Thursday, 4 March, 2021

Place Of Experience In Diplomacy

Mukunda Kattel


When I picked ‘Nepal’s Diplomatic Practices: Experiences of Diplomats’ from a book stall, I was not sure the book was what it is. Its editor, Bishnu Rijal, a Central Committee Member of Nepal Communist Party (NCP), not only humbled me but also proved my hesitation wrong.
With the collection of experiences of 20 former ambassadors, who are now in their late seventies and early eighties, the book presents a unique repository of autobiographical recollections of those who have had the privilege of representing Nepal in different countries, regionally and globally, and in different times, including the transition from authoritarianism to a democratic polity. These are personal stories that are rarely discussed in public, hardly processed as a knowledge product and rarely documented in a book of the kind Rijal has edited. I found it to be the Nepali equivalent of the highly acclaimed collection of Indian ambassadors: ‘The Ambassadors’ Club,’ edited by KV Rajan.
“An experience of a diplomat is not just personal,” writes Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali in his introductory essay. “It is an institutional memory that adds to the diplomatic height and maturity of our nation.” Seen in this light, the collection is the reflection of Nepal’s global and regional diplomacy over the last 50 years, which every layperson, like me, finds terrifically illuminating. According to Tribhuvan University’s International Relations and Diplomacy Professor Khadga KC, “the experience of the senior diplomats – some of whom are a role model of this discipline – is a unique resource-treasure for students of international relations and diplomacy.” However, I do not think the book has got the traction it deserves. Published over a year now, I have not found a serious review of it. Neither have I come across any debate on it. Is it because diplomacy is not a subject of academic introspection? Or is it because serious people do not take diplomacy seriously?

The collection does not follow any specific order of presentation. Individual stories flow in a conversational mode devoid of any thematic constraint. However, certain perspectives and messages cut across all stories, clearly articulated in some, tacitly understood in others. One of the central themes is the insistence that Nepal should have domestic uniformity in terms of its foreign policy. On domestic issues, parties, governments and other stakeholders may have differences. This cannot be the case in terms of foreign policy concerns and priorities.
The effect of policy paralysis can be felt in almost all recollections of the ambassadors who have served after the political change of the 1990s. And this has been quite costly. ambassador Rajeshwar Acharya’s account suggests that he had laid the entire groundwork for a trade and transit agreement with China as far back as in 2000. But it became hostage to the lack of policy clarity and political instability back home. “Had we been able to formalise the treaty then, we would not have suffered the Indian blockade in 2015/2016,” recalls ambassador Acharya. “I wrote to the (ministry), called them, lobbied them. Nothing moved.”
Ambassador Indra Bahadur Singh also has a similar experience. “If we had accepted the French proposal, Bhairahawa Airport would have been up and running 15 years ago.” Neither the concerned minister nor the Nepal Airlines paid any heed to a French proposal to invest in airport and hotel infrastructure in the Lumbini area, which ambassador Singh had pushed for in 2002. Ambassador Pushkarman Singh Rajbhandari also has the experience of the foreign ministry being non-responsive to his proposal on the export of medicines and tea to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other ambassadors also recollect one or the other of policy inconsistencies, which did not enable them to serve the country as best as they could.
As Foreign Minister Gyawali has assured in his introductory essay, “with the political stability that Nepal has achieved after a long transition, Nepal has also entered the stage of policy stability.” I hope this assurance will be institutionalised under his able leadership to insulate future ambassadors from the indecisiveness their predecessors experienced on some crucial issues of diplomatic priority.
With experience comes acumen. If it were not the case, newly anointed ambassadors would not rush to Professor Yadu Nath Khanal, the guru of Nepal’s foreign policy, to collect a word of advice. “You have three bosses now,” said Professor Khanal to ambassador Kedar Bhakta Mathema: “Your own government, the host government and the people of Nepal. Any decision you will take should be carefully weighed against its impact on the people of Nepal.” These words became a guide to ambassador Mathema’s diplomatic career.
Ambassador Dr. Bhesh Bahadur Thapa recollects an anecdote that evolved into a diplomatic turning point. In a television show, which ambassador Thapa’s wife was watching, US President Ronald Regan’s personal secretary casually expresses her wish to climb Nepal’s mountains if an opportunity was available. Ambassador Thapa’s wife took note of it and wrote to the lady offering the Ambassador’s assistance. Communications and meetings that followed evolved into a state visit of King Birendra to the United States in which the late King persuaded President Ronald Reagan to support the proposal to make Nepal a Zone of Peace.
Ambassador Thapa’s recollection of the architecture of Indian foreign policy is also instructive. Critical of one-on-one or personalised political meetings, which have been characteristic of Nepal’s diplomatic dealing with India since the 1950s, ambassador Thapa reminds “whisper-diplomacy does not work in India. Whatever is discussed at a diplomatic level goes into an official archive.” What about the records of personal meetings our leaders have had over the years?

Some ambassadors have been more categorical about our diplomatic practices that need improvement. Professor Dr Mohan Lohani is uncomfortable with “irrelevant people being included in the missions of presidents and prime ministers.” Almost a quarter of the ambassadors underscore that meritocracy should be the criteria for diplomatic assignments. A few ambassadors find the flurry of guests distracting and burdensome to the work of their embassies. Each of the stories has a message of one kind or the other.
‘Nepal’s Diplomatic Practices’ is, above all, a true dossier of how best our ambassadors dealt with “several, and at times conflicting, loyalties,” to borrow from British diplomat Harold Nicolson. It is for the readers to judge and get inspirations from.

(Kattel, a human rights professional, writes on political and social issues.) 

How do you feel after reading this news?