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Diplomatic ingenuity: frankness and informality is a best practice

 Diplomatic ingenuity: frankness and informality is a best practice

Frankness with informality is a diplomatic best practice not only in international relations but in democratic governance as well. The resilience of the Commonwealth of Nations is due to the use of such a unique method of work that national governments could emulate to reduce conflict. To illustrate the point let’s go on a short journey down memory lane.

The agenda of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings often includes contentious political issues that can provoke angry responses. Agenda formulation involves closely guarded consultations before, during and after the biennial sessions; one of which took place in Uganda in 2007.

The method was not uncommon when decolonization was the main issue within the Commonwealth. There were occasions when what diplomats refer to as ‘frank talks’ such as the London Summit of 1964 when the chairman British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home was concluding his key-note address on world politics and invited Commonwealth Secretary General Duncan Sandys to wrap-up with a brief on talks on Southern Rhodesia under the heading ‘Progress of British Territories towards Independence’.

With standard English intonation seasoned with typical British understatement and overstatement Mr Sandys flamboyantly narrated how Britain’s efforts on decolonization had resulted in 700 million people in 20 countries becoming independent, that Britain had done so willingly and that it had all along been her desire to give others independence which she herself cherished.

Malawi’s Dr Kamuzu Banda, not known for being so tough with the Colonial masters, took to the floor and responded: “Now, come, Mr Chairman, let us be frank with each other. You British have recognized in time what is inevitable and accepted it gracefully. That is your greatness and I honour you for it.

But it has not been as voluntary. Prison terms had to be served; Banda, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Makarios, Nehru etc. I want to make this point frankly. Frankness is the basis of our association”, he said. There was laughter and the matter was put to rest.

Consultation is another method that the Commonwealth uses is important in leadership and management. Southern Africa pre-occupied the Commonwealth agenda for decades. In 1960 British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan set off on a journey to Africa starting with Ghana and ending in South Africa.

At the welcoming State Dinner of Premier Macmillan and his wife on 9th January 1960, Dr Kwameh Nkrumah’s speech titled ‘the African Hurricane’ underscored two main pre-occupations in Ghana: the Volta Dam Project and the kind of foreign policy to accelerate the liberalization of Africa. A hurricane is a high speed wind but the term can be used to mean a sudden violent outburst.

Nkrumah’s meaning was clear in the context of the African political situation at the time and Macmillan took it seriously. The famous statement about ‘the wind of change blowing across Africa’ had earlier been made in South Africa. As it were, the wind with a velocity of hurricane grade reduced Ian Smith’s dream of 1000 years of no political change to less than 20 years!

Diplomacy has unique ways of defusing potentially explosive circumstances. When Ugandan President Idi Amin fell out with the British and other Commonwealth countries a protocol problem cropped up at the 1978 CHOGM in Ottawa, Canada. He was unwelcome but he made it known that he would attend the Summit.

How would the seating be organised in the event that he did? Usually, alphabetical order of countries represented is used in the seating arrangements. As such Uganda and United Kingdom had to sit next to each other. British Prime Minister Edward Heath was not prepared to rub shoulders with Amin.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was likewise unwilling to ruin the meeting over Idi Amin whereupon an ingenious formula was devised whereby Heath would sit behind the name plate ‘Britain’ and not ‘United Kingdom’. Diplomacy at its best, isn’t it?  

The writer is a former diplomat

This post was syndicated from The most recent articles . Click here to read the full text on the original website.

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