CHIANG MAI, Thailand — While I fully endorse the spirit and the letter of a recent article in The Japan Times by former British Ambassador Sir Hugh Cortazzi on civil servants and politicians, I am conscious that what follows may be dismissed as an instance of the well-known bureaucratic tendency to defend “the fraternity.” Nevertheless, this is a delicate and important topic that is often ignored or misunderstood by the public.

It is not only in the diplomatic sphere, but in the bureaucracy in general, that relations with those wielding political power often become strained and difficult. But let us focus on diplomacy.

One fundamental cause of this uneasy relationship is a misconception about specific terminology. It is one thing to talk about “diplomacy,” i.e., policy, and quite another to talk about “diplomatic machinery,” i.e., the corpus of diplomatic agents at the service of the government. This basic distinction was promulgated during the Conference of Vienna in 1815 and it remains valid. In every country, much criticism is directed toward “erroneous national diplomacy” and so on. But in fact the target of such criticism should be the main political “line” on foreign affairs and not the eventual errors perpetrated by the diplomatic agents. Not that the latter are infallible; far from it. Diplomacy itself is the art of the possible, the skill of human negotiation, and there are no magic recipes for success. But while it is attributing blame, public opinion should draw a line between the process of political decision-making and the execution of those decisions.

Problems start when politicians at the helm of foreign ministries overstep their bounds and get immersed in the “management” of diplomatic personnel. Up to a point, they of course have the theoretical right to intervene — albeit only with regard to the highest and most sensitive positions and without becoming themselves glorified chiefs of personnel. Here, politicians might remember the ancient wisdom of Sun Tzu. There are three ways a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army, the illustrious strategist wrote centuries ago: through ignorance of the army’s movements; through ignorance of military affairs, combined with an insistence on participating in their administration; and through ignorance of the problems of command, combined with an insistence on sharing those responsibilities.

Along the same lines, a well-known Indian politician, Sardar Patel, once warned members of the Constituent Assembly, “Do not quarrel with the instruments with which you want to work. It is a bad workman who quarrels with the instrument. Nobody wants to work when he is being criticized and ridiculed in public.”

In other cases, politicians try to introduce innovations in diplomatic practice. While it is true that today we are light years away from the time when pompous plenipotentiaries made decisions on the spot, without instructions, and while it is a fact that new technologies guarantee instant communication among top ministers and leaders around the world, the essence of the diplomatic art has not and cannot be altered according to the whims of passing political luminaries. Diplomacy has to satisfy the needs of international harmony and it is therefore only natural that some of the rules of the game cannot change unilaterally. (We repeat that this does not mean the foreign “policy” of a given country, which of course has different and much larger parameters.)

These time-honored practices and the internationally accepted protocol are the ultimate common denominator upon which negotiations and dialogue can be conducted. Seen from this angle, a recent innovation conceived and implemented by one foreign minister regarding the usefulness of on-the-spot briefings of the new ambassador by the old one, at the seat of the latter and before his official departure from the foreign country, is not only embarrassing for the host capital but naive. Such briefings are always conducted at the capital of the new representative and they serve no purpose otherwise, since the philosophy of all countries is to periodically transfer their agents, each one of whom applies his own seal, talent and dedication for a given time.

Sometimes the necessary balance of perceptions about mutual roles becomes uneasy: Ministers lack confidence in the judgment of their subordinates and try to seek support elsewhere. Diplomatic agents, for their part, become intimidated by the power of their political superiors, which can affect their careers. The golden rule here should be for diplomats to speak out, to voice warnings or disagreements, in a spirit of protecting their superiors and withdrawing to backstage, if their superiors assume the responsibility for their decisions. Diplomats are in fact institutional and loyal advisers for all those properly elected through existing and accepted processes. Politicians, for their part, should trust those around them who have had long exposure to and experience in handling diplomatic affairs.

Diplomatic agents are often described as enjoying the endless pleasures of chandeliers, dances and champagne. In reality, the current state of affairs represents a complete reversal of this old-fashioned image. Diplomats are hardworking people who tire of this aspect of their job in much the same way that pastry chefs tire of testing and tasting their products. Diplomats are by definition “representatives,” and they can only represent a certain society at a given time. They should not be glorified, but neither should they be vilified. “The civil service is a faithful reflection of the social order in which we live,” notes a distinguished son of India, K.R. Narayanan, a man who achieved the great honor of becoming president of his country after many years in the diplomatic service, academia and even politics.

A master of the art of diplomacy, Harold Nicolson, stressed many years ago the close relationship between diplomacy on the one hand and common sense and experience on the other. In the revolutionary new interactive world, his words are still worth heeding simply because they reflect knowledge, moderation and tolerance.

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