The diplomat as scholar

Time was when Indian diplomats, having done with decades of writing policy notes, cables and speeches, would settle down in their retirement homes, pull out their diaries and journals and write their memoirs. Full of interesting anecdotes and personal memories, these memoirs provided a ringside view of history in the making; expectedly, they were written from a personal point of view and usually followed the trajectory of the author’s own career. There were others—just a handful—modest followers of the school of diplomat-writers like Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz or George Seferis, who ventured down the literary path and produced novels, short stories, travelogues and even poetry. As long they steered clear of politics and government policy, they did not have to wait for superannuation to do this.

Serious writing on foreign affairs was, for the most part, left to academic scholars, or, at best, to senior journalists specialising in foreign policy. These books, usually brought out by academic publishers, were standard references for the evolution and workings of India’s foreign policy. Relying on a scholarly analysis of archival sources, newspaper references, interviews with leaders and so on, these works had the advantage of a dispassionate approach, being an arm’s distance away from the real world of diplomacy; further, their loaded footnotes and bibliographies provided useful leads for others who would follow the subject down the years. All very useful, but nobody would mistake these as easy reading.

Somewhere along the way, these two largely distinct worlds of the diplomat-practitioner and the academic scholar began to mingle. Fewer and fewer diplomats are ready at age 60 to turn to their memories, tend their gardens and gradually fade away. They feel, and rightly so, that they have a wealth of diplomatic experience that they can usefully contribute to policy work. With some exceptions, their natural habitat is not the corporate boardroom but the burgeoning world of think tanks, strategic forums and universities. Many of these institutions offer them an ideal perch—complete with research assistants, access to expensive journals, professional recognition and, if one is so inclined, a new visiting card—from which to continue their intellectual activity; the forums in turn are enriched with well-known names showing up on their rolls as distinguished fellows, visiting fellows and so on and providing the long perspective and practical professional experience to foreign policy issues at hand.

One consequence of all this has been to turn what was a rare occurrence into a trend—the writing of serious foreign policy books by retired diplomats. Where earlier one could point to J.N. Dixit’s books on the neighbourhood, or works on Kashmir by C. Dasgupta and Narendra Singh Sarila, the market today is full of authoritative books by a distinguished list of former foreign secretaries and ambassadors, elegantly written and nicely produced by mainstream publishers, on subjects that range from China and Pakistan, Africa to Europe, Bangladesh and Nepal, West Asia and the United Nations.

The alchemy of these books spells success. Not only do the diplomats bring their exceptional intellectual rigour to their research of archival material but add only what they can—an understanding of the practical side of statecraft, personal details based on direct involvement in events, and honed skills of conveying deep truths in a concise and clear manner. It is no surprise that these books, besides being eminently credible, are also very readable. One might go so far as to say that a new genre of popular foreign policy—much like popular history—is being created, without any loss of seriousness. The scholar-diplomat is here to stay.