Tuesday, March 24, 2015

English Literature and Diplomacy: a Lecture

 English Literature and Diplomacy.

(Talking Points for the first Hrdayakumari Memorial Lecture by Former Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan at the University College, Trivandrum on March 24, 2015)

I welcome another opportunity to pay my respects to Prof.Hrdayakumari, a teacher, scholar, educationist and social activist, who left us recently. To speak of her in this college, where she taught me English Literature for five years is a particular privilege. Even after half a century, I can vividly recall her poise, style, diction and eloquence. She made a great impact on our young minds and inspired us to explore the charms of English language and literature, which she taught us. We owe much to her for our subsequent accomplishments in different walks of life. It is for this reason that, speaking in her memory, I have chosen to speak on how the study of English Literature has helped me in my chosen profession of diplomacy.

This topic could be considered at two different levels. Several studies exist to bring out the interface between early modern literary and diplomatic forms of representation with a particular focus on the writings of Shakespeare, John Dunne, Edmund Spencer etc. Diplomatic encounter is a scene of cultural exchange and linguistic negotiation. Diplomacy deploys tools of literary tradition to to articulate new theories. Conversely, diplomatic theorists helped shape the emergence of new literary forms. Literature provides a lens through which we can learn to read the language of diplomacy, just like in my new book, my editor, Divya Iyer looked at diplomacy through the prism of mythology. Literature is also a part of the soft power that countries project, but good literature on many countries is not seductive and attractive.

I am adopting a different approach to literature and diplomacy by focusing on how what I learnt in this college helped me in my diplomatic career spanning more than thirty-seven years.

The most important reason why I chose to join English Literature for my bachelors and masters degrees was my impression that it would help me to compete successfully in the civil services examination. Of course, my interest in reading literature in English and Malayalam was also an important factor. At that time, the age limit was such that it was not common for engineers and doctors to take the examination and it was the students of literature who did well. For several years, those who stood first in English MA were able to secure high ranks in the civil services. My English masters degree, with the first rank, therefore, was a guarantee to success.

When I started my training and work as a young diplomat, I felt that learning politics, economics or history may have been more useful in my functioning. But once I acquired the basic knowledge of these subjects, I began to discover that knowledge of English language and Literature was an asset in the Foreign Service. As I have observed in my book, diplomacy is all about words, written, spoken and unspoken. For that reason, I titled my first autobiographical work as “Words, Words, Words”, borrowing the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To make it clear that it is not a book on linguistics, I gave it a sub-title, “Adventures in Diplomacy”.

I can recall many occasions when I was able to get the better of my interlocutors by choosing the right word on the right occasion to the right effect. In the diplomatic profession, in which elegance of words is as important as substance, this is not a surprise.

I cannot but recall how I learnt the basics in international relations even when I was studying Literature. Dr. NS Warrier, the Principal, kept reminding us of the vast world outside. I remember him calling some of us to his room on the day China exploded a nuclear bomb for the first time in 1964 and saying that this was a very significant development for India. At that time, it did not seem significant to us, but looking back, I know how it altered the very power balance in Asia. Another Principal, Dr.EP Narayana Pillai asked us to write an essay not on plays or poems, but on “The Long Term and Short Term Measures to meet the Chinese Aggression” for the Harvey Memorial Prize. I must have let my imagination run wild and given more than a dozen measures to defeat China. I do not recall all of them, but I remember suggesting that the Dalai Lama should be allowed to set up a Government in Exile and also explode a nuclear bomb. I won the prize not just for the ideas, but also for the language, I was told.

It must have been my competence in the language that got me into the College debating team, though the others were students of Economics. Interestingly, all the members of the team joined the Civil Services, three in the IAS and one in the IFS. The flourish in the language, together with depth of research enabled us to do well in the debates. The confidence that I gained in the debating team and the experience of teaching English in the Mar Ivanios College stayed with me when I addressed the UN and other international assemblies. Fear of public speaking, it is said, is only next to the fear of death! The dreaded UPSC personality test also was smooth for me because most of the questions were on English literature. I could easily recite one of the stanzas from Tagore’s Gitanjali during the interview, as it was in my textbook.

One unforgettable experience of that time was a production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan in Trivandrum after I qualified for the IFS. Prof.Savitrikutty, sister of one of my teachers, Prof.Santhakumari, directed the play. Though I had only the relatively minor role of the French Commander, Dunois, who is charmed by Joan, that experience stood me in good stead when I found myself roped in to the Rangoon Theatre Club in the early eighties by the British Ambassador to Burma. I played leading roles in plays like ‘Charley’s Aunt’ and ‘Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew’. The theatre work in Burma was very valuable for my wife and myself for becoming part of an elite constituency. In their profession, diplomats create constituencies through golf, bridge, tennis, squash etc and the theatre also created bonds among diplomats.

