The Raymond Davis affair (remember?), with all its ramifications, is well on its way to becoming the stuff of legend. So much had been written –and spoken – on the subject that it required all one’s will power to keep one’s mouth shut. One can hardly resist the temptation, though, to mention that this affair had a lot to do with the age-old coarse art of treading on toes. Who is treading on whose toes and with what results only time will tell. For the moment though it would be expedient to take time out, look back, and devote one’s undivided attention to the ‘coarse art’ in question.
There was a time (pre-pre nine/eleven?) when the high and mighty of this blessed land took delight in this pastime. This was particularly true of those who delighted in dabbling in the art of ‘diplomacy’ or whatever it was known as in those days of somewhat loose habits. Of course those good old times are no more. One lives and learns. There are several little lessons that come one’s way, if only one pays a bit of attention.
One wonders if the reader has noticed that any sane individual spends half of his/her life in either avoiding treading on other persons’ toes or, alternatively, in saving his/her own toes from being trod on. This, however, is not all! A good part of the remaining half is spent on living down the after-effects of having (inadvertently?) trod on some (tender) toes, or the other way around. The same can be said of nations and nation states. So, when one talks of ‘persons’ the implications are rather wider!
Treading on toes, it must be stressed, is as old as history itself. Persons of all stations and divers dispositions have over the ages lost their heads over it – and not only figuratively. In the individual sense, treading on toes is the bane of all societies. Most – if not all – of the society’s problems can ultimately be traced down to this phenomenon. Most disputes, machinations and vendettas have their origins in an incident or incidents of treading on toes, in the figurative sense. Of course, it is important to know who does the treading and whose toes are being trod on, since one cannot afford to be non-discriminatory when it comes to toes. Toes have a pecking order too, you know. There are toes and there are toes!
Oriental societies such as ours are particularly sensitive. Treading on toes in our kind of societies at times becomes a matter of family (national) honour, in a manner of speaking, with its myriad ramifications. Our feudal lords (not to talk of lords not so feudal) have peculiar sensitivities about their toes being trod on by the small fry. Come to think of it, in this age of globalization, deliberate treading on toes appears to have caught on like an epidemic. A good many statements issued by public figures, for instance, appear to be aimed at somebody’s toes. The newspapers are full of them. The owners of the toes on the receiving end, quite naturally, consider it their duty to retaliate in kind; and so the battle is joined. Several public figures have become past masters at this game of sorts. Practice makes perfect, as they say. One could name a few names if only one did not have one’s own (tender) toes to worry about!
World history would not be what it is today, if only known personalities and nations had paid a bit more attention, betimes, to what they were treading on. In fact, one could safely venture farther afield and opine that a little research into this subject could well sift this out as the single most significant cause of the outbreak of armed conflicts. Why go far; a cursory glance at the recent military adventures of the powers-that-be, and the chain of events they unleashed, should be enough to provide ample food for thought.
All in all, the art of international diplomacy has a lot to do with how deft one is at avoiding treading on at least toes of the wrong kind. Successful diplomacy can aptly be defined as the ability to cross a minefield of sensitive toes and emerge on the other side without having trod on any. About our own diplomacy, the less said the better. If anything, we appear to specialize in treading on toes; and the wrong ones at that. Add to that our wee-known reluctance to protect our own toes from being trod on and you have the whole picture! There are times when our diplomacy – our own sore toes notwithstanding – actually goes through a whole series of treading on (sensitive) toes, interspersed occasionally, for good measure, by the dropping of an almighty classical clanger. Who said our brand of diplomacy is not exciting?
On another note, our liberal brigade appears to have perfected treading on toes into something of a fine art form. Needless to add, half of our social problems stem out of this regrettable practice. Life would be a lot simpler (though perhaps not as exciting) if only people generally held on to the dictum that toes are a part of the anatomy just not intended for being trod on. But how desirable would such a state of affairs be? One realizes that this would take the spice out of life, leaving it dull and goody-goody. How many persons would wish to peruse the morning papers with all the juicy bits and pins and needles missing?
It would be too much to hope, perhaps, that our public figures would leave one other’s toes alone. Such habits dye hard. What can be accomplished, though, is in the fields of diplomacy and international relations. Our statements in the domain of foreign affairs could be honed in such a fashion as not to give a handle to our critics to discover a chink in our armour. The tendency to shoot from the hip (that we have apparently borrowed from our friends, the Americans) will need to be shed in favour of a more circumspect approach towards sensitive issues. For the time being, the moot point is how to side step the Super-power juggernaut! Our diplomatic toes may be in for an excruciating painful experience indeed and that in a not too distant future!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.