TEDx Talk by T.P.Sreenivasan
Diplomacy in Uncharted Realms
The whole world is an uncharted realm today. On January 20, 2017, the world changed beyond recognition, on account of Donald Trump, the new President of the United States. The world was already volatile, but there was predictability about friends and foes. Global issues were also well defined, even if there were no agreed solutions. But today, many uncharted realms have emerged in the diplomatic world. US and Russia seem to be moving towards a cordial relationship. The value and relevance of the UN are being challenged. The whole concept of climate change is considered a Chinese hoax. A new war has been declared on “Islamic terrorism”. A 2000-mile wall is going up between the US and Mexico. These constitute a fundamental disruption of the comfort zones of diplomats around the globe. But this is not the first time that diplomacy is required to operate in uncharted realms. The end of the second World War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the advent of the Internet and Wikileaks had posed such challenges. Diplomacy has proved itself capable of not only adjusting itself to the changes, but also of helping to establish the new norm and dealing with post-truth.
Diplomacy is the oldest profession. Doctors may contest this by saying that their profession is as old as the surgery done on Adam to remove one of his ribs to create Eve. Engineers may say that God had used his engineering skills to create the universe out of the chaos. But surely, diplomats were needed to create the chaos.
Many have tried to define diplomacy. A diplomat is an honest person sent abroad to lie for his country. Diplomacy is meant to tell someone to go to hell in such a way to make him look forward to the trip. Diplomacy is walking on thin ice without getting into deep water. The difference between a diplomat and a lady is that when a diplomat says yes, he means may be, when he says may be he means no, if he says no, he is not a diplomat. When a lady says no, she means maybe, when she says may be she means no and if she says yes, she is no lady!
Like everything else in the world, diplomats find a mention in the Indian epics, Hanuman in Ramayana and Krishna in Mahabnarata. It was only their superhuman qualities and fighting capability that saved them from disaster. Hanuman flew into Lanka with a message of peace. But shooting the messenger was in vogue then as now. His tail, which was set ablaze by the enemy became a potent weapon, which destroyed the whole capital and Hanuman returned home triumphant and war began when diplomacy ended. Lord Krishna had a similar experience when he tried to negotiate a fair deal for the Pandavas. He retreated and the Kurukshetra war ensued.
More recently, with the emergence of sovereign states, the days of the plenipotentiaries began. Heads of states dispatched their eminent citizens across the seas to make war and peace at will and occasionally reported their exploits by diplomatic bags. They had the power to sign treaties, threaten use of force or declare war to secure their needs. A diplomatic assignment to a cannibal country was risky, particularly if the head of state characterized your predecessor as delicious! Some returned triumphant, others wounded or dead. But they were the golden days of diplomacy. Diplomats were men and women of leisure, who spent time on golf courses or at bridge tables. Many worked only on days when the diplomatic bags arrived with good or bad tidings. Odd phone hotlines with some countries gave access to political leaders to their counterparts, but they were cumbersome to use and not very reliable.
Then came faster transportation, which made travel easier, better communications like telex and fax. Diplomatic bags became less important and the pace of diplomacy picked up speed. But the work consisted of reporting on the host country and projecting the image of your country. A bit of imagination and language skills were helpful in diplomacy. We gave up trying to reach the news home ahead of the wires and began more analytical reporting. Mere news was of no value. Diplomats were relieved of the responsibility to report news, but began conveying more insights and analyses.
The advent of CNN in the eighties was a big blow to traditional diplomacy. Actual scenes from around the globe began to stream into the foreign office and questions began to come from there for local analysis. The pace of work became faster and without cell phones, it was difficult to stay away from office. But the bigger blow was the realization that CNN images were often doctored to influence public opinion. The eyes and ears of the diplomats became crucial to find out the truth. If anything, the role of the diplomats became more crucial. There was a demand for a counter channel to tell the truth. Till then, it was all the more necessary for diplomats to go in search of the truth. Correcting the impressions by cable channels became a major preoccupation of diplomacy and the diplomats rose to the occasion.
The internet, with its multiple sources of information at lightning speed turned the diplomatic world upside down. At one point it appeared that diplomacy had become redundant. But the internet came, as observed by writer Pico Iyer, without an owner’s manual. Consequently, the internet is different things to different people. Diplomacy did not end, but the internet became a tool of diplomacy. The Wikipedia and other open sources of information, subject to correction from outside, provided basic authentic information. But the opportunity the internet offered to manipulate the truth also dawned on us. The emergence of post-truth in 2016, impressions rather than facts determining public opinion owes its origin to the internet.
The Internet, however, undermined confidentiality, a fundamental ingredient of diplomacy for centuries. Of course, spying went on side by side with diplomacy even before, but today, diplomats have to presume that all that they say or do will be public sooner or later. Julian Assange founded Wikileaks in 2006 with the purpose of hacking confidential diplomatic documents and managed to release 10 million documents by 2015. The consequence was the loss of credibility of many Governments, particularly the US. Today, for every diplomat, the elephant in the room is the hacker, who is likely to reveal all that is said and done in the world of diplomacy. In the case of Snowden, who was an employee of the CIA, he deliberately leaked documents to show that the US had global surveillance programmes.
The revelations by Assange and Snowden embarrassed many, but they also showed that many countries, particularly India, were principled and transparent in their diplomatic pursuits. Not a single Indian diplomat had said anything in private, which he would not have done in public. It is possible that Assange and Snowden disciplined US diplomats into being truthful in their diplomatic discourse. So while the internet has weakened the confidentiality of diplomacy, it has strengthened the integrity of diplomacy. Diplomats have to compete with hackers like Assange and Snowden to establish credibility. The channels provided by monitored cables and services of Wikileaks give governments an advantage, but diplomats still hold sway over international relations.
As a diplomatic tool, the internet has been very beneficial. Heads of states and Governments today can speak to each other at will, but the limitations and pitfalls of such direct communications are only too evident. They would rather have their ideas conveyed through professional diplomats, rather than risk misunderstanding. They communicate their views on twitter and a time may come when they befriend each other on facebook!
Public diplomacy is a product of the communications revolution. The involvement of the citizens in formulating and implementing foreign policy is a gift from the internet. Many Governments around the globe have begun to inform their public about diplomatic alternatives, decisions and initiatives. Technology has brought diplomacy, which was confined to the elite, to the people.
Diplomacy is a conservative profession, which does not embrace change very easily. But it has been transformed beyond recognition in a relatively short period. Though it has remained elitist and its sartorial elegance is still preserved, its methodology has adjusted itself to the needs and dictates of the times. Diplomacy has proved itself capable of operating in uncharted realms. It began with a sedate and plenipotentiary track, picked up speed to match the communications revolution, exposed inaccuracies of cable channels, used the internet as a tool of diplomacy. It survived the machinations of Assange and Snowden. Diplomacy remains relevant and indispensable as no machine can replace the human brain and ingenuity. Diplomats have learnt to use technology for their advantage rather than retreat in the face of the onslaught of technology.
The question today is whether professional diplomacy will outlast the doings of an individual, however powerful he may be. History shows that diplomacy will prove its relevance in any uncharted realm.