English students dream of visiting hometowns of legendary writers in the UK, but very few of them get an opportunity to visit them. IFS gave me the opportunity to visit Stratford-on –Avon and watch a Shakespearean play within the first few years in the Government. My mind went back to the days when I acted out scenes from Othello and King Lear in the English Association in the University College.

The drafting skills in English are a great asset in the United Nations. We have to negotiate hundreds of documents in which we need to protect and promote our interests. Often, the negotiations drag on for days and even collapse for want of the right phrase or word. Diplomats with linguistic skills are much sought after on these occasions. On many situations, I was able to resolve tough issues by supplying the right word at the right time. Each time it happened, I remembered my English teachers. I shared some of these with Dr.Ayyappa Panikar, one of my favourite teachers when he spent time with us in New York when he was researching at the Yale University.

One amusing incident took place when we were discussing the conditions for mounting UN peacekeeping operations. We insisted that the consent of all states concerned is essential for establishing peacekeeping operations, while others, notably Pakistan, maintained that consent of one state was enough. So the debate went on between ‘state’ and ‘states’ for long. Finally, I suggested a compromise between the two by using the word ‘State(s)’. This was accepted, though it was protective of our position. We came to know later that since such a format is not possible in Chinese and Arabic, those texts fully reflected our position!

I must also warn against overdoing literature in diplomatic discourse. I had an Ambassador, who filled his telegrams with Shakespearean language and images, creating total havoc among the readers. He was finally reprimanded for using too much Shakespearean jibberish!

Using of a Shakespearean image helped me to make an immediate impact in Delhi. When I reached Vienna to take over as Ambassador, I sent a dispatch to the Foreign Secretary, describing the scene in the Embassy as the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy. The previous Ambassador had been recalled to Delhi because he had a fight with his deputy and the others in the Embassy were equally divided. I said that the hero was lying dead on the stage and the villain was relishing the scene. The chorus, the public, was singing the praise of the dead hero, while others were solidly behind the Villain. I said that it was absolutely essential to remove the debris before I could begin my work. The language and the image had an immediate effect and I was given a free hand to clean up the mess. I am sure that a more traditional description of the scene would not have had the same effect,

I could go on like this for long, but I shall conclude here with the thought that the study of English Literature stood me in good stead in my diplomatic profession. I am particularly indebted to Prof. Hrdayakumari and my other teachers of the University College for preparing me for the challenges of the diplomatic service.

Thank you.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Nuclear Negotiations at a Delicate Stage


Nuclear Negotiations at a Delicate Stage

T.P.Sreenivasan in the Hindu March 23, 2015

 Despite domestic hurdles in the current round of U.S.-Iran negotiations on Iran’s nuclear capability, the end result will depend on how many centrifuges can sustain nuclear development in Iran without the country being subjected to crippling sanctions

