Diplomacy, a must for a win-win battle

Prof. W M Karunadasa

This is the time for Sri Lankans, both here and abroad, to think of diplomacy, diplomats and their role.
I personally feel that Sri Lanka, subsequent to the elimination of the LTTE terrorism, has reached a crucial point in diplomacy with the release of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ report on war crimes. One may take this situation as resulting from an international conspiracy and engage in protests on their own rights while others may silently observe the situation and draw their own inferences.

Whatever the opinion one holds it is important to bear in mind that neither a member of the Security Council nor a member of the UN General Assembly has made any official pronouncement or protest over UNSG’s report prior or subsequent to its issue. However, the report has made Sri Lankans somewhat uneasy and uncomfortable. Yet the reality is the report is a challenge and the State has to face it.

My objective in this article is to educate the public on diplomacy and diplomats. Before defining these two terms, it is not out of place to emphasize the fact that ‘diplomacy’ is the most important and most influential among the five major instruments in the conduct of international relations. Its history goes back to pre-Christian era and it evolved throughout many centuries. The climax, in my opinion, was the establishment of the United Nations at the end of World War II. It was diplomacy that brought this mega organization which is solely responsible for the maintenance of world peace while safeguarding the best interests of mankind. I deliberately focus on this point for the readers to get fresh insights about our dealings with the UN in the present context.

Diplomacy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the management of international relations by negotiations – the method by which these relations are adjusted and managed by ambassadors and envoys. Defining the same term, the Cambridge Advanced Dictionary says, “Diplomacy means the (1) management of relations between countries, (2) approving skills in dealing with the people without offending or upsetting them.” In essence, diplomacy means tactfulness, prudence, politeness, artfulness, cleverness, cunning, skill and not hurting the feeling of others.

A diplomat is an official whose job is to represent one’s country in another’s and who usually works in an embassy. Further, a diplomat is defined as a person who is skilled in dealing with difficult situations in a way that does not offend people. These definitions are found in the Cambridge Dictionary.

The role of the diplomat is the next important area. Given its broader spectrum, only the vital facts in summary form are presented here while highlighting the essential ingredients. The role of a diplomat is basically to conduct international relations through the intercession of professional diplomats with regard to issues such as war, peacemaking, economics, trade culture, environment, human rights etc.
International conventions such as the Congress of 1815, Aix-la-chapelle 1818 and the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations (1961) categorized diplomats under three classes – ambassadors, ministers or envoys and charges d’ affaires.

These treaties grant diplomatic sanctity or immunities for diplomats, enabling them to play their roles in the host country in promoting the national interests of their mother countries with complete freedom from litigation in the host country. International civil servants, a new type of diplomats, working in the UN also enjoy the same privileges in safeguarding the interests of the United Nations. They are not supposed to accept instructions from any government or any other organisation. (But in practice, major powers manipulate international civil servants behind the scene.)

Diplomatic machinery is, essentially, the same in all countries. The executive is responsible for the overall control of foreign affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs is entrusted with the formulation of foreign policy while diplomats are responsible in implementing the policy. Diplomatic mission in any foreign country, depending on their size maintains diplomatic staff (called diplomatic core) which includes Economic Attaches, Political Attaches, Cultural Attaches and Military Attaches (who openly or secretly engage in spy services in gathering intelligence etc.)

Their role is to gather information in the host country through cocktail parties, dinners, lunches, academic seminars (by talking privately to people and offering foreign trips to handpicked persons from whom they can get the job done secretly) and informal meetings with key members including government and opposition members and journalists. Such information gathered by a diplomat is sent to the mother country and based on such information the mother country will decide whether the government in the host country is hostile or friendly. This is crucial for any country since trade, aid and investment flows depend on this factor.

Traditional diplomacy or secret diplomacy has been transformed into open diplomacy subsequent to the two World Wars. Tactics or strategies used by diplomats are generally known as open diplomacy, cold-war diplomacy, hot-line diplomacy, commercial diplomacy, conference diplomacy, democratic diplomacy, quiet diplomacy, preventive diplomacy, resource diplomacy, ping-pong diplomacy and shuttle diplomacy.(Street diplomacy is yet to born or not identified yet!!. Saddam Hussein and Libya is in the author’s mind but not Sri Lanka)

One important fact when dealing with diplomatic tactics or strategies is that it is the “raw power or strength” of the nations that matters in any diplomatic negotiation. Small powers have little chance to win when diplomatic negotiations with major powers or with the mega United Nations are held in a confrontational attitude. Diplomatic negotiations are different from academic debates in universities, because the latter is decided on the merits of the arguments. But it is not so in the case of diplomatic negotiations between a strong power and a weak power.

Even individual and joint efforts of the weaker nations would fail if they are on a confrontational course. An example is the failure of the Non-Aligned nations which comprised two thirds of the world states at the North-South Dialogue. In essence, the real world diplomacy is heavily influenced by “strength” or the “raw power”. This is a fact to bear in mind by small powers (but not Sri Lanka, because we are “BIG”) Modern history shows countries like Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Cuba, despite their national enthusiasm and patriotism to stand on their own feet (self-determination) have failed in diplomacy because of their rigid, nationalistic or patriotic mentality in diplomacy and also due to their leaders playing to the local gallery to remain in power. Many rulers forget that power is not eternal. Adolf Hitler who tried to rule the world killed himself because he failed to realise that nothing is eternal in this world as the Buddha has rightly preached.

Perhaps the only country that survived with confrontational diplomacy is western-backed Israel despite its sheer smallness. Sri Lanka during the Sirima Bandaranike regime failed in diplomacy because she was on a collision course with friendly western powers. A lesson to be learnt is that “rigidity” in diplomacy is not the best approach to be followed in any dispute. Flexibility is what is required. When it dawned on Mrs. Bandaranaike that flexibility in diplomacy was required, it was too late. The western powers had refused to respond to her. This serves as a lesson for our governments. True, we have produced world-renown diplomats such as Dr. Gamani Corea. SWRD Bandaranaike handpicked some diplomats not on political grounds but on the basis of their intellectual skills. J.R. Jayewardene was not different from that calibre I suppose.

With Sri Lanka back in international news, foreign diplomatic missions (particularly the western countries) here must be busy writing diplomatic reports to their mother countries. The UN office may be busy gathering information. Any intellectual or even a common man could guess what kind of reports they may be sending to their mother countries. Diplomats based in our country gather vital information pertaining to all aspects of Sri Lankan life, local government elections, media freedom, security settings and installations, and protest marches in streets and burning of effigies.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The overall outcome of such reports would be that Sri Lanka would be deemed as a friendly or hostile country by the decision makers in big power states whose assistance is vital for our economic survival. The hard fact to bear in mind is that Sri Lanka is a country mainly dependent on western economic assistance and the untold truth is they are behind the UN. Those who are competent enough to understand the chemistry of diplomacy will say that the UN report is not an attempt by the UNSG alone. It is advisable to wear the correct spectacles leaving the coloured spectacles for a moment. Those who play to the gallery would not be the ultimate sufferers but the poorest in the streets and the villages.

In this context, we have to decide whether we are going to engage in a win-lose battle, lose-win battle or win-win battle. What is most preferable is a win-win approach in the “UN Issue” and this is only possible through diplomacy and diplomats “who are competent enough to play the role” in preserving the best interests of the nation. This is a matter for the Head of State to think not once but twice.

(The writer was a senior professor in International Relations at the University of Colombo, presently a member of the Bar. He followed History, Law including International Law, Foreign Policy, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution among others at universities in Britain and the United States. He introduced Diplomacy as a subject to those reading for a special degree at the Kelaniya University)
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