Nepali Times
State Of The State
Diplomacy for dummies


Established in 1947, Nepal Council of World Affairs is perhaps the oldest foreign policy institute in the region. 'The Council' has been lead in the past by prescriptive individuals with decisive influence in foreign policy: Subarna Shamsher, Surya Prasad Upadhyay and Basudeb Chandra Malla.

In its heydays addressing the council was mandatory for every head of state and government visiting Nepal. Shital Nibas often used this 'independent' forum to raise issues considered too sensitive to be voiced directly by the government.

But all that is in the past tense. The 59th anniversary of the council this week was lacklustre and uninspiring. The rituals were dominated by grouse and gossip of retirees. Age seems to have taken its toll on this septuagenarian body.

The other foreign policy institute can be taken even less seriously. The Institute of Foreign Affairs was established in 1993 to train our rookie dips and became a semi-autonomous think-tank only seven years ago. If senility afflicts the council, the IFA is never grew out of adolescence. It seems to have been set up to groom Nischal Nath Pandey, scion of royalist foreign minister Ramesh Nath. Pandey Jr has been with the institute from its inception first as its deputy and then chief.

With both institutions decayed the dissection of Nepal's foreign policy has fallen into the hands of officials. The foreign ministry is a direct descendent of the Rana-era Jainsi Kotha where clerks diligently translated messages from the palace to the British resident.

Out of 12 royal ambassadors recalled last month four are retired generals, five are palace loyalists, three had a career in diplomacy, and the lone academic on the list hasn't published anything for a long time. With such a poor talent pool, our new democratic leaders will be as hard-pressed to find new ambassadors: a distant nephew here, a party loyalist there and turncoats of the previous era. In any case, shuffling appointments can change the form but not the substance of diplomacy. The government will be forced to pick someone from the administrative cadre as its foreign secretary. And whosoever that person may happen to be, he is extremely unlikely to steer the foreign policy of Nepal away from its subservient track to proactive diplomacy.

Aspiring ambassadors in business suits are already queuing up at the Balkhu Palace to promote economic diplomacy. The cultural diplomacy wallahs come in labeda-suruwals and are fluent in Marxist jargon.

Non-alignment is pass?, globalisation is the flavour of the century is the refrain. So, they argue that non-reciprocity with the southern neighbour and dependability of the northern neighbour are our two imperatives. A few others point out the magnanimity of the EU and the generosity of Japan while others are sold on the sole hyperpower.

Uncertainty is the only certainty in politics and diplomacy, but few indicators towards the future are discernable. The media will play a far greater role in international relations. The importance of coercive diplomacy will diminish as interdependence between countries increase.

Pomp is past, formalism is on its way out and the future belongs to a generation of diplomats willing to break the barriers of protocol and reach out directly to the people rather than through its rulers. We have to move from the traditional craft of dummy diplomacy practiced by royal nominees in the past to suave multi-disciplinary envoys of a new Nepal. The Council itself will need to re-energise itself with younger members to remain relevant and freed from the clutches of the foreign ministry.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)