The agreeable weather in Lausanne, Switzerland, may have helped, but an agreement may still elude the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in the current round of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear capability. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some Republican Senators, who called into question the ability of U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver on his part of the deal even if an agreement is reached, could share the responsibility for the impasse.
Mr. Netanyahu appeared at the U.S. Congress in response to an invitation extended to him by the Republicans in January without the knowledge of the White House to issue a dire warning. Mr. Netanyahu presented an alarming picture: “This deal will not be a farewell to arms. It will be a farewell to arms control. And the Middle East is criss-crossed by nuclear tripwires. A region, where small skirmishes can trigger big wars would turn into a nuclear tinderbox,” he said.
Taking a cue from Mr. Netanyahu, the Republicans went over the head of the President to send a message to the Iranians, alerting them to the possibility of the Congress rejecting any recommendation from Mr. Obama to lift sanctions. The letter sent by 47 Republicans on March 9, 2015, and addressed to the Iranians, contended that while the President could reach an agreement with Iran, he had no authority to reward them with a relaxation of sanctions.
Sticking points
For Mr. Obama, who refuses to acknowledge that he is handicapped by his loss of the House and the Senate, the unprecedented move by the Republican Party came as nothing less than a shocking challenge. He compared the Republican Senators to the reactionary members of Iran’s government and accused them of joining an unusual coalition with the enemies. Mr. Zarif, called the Republican move a “propaganda ploy”. He also did not mince words about Mr. Netanyahu’s intervention, perhaps helping in his re-election.
The interim deal forged in November 2013, named Joint Plan of Action, which needs to be shaped into binding commitments by July 2015 came after more than 10 years of Iran playing a cat-and-mouse game with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Iranian tactic had always been to express readiness to cooperate fully with the IAEA, secure applause from the gallery and then leave their questions unanswered. Every time the IAEA reported to its Governors on Iran, there were many satisfactory answers, but some unanswered ones, which needed elucidation. The IAEA could neither certify that Iran was not on a nuclear weapons path, nor could it give it a clean chit. Even after the issue went to the UN Security Council, the ambiguity remained. The IAEA continues its investigations to resolve the questions about past activities, even as the political dialogue continues.
After extending the Joint Plan of Action twice, the P5 and Germany, backed by the sanctions, have been engaged in shaping a comprehensive resolution. At the core of the proposed agreement is a set of restrictions on enrichment of uranium beyond the requirements of generating power. Although the UN resolutions ban any kind of enrichment, the agreement envisages minimum enrichment for a specified period. This would entail a sizeable reduction in the estimated 19,000 centrifuges already in operation in Iran. The nature and number of centrifuges, the period for which restrictions would be imposed and the question of one of the Iranian reactors at Arak, which was allegedly producing plutonium, are some of the major points on which agreement is yet to be reached.
Republicans and Obama
For the Americans, the alternative to an agreement is war and that is the reason why Mr. Obama accused the Republicans of rushing to war, as advocated by Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Obama had exercised great restraint in the long negotiations, keeping in mind the objective of ensuring that Iran did not make nuclear weapons.
He did not rule out enrichment of uranium, even though the Security Council had demanded it. As long as Iran did not cross the threshold, a certain amount of enrichment under safeguards would be admissible. Mercifully, even Mr. Netanyahu did not demand zero enrichment.
The possibility of a comprehensive agreement with Iran is particularly objectionable to the Republicans because of reports that Mr. Obama had given an assurance to the authorities in Iran even before he became President that he would be more generous with Iran than former U.S. President George Bush. The promised concession was specifically on the issue of a permissible amount of enrichment even during the period of restrictions. Iran, on its part, has maintained that the limited amount of plutonium produced at some of its reactors cannot be used for weapons without a reprocessing plant and that Iran has no intention to acquire reprocessing capability. Mr. Obama, it appears, is inclined to accept terms that would allow Iran to enrich uranium as long as it kept nuclear weapons out of reach for Iran.
The negotiations have completed 13 rounds after the Joint Plan of Action was approved and indications are that a comprehensive agreement is within reach. The new Republican position has cast a shadow on the current round even though Iran itself has dismissed it as being inconsequential. Iran points out that its leader, Ali Khamenei, has gone to the extent of issuing a fatwa against nuclear weapons, which is the strongest guarantee that Iran has not embarked on the nuclear weapons path.
Separately, discussions have already begun in New York among the permanent members to prepare the ground for removal of UN sanctions if an agreement is reached in Geneva. The sanctions unilaterally imposed by the U.S. and the European Union (EU) in the energy and banking sectors, and which have hurt Iran even more, are also under discussion. These measures are aimed at countering the threat posed by the Republicans to block the lifting of sanctions authorised by the Congress.
Indian angle
In the earlier years in Vienna, Iran had banked on the chorus of support it received from the nonaligned countries for its right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But when it got the sense that the nonaligned support was a double-edged weapon, it found that direct negotiations with the P5 and Germany could be more beneficial. For its part, India was always apprehensive about an Iranian bomb. On one occasion, Iran issued a démarche in Delhi when the Indian delegation in Vienna refused to endorse a set of amendments to the IAEA resolution, which went beyond the Indian position. Our vote in favour of referring the entire matter to the Security Council angered the Iranians even more as it was perceived to be under American pressure.
India would naturally be relieved if there is an agreement, which will prevent war on the one hand and the emergence of a nuclear weapon power in its neighbourhood on the other.
It is still touch and go in the Lausanne negotiations. An altogether new element is the way the Republicans and Mr. Obama are appealing directly to the Iranians. “This moment may not come again soon,” Mr. Obama said in his message to the people of Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. “I believe that our nations have a historic opportunity to resolve this issue peacefully — an opportunity we should not miss.” The end result will depend on how many centrifuges can sustain the development of nuclear technology in Iran without being subjected to crippling sanctions. Unless that magic figure emanates soon, the spring in Lausanne may well end without a flowering of peace.
(T.P. Sreenivasan was the Governor for India of the IAEA from 2001 to 2004.)