Shashi Tharoor Interview: Conversations with History, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
Photo by Jane Scherr
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As a writer pursuing universalistic themes in an Indian context, you are trying to find truth, and truths. And I'm curious, going back to your role as a man of international diplomacy, what you see as the relationship between intellectuals and political figures. Can truth that intellectuals and writers come up with inform power? And if so, easily or not?
Well, truth is a particularly difficult issue. In fact, I mentioned that it's actually part of India's national motto, which is "Truth alone triumphs." But the question is, Whose truth? There are perhaps as many truths in India as there are Indians. And in The Great Indian Novel I find myself inspired very much by some of the philosophical disputations in the ancient epics, asking the question: Is truth a noun that can be modified by a possessive pronoun? Is there my truth? And your truth? And his truth? The truth of the nationalist movement in India is seen so very differently from the other side of the border in Pakistan, that you can well ask yourself: What is truth?
So in my writing, I've tried to ask more questions than to provide answers, because I've essentially implicitly made the argument that the reader will find his or her truth for himself, for herself, from the writing. The writing would probe the nature of truth in history, in fiction, in reality, in the contemporary world, but will do so in a way that allows the readers to draw their own conclusions of what is true and what is not true. In that sense, ultimately diplomacy isn't that very different. A lot of the work of the world's diplomats in international affairs consists of reconciling different forms of truth, different perceptions of truth, of being able to see every international conflict from the point of view of both or all the protagonists, not necessarily to sympathize with them, but to understand that there is more than one answer to every question and more than one way of looking at every particular problem. So in that sense, those elements are in common.
Does one inform the other? For me, I think that certainly they both inform my view of the world. I'm very slow to judge people harshly. I'm quicker to observe them and I might be able to describe them and comment on them, but I'm very slow to judge them because I tend to see that they have their own validity for what they are and for what they believe and how they act.
Accepting that both worlds have multiple truths, I'm curious of your views of the use of words in literature versus their use in politics. Especially in our political system, talking now about the United States, there is a malaise, a sense that words are used to distort, to conceal, to hide. But a writer is trying to use words to shape realities that reveal one truth or several truths. Talk a little about that. Is there a conflict?
That's true, in the sense that writers obviously want exquisite precision in their descriptions and want to convey very clearly the sense of place, of feeling that they are experiencing and wishing to communicate to their readers. Though having said that, and I'll qualify that in just a minute, in diplomacy there is a sense sometimes that precision can do harm, that it is better to find the form of words that are agreeable to everybody. Security Council resolutions or presidential statements are classic examples of drafting by committee where each phrase usually has fifteen hands in it. And ultimately the lowest common denominator is arrived at rather than the most euphonious or the most explicit sort of phrase. In diplomatic language you learn to read between the lines. You learn to read behind the words. You try to think of what has been left out and why. And what the omission implies about the substance of the diplomatic statement. There is always code. There's a wonderful expression: "frank and cordial talks," which means "disagreed completely," and this sort of thing. So diplomacy has its own logic and subtext.
But I said I would qualify what I said about literature. This wonderful field of postmodernism suggests that texts should also be read in literature for what the writers leave out, for what they don't say, for how they say it, for what's between the lines, and so on. So maybe from a postmodern sensibility, the two fields are not that different in the use of words after all.
Let's talk a little about your recent work at the UN. You've been very much involved in peacekeeping, in shaping norms and institutions to deal with the problems that emerged in the post - Cold War world. What has been most challenging in that endeavor? What has been most difficult? And how has this whole area of words and meaning come to play?
Peacekeeping has been an extraordinary experience. I came to it in October 1989, when I was the sixth civilian in the peacekeeping department. There were three military people as well. So it was a very small office. We had five largely stable peacekeeping operations which employed fewer than 10,000 soldiers and which had not changed a great deal in the preceding decade. I found myself in this part of the UN at the end of the Cold War when the dramatic changes in the world, in the "new world disorder," provided so many opportunities for peacekeeping to get involved and to grow. And we shot up from those figures I mentioned to 80,000 troops with seventeen major peacekeeping operations by October '94, and with Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Cambodia competing with each other to be the largest single operation in the UN's history.
I myself led the team in the Department of Peacekeeping that handled peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia, which meant that I was working with and on what remains the largest single peacekeeping operation in the history of the United Nations. So all of that was exhilarating in a certain way, and exhausting in others, tremendously demanding. We were making up things as we went along in many ways. The norms of peacekeeping that you mentioned were being shaped very much through the actual process of coping with these challenges. It was in some ways like trying to ride a train at breakneck speed while fixing the engine at the same time. The entire process was remarkable and difficult.
When you say, "What were the greatest problems?" it is the opposite problem, which is the way peacekeeping became discredited by its application to crises for which peacekeeping as a concept was not ripe for application, particularly in situations where there was no peace to keep. Peacekeepers found themselves being blamed for failing to do things that we were simply not mandated or equipped or financed to do, with the result that the pendulum now in peacekeeping has swung so far away from it that the UN's peacekeeping credibility is very much on the line. The Security Council seems quite unwilling to push the UN onto the front lines of the great peace and security challenges of our day today. These have been the greatest problems. I've shortened drastically my explanation for all of this, but I would say that in responding to you directly, those have been the problems.
You asked the question of words and how words come into all of this. Well, I can give you one example. I talked about Security Council resolutions. There's the famous example of the resolutions proclaiming safe areas in Bosnia, a phrase itself that conjures up all sorts of notions of safety and security, and yet what's unusual is that they say "safe areas" and not "safe havens," which are a real concept in international law. The resolutions never actually use the words "protect" or "defend." They simply expected the UN to deter attacks on these areas by merely deploying the peacekeeping presence. And then the words of the resolution went on to say that if their presence wasn't enough and the peacekeepers were attacked, they would have the right to use the air power of NATO in self-defense. Now, this resolution was what put the UN soldiers in the impossible position that they were in, where they were actually in these safe areas, unable to go in or out, unable to bring humanitarian aid in, unable to perform the functions that they were there to perform without the active cooperation of the Serbs besieging these areas, whom at the same time their critics expected them to attack and bomb.
An American professor very memorably said that these calls for bombing are a particularly seductive form of military power because they are like modern courtship: they offer the possibility of gratification without commitment. Because one set of people are willing to drop bombs on a great height and fly away, while another set of people, the UN peacekeepers on the ground, have to wake up the morning after and live with the consequences. So this situation showed how words applied for diplomatic purposes can be operationally unimplementable on the ground. But interestingly, as the political will of the international community and particularly the Western world changed, those same words found themselves susceptible to different interpretations, so that one after the other, the same resolution, which had given us this mandate for impotence in a very difficult situation, became interpreted to justify the exclusion zones around Sarajevo after the market-place massacre of January 1994. Eventually it became the basis for justifying the deployment of a rapid reaction force, and finally justified the massive bombing campaigns all over Bosnia, even though the words [of the resolution] themselves had not changed. And so one of the lessons that it teaches me as a writer is how much words can conceal, but also how easily words themselves can lend themselves to different political purposes when those purposes change.
So the reality of the world when you are a man of action, a man of diplomacy, is that words are given flesh over time by changing circumstances.
Absolutely. Words can kill. Words can save. Words have an extraordinary power to lay out the possibilities for people in the world of action.
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