Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Diplomats and Journalists

Diplomats and journalists are tribes of professional communicators that have little in common.

Diplomats at their best seek to be influential while revealing as little as possible. Their statements are nuanced, often to the point of obscurity, their motivations secret, their intentions cloaked. They measure success by how little they reveal about the reality of the situations confronting them.

The best journalists seek influence by revealing as much as they can. Clarity of statement, transparency of motive, and openness of purpose are ideals worn on their sleeves. They measure success by the level of understanding they generate about any situation.  

I became aware of these stark differences as a journalist working for the United Nations, an organization run by diplomats. My bosses would murmur appreciatively as they read my drafts (of articles, reports, film scripts, speeches et al), compliment me on their clarity and elegance, and then edit them into near incomprehensible UNese.

The situation was fraught with tension, and eventually it led me to trade in the plush security of a career contract at the top rung of the UN's Professional cadre and take to the insecure life of a freelancer.

Not to waste the expertise I had as a UN insider, I moved down to the Press floor in the UN building and began issuing a weekly newsletter with the sizzling title International Documents Review. (It was in homage to I.F. Stone, the legendary journalist who ran a solo shop in Washington and consistently scooped the mainstream media during the Vietnam War era. When he came to speak at Columbia Journalism School I asked him how he did it, and his memorable reply was "I read the documents. A democratic government cannot function without writing things down. Everything you want to know is in public documents.)

All this is background to explain how it was that in November 1990, as Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait pushed the United Nations into its first post-Cold War crisis, I was at the Security Council stakeout, asking the Indian Ambassador why he had made such a strong statement against the American resolution pushing for war and then voted for it.

His reply was pure diplomatic silk. "The statement and the vote are two different things" he said, noting a nuance that I would not have perceived on my own.

The Ambassador was Chinmaya Gharekhan, and he has unreeled some more of that fine silk in a piece in The Hindu on Nonalignment 2.0.

In a piece that I would hazard to guess was requisitioned by The Hindu's new Editor, Siddharth Varadarajan (who happens to be one of the authors of Nonalignment 2.0), Ambassador Gharekhan seems at first glance to be strongly supportive of the study. 

"Rediscovery of non-alignment" reads the large headline, followed in smaller type by: "Nonalignment 2.0 is not without its flaws but on the whole, the document offers a comprehensive view of foreign policy, makes sensible suggestions and is lucid, readable and deserving of wide debate."

On closer examination, Ambassador Gharekhan's enthusiasm for the study turns into pointillist criticism, the equivalent of limpid sunlight in a Monet landscape that turns into thousands of little discrete blobs as the viewer draws near.

"Why did they have to choose 'nonalignment' as the title for their document?" he asks. "It is not as if Nonalignment 1.0 was a golden era for Indian diplomacy. Some of us are unlikely to forget that we did not receive support from a single fellow nonaligned country when China attacked us in 1962."

That is a diplomatic kick in the crotch for the basic argument of Nonalignment 2.0, that we need to keep strategic autonomy from both China and the United States. 

Of course, Ambassador Gharekhan would not put it that way. But then, he is not a journalist.


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