Friday, 17 September, 2021

In Search Of Ambassadorship

P Kharel 

Days after the change in government, the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led cabinet recalled nine Nepali ambassadors who had obtained the positions by virtue of a controversial ordinance a few weeks earlier. No tears for the affected. How to wangle an ambassadorship? There is no sure-shot step to vault and succeed whatever one’s credentials. In Nepal, an overly much is made of the job. How the appointment is made will be read with great amazement by the future generations.
Back in the early 1980, when I briefly looked after the Features and Editorial section of this daily, there was this general manager at the Balaju Industrial Estate. King Birendra’s first pick of papers for his morning read was reported to be The Rising Nepal. So the few who could scribe in English trooped to TRN office for submitting their contributions, apparently in the hope of drawing the notice of the monarch and also other political bigwigs.
In the 1990s, there was a particular diplomat-hopeful who had submitted an article to the country’s first and largest circulating English daily. Shyam KC, the editor-in-chief, had received it with a “please have a look”. Rarely did the chief editor go through an article at the first stage. Generally, an article was selected and edited before being submitted to him or the deputy editor-in-chief for the final reading.

Mangled mentality
Some days later, the contributor phoned me and asked what had happened to his article handed over to KC. I said I had not seen it but would check it with the others in the team. To which the diplomat-aspirant muttered in rancour, “Then I, too, know how to pull strings to have it published.” When I talked to KC, he said he was aware of it but was not “too keen” to publish it before giving a reluctant go-ahead but not without the instruction to “edit it properly”.
Lo and behold, that opinion piece did the trick. With the right patron in the right place, much can be achieved with baffling speed. Otherwise, I, too, could perhaps have made it, what with having written more than 3,300 articles in more than a dozen media outlets, national and foreign, in the last 45 years.
A few years later, an acquaintance gave me his first and only phone call when I held TRN’s editor-in-chief’s chair in the mid-1990s. When wanted to meet at my home that very morning, I told him we could meet at my office at 11 am. But he insisted that we meet at 9 am at my place. Having known him for some two decades, I agreed. He wanted an article to be published, as the foreign minister had “advised” him to get an article published in TRN to boost his credentials.
Two days later, the opinion piece was published after heavy editing. A few weeks later, he was appointed Nepal’s ambassador to a major overseas donor country. That his stint was brief because of the snap change in government is another story. But that was enough to be addressed as an expert on foreign affairs.
In the new millennium, too, variants of such routes are known to have been taken. Age, experience, academic credentials and a PhD in any area from any university are touted as the criteria for important appointments. Often, completion of any of the required qualifications would put a candidate at the forefront. Age could mean someone mature to underscore automatic experience, while relative youth could be interpreted as infusion of new blood for understanding contemporary needs with dynamic energy. If blessed, a university professor would fulfil the scholarly credentials. Then there is this over-emphasis on a PhD, as if it is the testimony of an individual’s ultimate brilliance.
Some among the ambitious lot suddenly develop a taste for producing newspaper articles on foreign affairs. They venture into English, lest their spawning patrons believe that the hopeful wards might not be good in Nepal’s core lingua franca in international communication. The basic bench mark for an academic, research scholar or general intellectual is his or her written output, especially in journal articles, and/or books of substance.
A particular lot refrain from making specific comments on key issues affecting relations with big neighbours and other major powers. Public comments without specific records on the country’s key issues, they believe, could dim, if not ruin, their prospects for the diplomatic appointments. The Nepal-India 1951 treaty and other issues persisting since long are skirted as far as the question of specifics is concerned. In short, diplomacy begins at home with fellow nationals, often better than with foreign nationals and foreign governments.

Language of diplomacy
Effort should be to maintain discreet distance and succinct rapport when dealing with especially major powers and immediate neighbours. Landlocked countries have to take special care to be on the right course based on also consistency. The need is to pursue approaches that in the long run should prove a boon. For last minute initiative more often than fights a losing battle, unless the other side is conceded undue concessions.
Rich nations with military powers brandish their strength in intimidating the lesser powers, and throwing to the winds those empty rhetoric they mince so loudly at various international forums. When the test arrives, blatant expediency or gross opportunism is invoked. There is no hard and fast rule for categorising diplomacy and diplomats. Among those seen in practice include freelance diplomacy, political party diplomacy, I/NGO diplomacy, economic diplomacy and a host of others.
The ground reality of an ambassadorial assignment is much more than the sense of self-prestige the job might give the appointee. Specialisation in a specific field, with relevance to the country represented, is a big asset. On the whole, however, an ambassador is a generalist, with a broad knowledge of bilateral relations against the background of regional and global affairs relevant to his/her government. Diplomats are not determined by their strength to serve as doormats of those nominating them. Nor do they exceed their official brief when being proactive in undertaking the job with all seriousness of purpose.

(Former chief editor of The Rising Nepal, P. Kharel has been writing for this daily since 1973)