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004 – Ambassadors as political analysts

Published on 06 October 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Retired ambassadors used to write poetry (Claudel, St. John Perse) and then memoirs: either of a negotiation they took part in (e.g. Oliver LONG) or autobiographies (the classical: been there, done that).

Retired ambassadors are becoming political commentators, writing op-ed pieces for newspapers. A new breed is emerging: the ambassador turned scholar and political analyst; he puts his special knowledge in the service of deeper understanding of situations in the field. Switzerland’s Amb. Tim Guldimann has written on aspects of power of the Soviet Union, and Italy’s Amb. Roberto Palmieri has written books on both China and Japan.

The Brookings Institution is about to publish a book by former Pakistani Amb. Akbar Ahmed.

Here is the write-up: The United States declared war on terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. More than ten years later, the results are decidedly mixed. In The Thistle and the Drone, world-renowned author, diplomat, and scholar Akbar Ahmed reveals a tremendously important yet largely unrecognized adverse effect of these campaigns: they actually have exacerbated the already-broken relationship between central governments and the tribal societies on their periphery.

Ideas of a clash of civilizations, “security,” and “terrorism” have dominated the last decade, upsetting the balance between central governments and their periphery in much of the world.

Ahmed draws on sixty current case studies for this unprecedented analysis, beginning with Waziristan in Pakistan and expanding to similar societies in Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere to offer an alternative paradigm. The United States is directly or indirectly involved with many of these societies. Al Qaeda has been decimated, but the world is drifting into a global war where the focus has shifted to these peripheral societies. Old ethnic and tribal tensions have been revived. No one is immune to the violence—neither school children nor congregations in their houses of worship. People on the periphery say, “Every day is 9/11 for us.”

The thistle of the title evokes Hadji Murad, Tolstoy’s classic novel about the struggle between the Imperial Russian army and the independent Muslim states in the Caucasus. The local tribesman with his courage, pride, and sense of egalitarianism is the prickly thistle; the drone reference, as the most advanced kill technology of globalization, is painfully clear. Together these two powerful metaphors paint a bleak landscape of confusion, uncertainty, violence, and loss. The Thistle and the Drone provides concrete ways to minimize conflict and win this global war.

I’ll reserve judgment on the book – as it has yet to be published. The fact, however, that Amb. Ahmed addresses “center vs. periphery” issues in Islamic countries is a welcome pointer to a better understanding of the complexity of the reality in such countries.

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