• Thursday, October 02, 2014

GROUND REALITIES

A brief history of foreign ministers

Syed Badrul Ahsan

BRITISH Foreign Secretary William Hague's decision to resign is one of those moments when you choose to recall some of the men who have headed the foreign policy establishment in their times and in their countries. Foreign ministers are often an elitist group, seeing that they are seen to be part of the wider world rather than of the narrow confines of domestic politics which often tries the patience of their colleagues. Again, most foreign ministers may not have any impact, as US Secretary of State William Rogers was to find in the Nixon era. He was studiously ignored. It was national security advisor Henry Kissinger who dominated foreign policy. At one point, Kissinger succeeded Rogers and went on to make his mark on global diplomacy.
There have been some long-serving foreign ministers who may not have been known for originality but whose sheer longevity in office made them somewhat a symbol of diplomacy. Andrei Gromyko became part of the Soviet foreign policy establishment in the 1940s and by 1957 was foreign minister under Nikita Khrushchev. He went on to serve a whole range of Soviet leaders --- Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev. In his final years, he was pushed upstairs by Gorbachev, to serve as president of the Soviet Union. In China, there was Marshal Chen Yi, who became rather ubiquitous through his forays into Asia and Africa in the tumultuous 1960s. Not much, though, is known of his contributions, if any, to the making of Chinese foreign policy in the years of Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai. Those were the years of the Cultural Revolution.
India has had quite a good number of foreign ministers, though for a very long period Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru kept charge of the portfolio. By and large, Indian foreign policy has been a collective affair, despite the fact that men like Sardar Swaran Singh, M.C. Chagla, Dinesh Singh, Atal Behari Vajpayee, K. Natwar Singh and Jaswant Singh had their own periods in the sun. Compared to the Indians, Pakistan's Z.A. Bhutto was more fortunate. In the Ayub Khan era, soon after the death of Mohammad Ali Bogra, Bhutto ascended to office as foreign minister and swiftly and surely redefined Pakistan's foreign policy options. Under his influence, President Ayub Khan went for closer relations with China, a move which obviously left the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Washington considerably disturbed. Bhutto left government in bitterness in 1966. He was succeeded, first, by Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada and then by Mian Arshad Husain.
Men and women unsuccessful in their drive to be president of the United States have ended up being foreign ministers. Edmund Muskie, once considered presidential material, served Jimmy Carter as secretary of state. In more recent times, Hillary Clinton lost the race for the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama but went on to work under him as secretary of state. In Britain, Sir Alec Douglas Home, having served as prime minister for a year before his Tories lost the general election to Harold Wilson's Labour Party in 1964, became foreign secretary in the government of Edward Heath in 1970. In what was then West Germany, Willy Brandt served as foreign minister in the CDU-SPD grand coalition which governed the country from 1966 to 1969. As chancellor, Brandt made his famous trip to Jerusalem, where he knelt before the Wailing Wall in atonement for the sufferings inflicted on Jews by Nazi Germany. It was again Brandt who took the first tentative steps toward a thawing of the Cold War when he travelled to East Germany for talks with the communist country's leader Willi Stoph in 1970. The Brandt opening became known as Ostpolitik, a first stepping stone toward changing the world.
Israel's Abba Eban was a scholar who served his country with distinction as foreign minister. Unlike the more conservative of his colleagues in government --- Levi Eshkol, Golda Meyer, Moshe Dayan --- he came across as suave and willing to engage his adversaries in civilized dialogue. Israel has had other foreign ministers, Shimon Peres for instance. But none of them has been able to emulate Eban in the range of his reading and understanding of international conflict resolution.
There are the tales of foreign ministers whose reputations have rested largely on glamour. In Iran, Ardeshir Zahedi, handsome, cosmopolitan and related to the Shah by marriage, served the monarch as foreign minister. In more recent times, the young, extremely good-looking Hina Rabbani Khar was Pakistan's face to the world in her position as foreign minister. Her trips abroad, especially in India, were occasions for the media to dwell on her glamour and sex appeal. Her impact on diplomacy is, however, a different matter. In Idi Amin's Uganda, a beautiful young woman who served as foreign minister was eventually dismissed and killed because Amin thought she had been having sex in a toilet with someone. That was typical, brutal Amin, of course!   
Britain has had some influential foreign ministers. Douglas Hurd was a capable foreign secretary. You cannot say the same about Alexander Haig in the United States. A former general, he joined the Reagan administration as secretary of state in 1981. Haig raised many eyebrows when, after Reagan was shot within weeks of assuming the presidency, he told the press in Washington, 'I am in charge here'. That was a blunder, considering that Vice President George Bush was very much around. Indonesia's Subandrio, a physician by profession, was President Sukarno's foreign minister until the Suharto regime put him in prison, had him tried and sentenced to death. He was never hanged, but spent decades in jail before he was let out. He never let the world know of his experience in incarceration. France's Charles de Gaulle had his Maurice Couve d' Murville.
There are foreign ministers we remember because of the times they inhabited. Gromyko was succeeded by Eduard Shevardnadze, who later became president of independent Georgia and even later was compelled to flee in an uprising led by Mikhail Saakashvili. America's Dean Rusk was once spat upon on a visit to Latin America at the height of the Vietnam War. Tariq Aziz was for a very long time deputy prime minister and foreign minister under Saddam Hussein. The Philippines' Carlos P. Romulo, as his country's foreign minister, was to turn into a much respected figure on the global stage. And who can forget Hitler's harassed foreign minister von Ribbentrop?
The bottom line: foreign ministers come in various shapes and forms and packages. Some even brood a lot. Read here Britain's Lord Grey in the sad twilight preceding the outbreak of the First World War. Some take their own lives. Remember Viscount Castlereagh?

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
E-mail:  ahsan.syedbadrul@gmail.com

Published: 12:00 am Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Last modified: 10:12 pm Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TAGS: foreign policy Foreign Ministers

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