Diplomatic metamorphosis

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

When I was a teenager, my diplomat father bought me a suit and tie so that I could attend events in Beijing at the height of the Cultural Revolution. I soon secured invitations in my own right as an erstwhile teacher of English to children from other embassies at a time when the only international school was the one my mother established in Beijing. I witnessed Kissinger’s shuttle missions, the sale of the first British passenger jets to the state airline and learnt how the use of words like hegemony in a speech sometimes meant that, as some guests walked out, I would not get to the dessert in banquets in the Great Hall of the People. I was lucky to have an early introduction to the world of diplomacy. Thirty-five years later, I returned to China as a member of the Prime Minister’s official delegation.

In 1999, I morphed into an officially appointed diplomat when I made the transition from a career in the private sector to public service. The transition was not without its challenges. What passed as the cut and thrust of commercial negotiation as a banker, required a more nuanced approach with international counterparts. Helping a British energy company unpick a contract with state owned company in Vietnam so that all parties got most of what they wanted, needed more than a forensic eye. It needed tact, compromise and at times, some resolve. Whereas political issues were part of risk assessment I made as a business investor, as an envoy, the issues are more complex and require analysis from many angles. The likelihood of a military coup, the progress of peace talks or the results of elections are uncertainties on which we are now expected to make confident judgement calls.

Most of the impacts of my actions and decisions as a banker in London were local, but my diplomatic interactions in New York, New Delhi, Brussels and other capitals had the potential for global consequences. A UN resolution, a WTO dispute or a common line on human rights, all require an aptitude and language that is different. Chairing a multilateral meeting of nations to agree on a common statement with only the power of persuasion requires attuned listening, recognising shared interests and resilience to overcome setbacks. The impact of announcing our corporate results as a banker was limited to a narrow audience. As a representative of a country, every utterance, tweet, and television interview is scrutinised not just by my hosts but people in all walks of life, in every corner of the world. The most innocuous comment can spark off an army of trolls.

The language of diplomacy has its own code. Protocol has its place when an occasion requires state ceremony or disguises significant underlying discontent. In most cases, as fellow diplomats, we are able to speak in a direct manner to each other once we have established trust and respect. I picked up some early lessons in polite formality when, as a child, I used to sit alongside my grandfather as he presided as a judge in a court of law. Lawyers, witnesses and court officials spoke with dignity, honorifics and mannerisms even when some of the suspects were of dubious character, charged with heinous crimes. As a profession, lawyers and diplomats have much in common. We represent interests and are guided by rules and codes of conduct. Diplomatic language allows enemies as well as firm allies the means to communicate and narrow differences.

Heading any institution requires a person to temper his personality to the needs of the role. But metamorphosis cannot be so total as to lose one’s sense of identity. That is where true friends come in. They are people with whom you can be yourself in private. They are more forgiving. The best ones are also able to tell you uncomfortable truths.  I would not be human if I did not need a release valve. Mine is tennis and football fanaticism. The ball gets my strongest curses for failing to go over the net when I have played my best shot. My words are unprintable when my team’s star striker fails to score a goal that my grandmother would not miss.

Few of us are born with all the skills and talents we need for our chosen careers. Not many are able to follow an orderly metamorphosis from a larvae to a butterfly. And yet, circumstances, fate and destiny compel us to adapt to new roles and ever stretching demands. Those who manage the transformation well are people who have good self awareness, know their limitations and are willing to learn from their successes and mistakes. In our ever changing world where the challenges are at times daunting, diplomatic metamorphosis is essential.

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(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador.)

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