The Financial Express

Diplomats' tales . . . in their memoirs

| Updated: May 02, 2021 21:01:44

Diplomats' tales . . . in their memoirs

Diplomats in our times have generally been an enviable lot. They occupy positions, beginning from the early stages in their careers all the way to superannuation, which enable them to understand and indeed initiate nuances in their nations' ties with the world beyond their national frontiers. It is experience that not only heightens their view of the making and practice of foreign policy but also enables them, in their sunset days, to enlighten people with the memoirs they pen at some point.

Not all diplomats leave their narratives of their careers behind. Indeed, most of them simply fade away or lapse into silence or end up writing for newspapers or linking up with think tanks. But there are those, such as the American economist-cum-diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith, who make readers comprehend the nature of diplomacy a little more. Galbraith's Ambassador's Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years is an intellectually engaging account of his times, both as a diplomat and as a JFK confidant. His fellow American Chester Bowles was in his time an embodiment of American liberalism, in the early 1960s. His work, A View from Delhi, is a clear-sighted examination of Indian politics and society as he saw it. The works of these two men, with their views on politics, on foreign policy and on plain observations of people remain noted for the clarity of thought they certainly are.

In Bangladesh, Fakhruddin Ahmed, who had the distinction of serving twice as foreign secretary, was one of our first diplomats to pen his views of foreign policy pursued by Dhaka in the years soon after Liberation in 1971. His work Critical Times was fundamentally an analysis of the difficult diplomatic terrain Bangabandhu's government traversed in that early phase of independent nationhood, underlined as it was by the protracted negotiations with India and Pakistan over such issues of critical importance as the release of the Pakistani prisoners of war, the repatriation of Bengalis from Pakistan, the tripartite agreement of April 1974 and Bangladesh's quest for membership of international organisations.

Fakhruddin Ahmed did not bring the story of his life into his work. But there have been, indeed there are, other diplomats whose reflections on diplomacy in their twilight years have been tales of their personal advancement together with their assessments of how they have seen the governments they have served conduct relations with the outside world. One could cite here the memoirs of Jagat S. Mehta, the Indian diplomat whose career spanned the period from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi. The beauty of memoirs such as Mehta's --- and he calls them The Tryst Betrayed --- is that they bring to light the details, major as also minor, of the personalities the authors have worked with or under.

Those personalities are not just political but also professional, which is as good as saying that a diplomat's memoirs are often an enumeration of the rivalries and jealousies and parochialism which sometimes pit one Foreign Service officer against another. Mehta's memoirs are replete with such details. Similar is the case with the memoirs of his colleague K. Natwar Singh. The latter's One Life Is Not Enough is a portrayal of a brilliant career that in the end was marred by the Volcker Report on Singh's alleged involvement in the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal. But put that aside and what you have is a gripping tale of Natwar Singh's interactions with powerful people in the capitals where he has served India. His conversations with Pakistan's General Ziaul Haq and his meetings with an isolated, broken Nusrat Bhutto in the aftermath of Z.A. Bhutto's execution are instructive.

In Bangladesh, Faruq Choudhury's Jiboner Balukabelaye remains essential reading for researchers keen on understanding a particular phase in the country's diplomacy. Brilliant men like Choudhury joined the Pakistan Foreign Service in the 1960s and then found themselves hitching their wagon to the star of a emerging country rebelling against Pakistan, for obvious reasons. Such diplomats are well-positioned to look back at their careers from the vantage point of having served two countries in their times. Faruq Choudhury's memoirs are a compendium of the larger objectives of foreign policy as he perceived them to be. At another end, they are a collection of anecdotes he brings before his readers. His reflections on Bangabandhu (especially the banter the Father of the Nation engaged in with Tanzania's Julius Nyerere at a Commonwealth summit), on a young and smart Bhutto he saw conduct himself in China, on Wahiduzzaman, Ayub Khan's commerce minister, as he waited in Peking for a promise of aid for Pakistan give off the flavours of an era which underpinned the careers of Faruq Choudhury and his colleagues.

Of course, there is also the suspicion that memoirs, whether written by diplomats or politicians and others, tend to be self-serving at times. Take those of Jagat Mehta and Natwar Singh again. They do not have kind words for each other in their works. Singh ridicules Mehta's abortive efforts to succeed Shridath Ramphal as Commonwealth Secretary General. For his part, Mehta mocks Singh's refusal to serve as India's envoy to the Mauritius and instead settle for Zambia, a country that does not account for much in Mehta's calculations. The self-serving, in certain ways, has also been part of the tomes Henry Kissinger has produced since leaving office in 1977. In 1980, once Ronald Reagan had defeated Jimmy Carter at the election, Kissinger desperately wanted to be called back to the State Department. His feelers to the new men in power were ignored. That was good for researchers and historians, for it subsequently gave them such educative works from Kissinger as White House Years, Diplomacy and On China. Kissinger may not be a much-loved figure in the larger context of US foreign policy, but his books demand concentrated reading.

Pakistan's Iqbal Akhund came forth with his work, Memoirs of a Bystander: A Life in Diplomacy, in the late 1990s. The work is an insight into Akhund's views on such issues as the Tashkent Declaration of 1966, the Bangladesh war of 1971 and the rise and fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Bangladesh, M.M. Rezaul Karim, who as head of the Bangladesh mission in London received Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman when the latter arrived in London in early January 1972 after his release from Pakistani incarceration, has left a riveting account of the moment, and other moments, in his diplomatic memoirs, Kutnitik-er Diary. Hemayet Uddin's A Neighbourly Affair: Assignment India is a critical examination, from a first person point of view, of Dhaka-Delhi diplomacy. For India-watchers vis-à-vis Bangladesh, it is a good read.

Andrei Gromyko's reflections --- and he had a very long innings in articulating Soviet diplomacy around the world --- are succinctly stated in his memoirs. He calls them Memories. Conor Cruise O'Brien, in Memoir, takes one back to the heady --- and dangerous --- times of the early 1960s, with all the dark details of the post-independence fracturing of the Congo, the murder of Patrice Lumumba and the death of Dag Hammarskjoeld.

Diplomats' reflections on their times are in many ways helpful in an understanding of the present and in conceiving of the kind of world that might be in future. In many ways, again, they are portraits of nations, of some of the best minds speaking for them in the councils of the world.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.

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