Diplomatic solo-speak and/or Diplomats should be seen, not heard |  The Citizen, India

March 2014

At a recent dinner in Pakistan hosted by a senior envoy of a friendly overseas country, this writer , alongwith eight other guests was treated to the experience of diplomatic solo-speak : of about 90 minutes spent at the table, the host held forth for about 80 minutes.

Contrary to the well-worn notion of hypocrisy and subterfuge in what is known as diplomatic double-speak, this was virtually entirely a singular, straightforward, apparently honest and sincere preroration . But was this good private diplomacy ?

To share this episode, even without naming names, runs the risk of rightly being seen as an ungracious guest.But one reflects upon this aspect with no pique against the polemicist. Indeed, for one who is asked too often and too unwisely to speak in public forums, this was a most welcome opportunity to remain silent. The longer one's mouth remains shut, the deeper one can delve into the pleasures of listening, a discipline one relishes and from which one learns so many diverse matters. Which is exactly why the question was posed at the end of the previous paragraph.

In the group, apart from two persons who were from the same country as the host, there were Pakistani individuals, women and men , at different levels of age, experience, profession and other interests. Excluding this writer, who had taken a secret vow of silence,(broken only once, at the very end and very briefly ) , all the others could have enlightened the host with their own separate and special insights and observations. About aspects of Pakistan, about bilateral relations, about regional realities, about sectoral concerns. A couple of them did make brief comments or posed a question or two, the latter of which only helped the host to resume his monologue. None of the guests hold a public office, so the host knew in advance that he could not gain the benefit of noting the official line or the sense between the lines. Yet , if not a golden, then at least a silver chance was squandered by the host to hear direct from the mouth of several horses of varying breeds about the country in which he presently serves.

One is certain the diplomat is generally well-informed . From his own mission, by confidential cables from home, from quiet sources he has cultivated himself, from direct dealings with the government departments and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country in which he serves , from the media, from his domestic staff. Perhaps informal meetings are the only occasions on which he can un-burden his mind with the excess baggage thrust upon him. But there are no finite limits to information. Each encounter with another person, each meeting with a group, particularly in a small, informal gathering affords a new opportunity to update , expand, re-confirm assumptions, explore new directions.


Unless a diplomat has already succumbed to that fatal conviction which states : " I never let the facts get in the way of my opinions. "

The star speaker of this cited episode may be inspired by the fact that he is not alone in his loquaciousness. While there are envoys who wisely restrict their utterances to the bare minimum, even in private parties, there is a fairly large number of diplomats one recalls from the past and whom one knows from the present who tend to hold forth for inappropriate durations. They make it worse by also pronouncing fairly strong adverse opinions about aspects of internal affairs of their host country. This may be a duty they fulfill to ensure that their own Government's views are projected far and wide. Yet candour of this origin can frequently cause offence to hyper-sensitive residents like this writer. Specially when overseas officials accompany their possibly pertinent comments with a patronizing attitude. Regrettably, there are some citizens of the host country who not only nod their heads in full agreement with the barbs aimed at their own nation : as if self-abnegation in the presence of foreigners enhances their legitimacy as global citizens. They heap insults on themselves by adding their own missives against their own government or people. Such is the infectious success of offensive diplomacy !

There is plenty about Pakistan for its citizens to be profoundly concerned about . And there is no shortage in expressing this concern. In inter-personal communication, in the legislatures , in the street, in the market, in any public forum , through mainstream media, social media et al. So it is not as if, by adopting a hectoring tone, or by simply carrying on far too long, a diplomat is delivering content previously unknown to the indigenuous listener. In fact, verbose diplomats are in plentiful local company. So abundant is the talk about the mess we are in that verbal terrorism is a close second to violent terrorism.

While a few Indian diplomats one has met, in Pakistan, in India and in overseas countries are Honourable Members of the League of Long Lecturers, several are fairly balanced and cautious in their comments , even in private events. Of Pakistan's diplomats, several of whom are of outstanding international calibre, there are also a few who are prone to drone . In many cases, the lack of fluency in English in the diplomats of some other countries prevents excess, though awkwardness of pronunciation and unfamiliarity with syntax can cause listening stress of another kind

To return to one's innocent, unsuspecting host : the gentleman's amiability and friendliness certainly helped make digestible the feast of words . His empathy for the multiple crises besetting Muslim countries leavened the flavour of his remarks. There was an aromatic hint of the official possibly having developed a tiny soft corner for Pakistan, despite all the lop-sided bad news. Akin to how hostages held for extended periods can begin to identify with their captors ! Thus, after all, he meant well. And there was no arrogance in his manner, which was a relief. A belated self-admission about his own pontification proved he was not oblivious to his dominance of the inter-action.Such self-awareness was refreshing but did not altogether compensate for the preceding lack of the same.

Proclivity to ramble on is an occupational hazard, aggravated when certain evening liquids flow. The malady is not confined to aliens in foreign lands. Some senior journalists can beat even diplomats hands down, or glasses up, as the case may be. But for the ultimate benefit of the countries they so ably and sincerely serve, as also for the benefit of the countries in which they work, diplomats, like some children, should be seen, and not heard..too often, or too long.

( The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister and author of " Pakistan : Identity and Destiny " www.javedjabbar.com )

"As published in March 2014 in The Citizen, India's first independent on-line newspaper."
Editor : Seema Mustafa