ecent events around the world have highlighted both the perils and promises that diplomacy offers. The drama, which unfolded in Ukraine serves an exemplar of the risks when diplomacy is misused for narrow political errands and even risk to the reputation of high-profile diplomats and the personal security of a seasoned professional diplomat. Quite opposite to this situation, the quiet behind the scene Swiss diplomacy has averted a violent conflict from spiraling out of control.

Diplomacy is a venerable public service in pursuit of furthering national interests. Engaged in diplomacy and during their tours of duty, diplomats engage their counterparts in capital cities in distant corners of the world. Diplomats often also interact with civil society and with students to inform them about policies and programs of the governments they represent.

Historically, some great diplomats have been people with military backgrounds, even though their profession is influenced by the use of raw power. The late General George C. Marshall was a soldier, statesman, and diplomat par excellence. Tempered by the experience of many wars, he was the architect of the plan named after him and which helped the war-ravaged Europe recover and unleash a long period of stability and peace. For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

Among the most revered diplomats in the last few decades was Ambassador Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, who went on to serve as Pakistan’s Foreign Minister a number of times. He left his mark on how to conduct diplomacy and effectively represent his country.

Like George Marshall, he served in the military and experienced many wars. But Ambassador Yaqub Khan also experienced being a prisoner of war. During World War II, he was captured first by the Italians and was successful in escaping imprisonment only to be recaptured again by the Germans.

During his captivity, he is reported to have learned the languages of his captors. The skills he acquired during his military service and imprisonment prepared him to become a very effective diplomat. Ambassador Yaqub Khan was known to be proficient in seven global languages including Bengali, English, French, German, Italian, and Russian.

The late Ambassador Yaqub Khan distinguished himself as a diplomat. He helped defuse the Hanafi hostage crisis in Washington during the late 1970s, while serving as Pakistan’s representative in U.S. And during his stint as Foreign Minister, he played a major role in Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979–89) and took part in negotiations to end the Contras in Nicaragua (1981–87) on the behalf of the United Nations. He also served as an official of the United Nations for Western Sahara. As a diplomat, he served as an ambassador in France, the United States, and then Soviet Union.

Ambassador Khan’s ability to impart knowledge and wisdom was facilitated by his earlier experience as a military commander and the governor of a large province in his native country Pakistan. “He was known to be an unusual military officer who knew very well of ‘limits of force’, and did not believe in the use of brute force to settle political disputes.”

Former Brookings Institution Expert Teresita C. Schaffer noted about Ambassador Yaqub Khan’s skills and the respect he commanded in Washington. Writing about the tense period in 1990 over Pakistan’s nuclear program, she wrote: “He never conceded that the United States was correct in its assessment, never quite denied it, but argued what was undoubtedly the point most important to his government: that Pakistan felt its future existence was at stake. The aid cutoff happened despite his best efforts, but he walked out with his reputation intact, along with the respect in which he was held by Washington, and specifically by (former Secretary of State James) Baker.”

The respect Ambassador Yaqub Khan earned was almost universal. Ms. Anne Howard-Tristani, niece of late U.S. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, recalls her impression of Ambassador Yaqub Khan whom she met while a graduate student at Georgetown University: “how very much the Ambassador impressed me not only with his diplomatic skills but also with his broad intellectual interests.”

William Safire, the New York Times Op-Ed Columnist and a language maven, noted Ambassador Yaqub Khan’s erudition and acknowledged his command of the English language after learning that the ambassador “used a word I never heard before.” In 1999, Mr. Safire, described Ambassador Yaqub Khan and the “most skillful diplomat in the world today.”

C Naseer Ahmad
C. Naseer Ahmad is a contributor to Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.