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Former Indian Diplomat Says AmbassadorsAre More Relevant Than Ever in Global Affairs   (Ambassador Kishan S. Rana) | by South Asian Foreign Relations
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Former Indian Diplomat Says AmbassadorsAre More Relevant Than Ever in Global Affairs (Ambassador Kishan S. Rana)

Kishan S. Rana, a former senior diplomat in India’s Foreign Service, is convinced that embassies are now more important than ever and that ambassadors who are creative and innovative can play a pivotal role in advancing their countries’ interests.



In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Rana said ambassadors should recognize that revolutions in transportation and communications have fundamentally changed their jobs. But rather than lament the loss of certain powers and responsibilities, they should seize on the opportunity to be more relevant in other areas.



“The ambassador’s plenipotentiary powers have long withered,” he said. “The most apt analogy for the ambassador today is with the chief executive of a country unit of a transnational enterprise.”



Rana pointed out that although modern ambassadors do not determine war and peace between states, they do play an important role in reducing tensions and developing relationships. “In the entire government, the ambassador is the one who has the best overview, in real time, of the current shape and content of the bilateral relationship entrusted to his charge. This produces an opportunity for bargaining, linkage and tradeoffs, across the full panorama of issues in which the countries are engaged.”



Warm, energetic and good-humored, Rana said his professional life has been dominated by a love of diplomacy. “From the time I remember, joining the Foreign Service was my dream.”



Rana entered the Indian Foreign Service in 1960. Out of the 20,000 students who took the national civil service examination that year, only 10 were invited into the Indian Foreign Service.



During his 35-year career, Rana served in Hong Kong, Beijing and Geneva, specializing in Chinese affairs and economic diplomacy. Additionally, he was India’s ambassador to Algeria, Czechoslovakia, Kenya, Mauritius and Germany. He retired in 1995 but continues to write about and teach diplomacy.



Rana is a professor emeritus at the Foreign Service Institute in New Delhi and a senior fellow at the DiploFoundation. He is the author of “Inside Diplomacy,” “Bilateral Diplomacy” and “The 21st Century Ambassador: Plenipotentiary to Chief Executive.”



Rana vigorously disputes the view that embassies are a relic of an age that has long since passed. The embassy, he argues, is the co-manager of bilateral relationships, and there is no other agency of government that has a better view of the totality of relations in any foreign capital.



Rana said the modern embassy is vital not only because it can build critical relationships that require direct and sustained cultivation, but also because it can identify rising stars in the host nation’s political and diplomatic communities, understand connections between issues, and monitor the full complexities of a bilateral relationship.



Rana said good ambassadors are worth their weight in gold. “There is a greater functional necessity for the resident ambassador today than at any previous time since Italy launched this institution in the 15th century,” he said.



Rana acknowledged that some may view this assertion with skepticism, accustomed as they are to the refrain that ambassadors have become marginalized by technology and instant communications and serve mostly as glorified innkeepers for visitors from home.



“The ambassador ideally integrates into the structures of the home establishment, especially the foreign ministry, and becomes a participant in the policymaking and decision process, relying on instant communication to overcome distance and the traditional barriers of the missions and headquarters mindsets,” he said.



According to Rana, the modern ambassador should be skilled in working with the host government, speaking to the general public, and interacting with specialists in areas ranging from science and technology, to culture, politics and economics. This in turn demands an ability to master diversity and complexity.


He noted that in earlier diplomatic eras, ambassadors enjoyed direct access to leaders and heads of state and didn’t become involved in trade, investment, culture, science and the media.


“The ambassador is now more involved in what is called low diplomacy—pushing trade, investment, technology, health, education,” Rana said. “This seems unglamorous, but it represents the essence of contemporary international life. Ambassadors must handle details, master logistics, remove obstacles and follow up on projects.”



In researching the role of the modern ambassador, Rana drew from his own experience in diplomacy, interviewed dozens of ambassadors, and carefully studied the literature of diplomacy. He said the main functions of an ambassador’s job are easy to summarize but difficult to do well: promotion, outreach, negotiation, feedback, management and servicing.



A good ambassador, Rana believes, usually has broad-ranging knowledge and curiosity, a solid understanding of what is going on at home, a strong grasp of national and global economics, polished media skills, innovative thinking skills, a fascination with international relations, and a command of at least one major language other than his or her native tongue.



“This is just my list. Others might have a different list,” he said. “But at the end of the day, personal relationships are what drive this whole process. Personal trust and personal credibility is absolutely the most important thing.”



Rana said it remains very difficult to measure the success of an ambass ador, although a number of foreign ministries are trying to develop metrics of effectiveness. “There is no single way to measure the success of an ambassador. Different foreign ministries develop different internal norms and try to be relatively more objective. But it remains, in effect, subjective.”



Rana has spent the last decade since leaving India’s diplomatic service writing books for diplomats and students of diplomacy. He noted that there are about 8,500 ambassadors and 70,000 professional diplomats now at work around the world, many of whom are looking to upgrade their skills and broaden their perspectives.



“There is a gulf between those who look at diplomacy from a theoretical or scholarly perspective and those of practitioners. That’s a role I tried to fill,” he said. “My books are practitioner’s books. I don’t pretend to be a great theorist.”



Rana is currently working on a book about the diplomatic process in China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and India. It examines the foreign ministries and diplomatic services of these nations in a comparative way.



Rana has become very interested in teaching diplomatic skills via the Internet, saying that in many circumstances, e-learning is more efficient and economical than traditional learning.



To that end, for the past six years he has been teaching at the DiploFoundation, which is co-located in Malta and Geneva and is one of the pioneers of using the Internet ( for diplomatic studies. The foundation’s e-training includes a one-year post-graduate diploma course and several new 10-week courses that began in 2003. Rana teaches an eight-lecture course on bilateral diplomacy and is also developing a course on diplomatic documents.



Through writing and teaching, Rana has become more appreciative of the importance of mentoring young diplomats. “Ambassadors should pay greater attention to the next generation, and mentoring is exactly the operative word. All too often the young diplomats are taken for granted. You become more aware of this in the autumn of your life,” he said.



Rana called diplomacy a fascinating, consequential and, all too often, a misunderstood profession. “I think outsiders would be surprised at how much labor is involved. What you see is the swan on the surface. You don’t see all the peddling like mad under the water,” he said. “Much of the work of an embassy is no different than a service product by a corporation or a public utility. I believe that delivering effective diplomacy is a public good, like clean air and pure water.”


John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. October 2005

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Taken on February 4, 2005