What makes a good ambassador to India?
Posted on April 23rd, 2014

Amarasiri de Silva, PhD

Following Sudharshan Seneviratne’s recent appointment as ambassador to India, Bandu de Silva posted a piece on Lankaweb [A Response to “Is Dr. Sudharshan Seneviratne a suitable envoy to India under Narendra Modi”?http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2014/04/12/a-response-to-is-dr-sudharshan-seneviratne-a-suitable-envoy-to-india-under-narendra-modi/] on 12th April, 2014, critiquing an earlier article by Seneviratne and questioning his suitability for his new position.

Bandu de Silva’s argument is based around the terminology that Seneviratne used in an article published in 2007, in which he deployed concepts in line with ‘postmodernist’ thinking such as ‘deconstruction’, ‘cultural pluralism’, and ‘multiculturalism’, and argued for a paradigm shift from what he called ‘Orientalist ”Antiquarianism’ to introduce an ‘alternate concept of shared cultures’.

Bandu de Silva argues that these concepts are borrowings from UNESCO’s vocabulary that reflect the perception of the UN and the Western capitalist world, and that they are used by Seneviratne to construct an idea of ‘shared culture’ and of all ethnic groups being ‘equal share-holders’ in the distant past ” a thesis put forward by Seneviratne based on some rare finds of a Buddha statute with Tamil inscriptions and a miniature Nestorian Cross at the Jethavana Vihara excavation site.

Seneviratne is criticized for giving prominence to individual finds and not emphasizing the majority culture associated with Jethavana Vihara, a colossal monument of world renown. It is implied that Seneviratne is therefore not suitable to hold the post of ambassador to India. Similar sentiments were expressed by Shenali Waduge in her article which appeared on Lankaweb on 10th April [Is Dr. Sudharshan Seneviratne a suitable envoy to India under Narendra Modi? http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2014/04/10/is-dr-sudharshan-seneviratne-a-suitable-envoy-to-india-under-narendra-modi/], saying that ‘We need to appoint a person who can be in step with the nationalist thinking both in India and Sri Lanka and depart from eternally falling in trouble by appointing those who tow the Western NGO mindset and ideology that is being rejected emphatically by governments and people outside Europe’.

My question is how important is this so-called ‘nationalist thinking’ in diplomacy, and is it the right ideological or theoretical framework to measure the suitability of a diplomat who is going to be the ambassador to India?

There is no doubt that our ambassador to India should uphold the characteristics of being a person with an open mind: knowing that, however much he knows, there is a lot more to learn; curious enough to understand and respect other people’s ideas and cultures; displaying kindness and humility; realizing he is not superior to others, but only different; being proud but realistic in understanding the real characteristics of the country that he is representing; and finally being a honest and credible person who should have a strong wish to understand the truth about himself, his country and others.

The ambassador must certainly strive to promote his (or her) country’s national interests, but should not follow the narrowly nationalistic and parochial impulses to which people are subject in the country he represents or in the host country.

Especially considering that India is our giant neighbour, comprising many different ethnicities and languages and cultural complexities, it is important that the Sri Lankan envoy should have the cultural competence to deal with the issues of the two countries, which I think Sudharshan Seneviratne possesses.

He has knowledge of history and archaeology, with the necessary skills, for example, in Pali, Sanskrit and pre-historical languages and inscriptions, as evidenced by his writings, and he understands Hindi as he spent many number of years in India doing not only his PhD at New Delhi but also his master’s degree. He may not be super fluent in Tamil or Malayalam as spoken in South India, or in India’s many other regional languages, but he displayed great diplomatic skills in handling the cultural triangle project which involved India and Sri Lanka in many different ways as shown in his 2007 article.

He can be seen as having the qualifications required of an envoy to India, matching those who held such positions in the past, for example Dr. Senaka Bandaranayake and Dr. Stanley Kalpage, who in their career were university professors.

The current situation in foreign missions is that the career diplomats who man the embassies as paid officials provide all the necessary paraphernalia and technical assistance needed by the country representative, who may perhaps be a political appointee, able to take decisions and to keep his government informed. In such situations, the most important people are the career diplomats; the ambassador plays a managerial role within the various departments of the embassy and oversees the associated links to ministries and departments in his own country.

However, it is timely and important to discuss the changed role of ambassadors, particularly looking at the present political and international situation. It is true that an ambassador should keep his government informed about the constantly changing political atmosphere in his host country, so as to ensure the proper handling of relations and negotiations between states. Sad to say, most foreign embassies of Sri Lanka do not maintain the databases needed to aid the decision-making process underlying foreign relations. As clearly shown in Bandu de Silva’s recent article, most country representatives just parrot the language of the UN to appear on conference touring and seminar circuits. This is not what is now expected of a career diplomat who has to deal with direct diplomacy, and who is not a governmental go-between conveying one party’s decisions to the other.

Current day diplomacy involves many more complex issues than was the case in the past. Climate change, environmental issues, oil drilling, the Sethusamudra harbour project, migration and pilgrimages, fishing resources, the Kachchative issue, narcotics, and terrorism are just some the important matters between India and Sri Lanka, which require knowledge of and expertise in the environment, science and technology, the law of the sea, international law ” things that a modern diplomat has to be conversant with.

Modern ambassadors do not necessarily limit their involvement to state-to-state relations, but engage in multilateral activities often focusing on international trade and economics more than the culture-related matters that they traditionally dealt with. Diplomacy is now, therefore, a highly specialized and technical exercise that requires competence in many more fields than cultural brokerage.

As Sri Lanka is expanding its horizons in international trade, the country’s diplomats need to have knowledge of the technicalities and contents of US, EC and SAARC regulations, especially with regards to the import and export of agricultural and other products, and of tariff and non-tariff issues and barriers.

International relations have become a much more complex subject than was the case before and during the cold war. Now diplomats have to deal with many more independent states, making matters much more complicated than when they were when simply dealing with bilateral relations. Diplomacy has become more complex particularly because of the new issues, modern-day speedy communications and the increase in the number of international meetings that a diplomat is required to attend and at which he must take informed, independent, effective and rapid decisions.

This new form of diplomacy is known as direct diplomacy. It involves more than respecting the host government’s agreements or pacta sunt servanda. Under these circumstances, diplomacy has become a highly technical subject, with a substantial change in the role of diplomats.

My experience with embassies and high commissions representing other countries in Sri Lanka, especially those of the British, the Americans and some European countries, is that they are complex institutions with many different departments dealing with various subjects. The high-ranking officials who run such departments form a complex hub within embassies, where the diplomat plays a managerial role requiring administrative ability.

This complexity and organization is not seen in some of the Sri Lankan embassies overseas, partly because the diplomats and their advisors have not been subject to the changes that many other Western embassies have undergone, and partly because of sheer ignorance of the requirements of modern-day diplomacy.

In this new world of direct diplomacy, we need well-educated persons of the calibre of Sudharshan Seneviratne to uphold the values of a diplomat representing Sri Lanka on foreign soil, and not a person who is parochial in his / her thinking. Appointing a person with high regard for ‘national thinking’ as the priority characteristic, without considering other qualifications of diplomacy would be disastrous and such a person not be able to uphold the position up to the standards of modern diplomacy, which is a very important factor to be considered not only in the instance of India but also with respect to our diplomats in other countries.

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