Diplomacy matters

The hard work of diplomacy has started in lieu of threats and abuse to resolve the issues confronting Mideast.

The last week of September was a good one for those who believe in the utility of diplomacy. The US and Iran greeted each other albeit cautiously after more than three decades, Russia and America agreed on a common approach on Syria walking back from the brink of an explosive escalation, the UN Security Council came together on a complex plan to deal with chemical weapons, and India and Pakistan had a matter of fact encounter at the highest level while avoiding a hypocritical embrace.

Much of this happened on the margins of the annual jamboree of the UN General Assembly in New York. Even professional diplomats like me regard the UNGA as a ritual and a non-stop talkfest. But to only think of the speeches delivered in ringing tones at the podium is to mistake the form for the substance.

Speeches are made for the record and for the TV audiences back home. In reality, New York and the UN serves as the backdrop, an excuse as it were, for leaders and diplomats to run into each other at a neutral place and at a pace of one’s choosing. Thus Obama-Rouhani telephone call, Manmohan Singh-Sharif  meeting without frills.

Why do I say that diplomacy produced some results? Let us look at where we were and what transpired in New York in one week.

The antagonism and mistrust between the US and Iran is long standing and well known. Days are long past, however, when Iran was called as a part of the axis of evil, the US a ‘Satan,’ and it was being recognised that some breakthrough, however minimal, was in the interests of both countries. Iran has undoubtedly suffered under severe sanctions and the thinking people in its establishment were looking for a resolution of its differences with the US while preserving their honour and rights including the right to run an advanced nuclear programme.

The US on the other hand was also looking for a signal from Iran that meaningful and calibrated negotiations are possible. The election of Rouhani, with impeccable credentials within the country’s religious establishment, and at the same time with a moderate view and visage compared to his predecessor Ahmadinejad provided an opportunity. The time was ripe for a new beginning. The results are uncertain at this stage, but the hard work of diplomacy has started in lieu of threats and abuse. The value of the direct contact go beyond the nuclear issue. It has the potential to affect many other equations in the middle-east.

Horrific war

If the telephonic talk between Obama and Rouhani was symbolic, the sitting together of the foreign ministers of US and Russia to craft out an agreement on the Syrian case was hard toil. Without that diplomacy, Syria was about to escalate to an even higher level in its already horrific war. The conflict on the ground is complex enough with the military forces of the Assad government being backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, and the rebels a mix of diverse and some desperate elements including Al Qaeda, with the support  of European powers, rich Gulf Sunni states, and Turkey.

The bloodletting has been relentless, but a military stalemate had also been reached. Obama was rightly cautious about getting embroiled in this situation and in the process was being dubbed the ‘reluctant interventionist.’ But the use of chemical weapons changed the scenario since it meant Assad defying the widely accepted international norms and red lines. A threshold had been crossed and punitive action against Syria seemed imminent.

In this framework, the diplomatic option seized upon by Kerry, and the Russian foreign minister Lavrov was welcome to all except war mongers. As we know now, the understanding reached between them in Geneva about disarming Syria of its chemical weapons under a UN process has defused the alarming descent. There is some hand-wringing in America about America’s loss of power and potency, but for all right thinking people in that country, the diplomatic course has come as a relief.

 Compared to these developments, the matter of fact hand shake between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan may seem minor, but it was useful. In the hostile and shrill relations that we have, any no-nonsense meeting that did not result in false expressions of camaraderie or excessive acrimony at that level, is to be accepted. It may amount to nothing but to keep the contact going is necessary in itself.

Speaking at the UN,  Obama, spoke of the US as having a “hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries.” When was the last time that any one had heard about ‘humility’ of the US, its understanding of its limitations and acknowledgment that it needs to work with others. Many nations at the UN referred to a multi polar world. In a world moving in that direction, diplomatic engagement can and should intensify.

(The writer is a former ambassador and currently a visiting professor at the Jamia Milia central university, Delhi)

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