Thursday, June 21, 2012

Daily Sun, Wednesday, 20th June, 2012
Defence and Diplomacy

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Taking diplomacy away from career diplomats!
M. Serajl Islam

My article on the Foreign Ministry in the first issue of the “Defense and Diplomacy” page drew critical comments from a number of my colleagues. Most of them agreed that we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the way the Foreign Ministry is performing under this government compared to all past governments and that the shift is not in the desired direction. I was provoked by the comment of one senior colleague who thought that we could be seeing in this shift a line of thinking where the government is considering foreign affairs as too important to be left just to the career diplomats.

My colleague may be right. Under this government, the major thrust of our diplomacy is no longer with the career diplomats. In choosing political leadership for the ministry, the government made a sharp departure from the past by naming a foreign minister who had no prior exposure to foreign affairs. The previous AL government, in choosing Abdus Samad Azad had given the post to one of the party’s senior most leaders who was a Foreign Minister before. The BNP Foreign Minister Morshed Khan had prior experience as an investment adviser to the prime minister. He also had Reaz Rahman as his Deputy who was a former Foreign Secretary.

It is not just this government named someone without prior experience to the Foreign Ministry; it also gave to prime minister’s advisers the leadership role in crucial areas of foreign affairs. Two advisers of the prime minister have been entrusted the responsibilities for dealing with India and the United States. Economic diplomacy has also likewise been given to other ministries. For instance, in matters of manpower export and external trade, areas with significant foreign policy interests, the Foreign Ministry is not in any major role.

Consular affairs on which the prime minister has given great emphasis as vitally important for career diplomats unfortunately has never been a subject of the Foreign Ministry. In key missions, the head of consular affairs is from the Home Ministry or the intelligence agencies. The only hold the Foreign Ministry had on consular matters in the past was controlling and issuing diplomatic passports. This government has given this responsibility to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In appointing ambassadors, the career diplomats have not been given importance. The missions in London, Washington, New York, New Delhi and Moscow are headed by non-career ambassadors. Although Washington and New Delhi have gone to individuals who were career diplomats, nevertheless they were sent to the posts because they are close to the political leadership. In fact, both have been given ministerial rank that underscores the importance of their political connections because if they had been taken on their diplomatic skills alone, the government that has shown scant regard for career diplomats would not have given them the ministerial status.

Therefore, the government has already cast the dye on the career diplomats on matters of substance. The important question is whether it is the result of some well thought out policy or the product of an ad-hoc approach by the state to the conduct of diplomacy. The perspective from which the senior colleague introduced the subject to me has been from what is happening in other countries. These days, it is not the Foreign Ministry alone that deals with a country’s foreign affairs.

The field of diplomacy has these days become so vast that a country’s Foreign Ministry and career diplomatic service are no longer able to handle the depth and breadth of diplomacy in the context of the needs of the country. Foreign Ministry everywhere is today assisted by the rest of the government to successfully represent that country’s interests abroad under a well thought out foreign policy.

The key principles under which a Ministry of Foreign Affair shares foreign policy functions and responsibilities with other ministries and departments in other governments are cooperation and coordination. There is no competition or attempts by the other ministries and departments to bypass or ignore the Foreign Ministry. Everywhere the Foreign Ministry is in charge of foreign policy. It coordinates and cooperates with other ministries and departments to achieve the country’s foreign policy goals and objectives in which the career diplomats play the major role. This is the new era of diplomacy worldwide.

Unfortunately, in our context, the emergence of the new era, if it is indeed one, where the other ministries/ departments/individuals are playing a significant role in matters of foreign relations has not come about because the Foreign Ministry alone is unable to conduct foreign relations. The current state of affairs where diplomacy is no longer the exclusive domain of career diplomats has emerged not to assist the Foreign Ministry but to bypass it. That is where there is a vital difference in the way things are in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

In Bangladesh, the dawn of the new era is not the result of any rational approach to diplomacy but one that has come about from a history of mistrust and dislike for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in the other parts of the government. It started in the days immediately after independence when senior members of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan, concerned that in the new country, their position would be subordinated to the politicians, wanted to switch to the foreign service. Their overtures were not just dismissed by the foreign service officers; it was done with contempt.

Unfortunately for the career diplomats, the members of the ex-CSP cadre came back strongly in governance. In the Ershad regime, they held considerable power and used it to full extent to take powers and responsibilities away from the career diplomats. The return of elected government in the 1990s did not help the decline of the foreign service. The BNP government had set up a committee, the Morshed Committee (named after Morshed Khan who later became a Foreign Minister) that submitted a report giving the Foreign Ministry the leading role in leading the country’s foreign policy. The civil service members did not allow the report to see the light of day. They have succeeded in pushing foreign service to a corner and in building a public perception that the foreign service itself is something that the country could do without.

The career diplomats themselves did not help their cause either. They never approached the attack against their cadre unitedly and pursued their own narrow interests of postings and promotions than the need of building a strong foreign service cadre. Their own poor relations with those in other ministries have helped build a united front against them where there is very little enthusiasm from other ministries to let the MFA pursue even its restricted functions and responsibilities. Also, an element of jealousy has been responsible for other services uniting against the foreign service cadre.

In Bangladesh, the state has thus stripped the powers and responsibilities of the MFA in conducting foreign relations. It has distributed these functions piece meal in other ministries/advisers without any coordination. In fact there is not even a method in this madness. Thus we have become perhaps the only country where ministries/advisers end up contradicting one another while speaking on foreign relations! In other countries, the question of contradiction never arises because foreign policy issues are too important to be talked about in public without coordination among those who go public with such issues with the Foreign Ministry entrusted with the role of coordination.

Therefore, what we are seeing today in Bangladesh is a hazy dawn where diplomacy is no longer an exclusive affair for the career diplomats. It is so not because it is too important to be left to the diplomats but because diplomats are considered not important enough to be given such a role. The end result of this has been a near mess up in the way we are conducting our foreign policy which is natural because our foreign policy structure is like a ship in the high seas without a captain at the helm and run by sailors who have no vision where the ship is going.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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