Europe to disown `Old Diplomacy' for a new one: to have public scrutiny and control, and to have an international organisation for dispute settlement as a deterrent to wars of aggression. By the middle of the 20th century, this option known as `Total Diplomacy' signalled the introduction of new functions that were entrusted to diplomats. At about the same time Winston Churchill introduced the concept of `Summit Diplomacy'. These have now become tools of statecraft.

What then is the perennial and what the transitory in the craft? The functional ability of an ambassador is judged by his ability, firstly, to understand the thought process of the interlocutor, his objectives, strengths and weaknesses and, secondly, to communicate, persuade, negotiate and draft. The complexity of the 21st century agenda does not change this essential requirement. It does, however, demand a wider and different knowledge base since trade and technology take precedence in inter-state relations today.

The style of diplomacy changed when carriages gave way to motorcars, ships to aircraft, handwritten instructions to telegrams and e-mails. Plenipotentiary was an 18th century attribute that added to the stature of the emissary rather than to the substance of his assignment, the latter was incorporated in that period in a Letter of Instructions and today in telegrams. A classic example of instructions is the Aide-Memoire given in January 1905 to Foreign Secretary Louis Dane when he was sent by the Government of India to negotiate a new treaty with Amir Habibullah of Afghanistan.

The `Transformed Plenipotentiary' of today certainly has to be a better manager of the team he leads because the team is more numerous and consists of colleagues with different professional backgrounds. Esprit de corps would thus stand redefined, so would many of the functions relating to trade, investment, technology, arms control, environment and a whole range of new subjects in the bilateral and multilateral baskets. The professional and human qualities required of an ambassador, however, remain, so does the necessity of the post itself, despite direct communications and exercises in summitry.

In contemporary discourse, marketing techniques are often considered substitutes for product quality. Some advocate that this should be the case for diplomacy also. The need for a more professional salesmanship of foreign policy, and for support structures to make this possible, is undisputed; no policy, however, can be marketed unless it is marketable. Mere resort to `transformed strategic communications', as the Americans put it, would not suffice.

Hamid Ansari is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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