I was much struck by a recent comment by Henry Kissinger in response to a question about his views on Vladimir Putin. Kissinger describes Mr Putin as someone who “comes out of Dostoevsky”. The reference to the great Russian author in an interview about foreign policy motivations highlights the importance of values in diplomacy.
Values are defined as principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life. It implies, amongst other things, the existence of right and wrong and of good and evil; it also implies the existence of choice between them. Choosing right over wrong and good over evil amounts to moral or ethical behaviour.
The practice of diplomacy is supposed to be amoral. Not immoral, it may be noted, but amoral. It is believed that the necessity of choosing between right and wrong is suspended. One does what it takes to add to the power, to the wealth, and to the territory of the state. Cardinal Richelieu, the legendary 17th-century French foreign minister, a prince of the Catholic Church, took the side of the Protestants against his own Pontiff when it came to the interests of France. He justified his conduct, which would have been seen as immoral by his Roman Church, on the grounds of raison d’etat. All is fair in love, war and diplomacy.
In theory this alleged freedom to apply logic unfettered by moral considerations – to be a ‘Realist’ in the language of international relations textbooks – should simplify life for practitioners of statecraft. However, as any serious diplomat will reveal, this is almost never the case. The practice of statecraft is about choices, and often, very difficult choices. Paradoxically, the process of amoral thinking, with the suspension of moral restraints, actually complicates the decision making process. This arises due to the impossibility of calculating one’s interests or of selecting the right strategy to attain such interests. One simply does not know the best answers.
It has been my experience that in such situations, some diplomatic actors decide according to ideology. To many, this ideology is what is described as nationalism. Others are Marxist. There are those who look to religion. Still others look to the tenets of the ‘Liberal’ school in international relations, which underpin such institutions as the United Nations, and reject the paramountcy of raison d’etat and of the ‘Realist’ view of foreign affairs.
Others decide and exercise their choice within a larger intellectual framework of the kind described by Dostoevsky in his novels. A substantial part of that structure, in my observation, is derived from the study of history and the historical experience of a people. Culture, philosophy and mythology also contribute extensively to this intellectual landscape. Western diplomats inhabit a framework built upon pillars provided by the Bible, by the Greek tradition of philosophy, by Roman classics, and by later Renaissance thinking.
Indian diplomats, by virtue of their education and training, are familiar with this framework. Indian diplomats, however, also function within a framework that is drawn from our unique philosophical and cultural traditions. All of us are familiar with the idealism of Rama in the Ramayana and the more complicated dilemmas presented in the Mahabharata. Every Indian knows about the great battle of Kurukshetra and the perplexing questions that confronted Arjuna before the commencement of hostilities. His predicament is seared into our minds and acts as a primer for introducing us to complicated questions that we will face in life. These are also frequently the questions that we face as diplomats.
I have always been fascinated by Krishna, half-god, half-man, and the original Indian diplomat. There are many parables about him in the Mahabharata. One of the more fascinating fables describes the manner in which Krishna responded when forced to choose between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. He found a unique solution. He allowed his army to fight for Duryodhana even as he himself joined Arjuna.
India will inevitably rise to the diplomatic high table. The burden of difficult decisions, and the consequences of such decisions, particularly the ones that go wrong, will be visited upon us.
We face extremely troublesome questions in today’s diplomatic landscape. What is the right response to refugees? What are the right conditions for intervention in a sovereign state? At what cost? Is globalisation good? Where do we find the answers?
Bruce Rich, in his book ‘To Uphold the World: The Message of Ashoka and Kautilya for the 21st century’ talks of Yudhisthira’s dilemmas in the Mahabharata and the excruciating choices that he was subjected to. He talks of Ashoka and his transcendent adoption of the path of Dhamma or righteousness in the process of governance. He also talks of Kautilyan realism. He weighs the merits of Kautilya’s world view against that of Ashoka and finally, in a demonstration of the difficulties of choosing, writes that the current diplomatic environment needs both Ashokan idealism and Kautilyan realism.
The parables and philosophical construct of the epics, the Vedas and the Vedanta, and our historical experience, tends to strongly influence our decision-making. It is my belief that we are destined to relive Krishna’s experience and worry like Yudhisthira about Dharma. We will vacillate between Ashoka’s path and that of Kautilya. We will find answers to some of our questions there. We will also continue to look for answers, as we do now, to the Christian world, to the legacies of Greek, and of Rome, to Marx, and perhaps oftener, to Confucius. The values that will impel our diplomacy will come from all of them.