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Thursday, December 09, 2021

‘Life would be far too easy if we only had to deal with ourselves’

Excerpts from a speech by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to the 2012 and 2013 batches of the IFS at the Foreign Service Institute,New Delhi on December 23.

Written by Shiv Shankar Menon |
Updated: January 10, 2014 12:05:08 am

Excerpts from a speech by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to the 2012 and 2013 batches of the IFS at the Foreign Service Institute,New Delhi on December 23.

What is it that we diplomats do? Simply put,we represent our countries’ national interests abroad. At a minimum this requires clarity on what those interests are,and knowledge of our own country. Just being born Indian does not make you knowledgeable about India.

It also means understanding our national interest. For now and the immediate future,and possibly for the duration of your careers in the foreign service,our primary task in India will be to transform our country,developing it and modernising it to the point where every Indian has the opportunity to realise his or her full potential. And the goal of our foreign policy will remain to make that possible by creating an enabling external environment,using all the positive external factors while neutralising the negative ones. India’s transformation is the one criterion against which policy choices should first be tested,and which should guide our considerations. If we choose peace,it is because our development requires a peaceful environment. But when so required,we should be ready to choose war or to use force too,as we have in the past.

You are fortunate to be entering the IFS when the world is in a state of flux unprecedented in living memory. After a little over two decades of globalisation and an open international economic order from which India benefited considerably,the external environment and international order are now less and less responsive to India’s needs. A fundamental reordering of the international system is underway with the rise of China and other emerging countries,the attempt to form the TPP and TIPP,the emergence of the G-20,changes in military technologies and their applications,the creation of new domains of contention in cyberspace,the globalisation of terrorism,and several other fundamental changes. The big question for us is where India positions itself in this change. Do we use the opportunities that these changes throw up,which requires us to change ourselves and to change our traditional ways of doing things and interacting with the world? Or do we revert to autarchy?

So my first piece of advice to you would be to read widely in diplomacy and history with an open mind. History never repeats itself exactly. But,“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”,(William Faulkner). Read widely not just in dry theory,but in novels and assorted fiction. Enjoy spy thrillers too,for many other people fill their heads with those ideas. Read to be self-aware and self-conscious,to get an idea of the range of human behaviour and of the different cultures and mindsets that you will have to deal with. Life would be far too easy if we only had to deal with ourselves.

A word about dress. Some younger colleagues have asked me why diplomats dress so formally and why they could not dress as they chose. The answer is that we normally dress to make the other person take us seriously and to be persuasive,not to express our personalities or look good or stylish,or for comfort. Like it or not,people judge you by your appearance. How we dress depends on the culture we operate in and the statement we choose to make. In multilateral situations we wear the universal uniform for diplomats,the dark Western suit. In Sri Lanka,where India has a special position,I wore a kurta. Sometimes,when called for by an occasion like Independence Day,we dress in bandhgalas to stress our Indianness and representative function.

I have a theory about why diplomats,soldiers and bankers dress so conservatively,each in their own uniforms. Notice how the more an occupation deals with risk,the more uniform their dress is? A soldier risks his life,the banker risks your money,and the diplomat deals with the risks of war and peace. It is in order to convey the assurance that they know what they are doing,to reassure society,the client or the interlocutor that these professions dress in what amounts to a uniform. And it seems to work.

What enables a diplomat to be persuasive,apart from his speaking,writing and other communication skills? The quality of his message,certainly,and his credibility. The fact is that in today’s age of instant communication and transparency,where emails and other communications are far from secret as Snowden has shown,the half life of a lie is very short. No diplomat can get away with lying for long. And once exposed,his utility to his government and ability to persuade is as limited as his credibility. Credibility is the one weapon we diplomats have. So guard it carefully and spend it sparingly. Honesty really is the best policy.

Of course,life is not always so simple as to offer you easy packages with the choices that I have mentioned. Take the Devyani Khobragade issue. What the US Marshals did by handcuffing,searching,and otherwise humiliating her was clearly beyond the pale. We have reacted strongly. It is essential that all our partners see that they cannot mistreat Indian diplomats. And we will get her back. But the fact is that the issue of our domestic servants in the US is not a new one and we have not worked out a solution for years. Also there are broader considerations affecting the overall relationship. Our ties with the US are useful to our development and in terms of their effect on others. So final diplomatic and policy choices are driven by a variety of factors,of which domestic opinion and international law,which I have not even mentioned yet,are only a part. Assessing those factors,judging which ones to bring into play and how to do so will be your job. There are no correct answers to these questions — only good,bad,better or worse choices . It is in the infinite variety of such choices and issues that diplomats handle that we find the joy of our calling as diplomats.

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