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War and property

May 09, 2019


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

THE tradition of scholar-diplomats was a 19th-century construct. The former Viceroy of India Lord Curzon regarded himself as a superior example. He boasted titles such as Russia in Central Asia in 1889 and the Anglo-Russian Question (1889), Persia and the Persian Question (1892), Problems of the Far East (1894), and The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus (1897).

Equally fecund in the 20th century was Sir Harold Nicolson. He wrote numerous biographies including Curzon: The Last Phase 1919-1925 (1934), and also treatises on international politics — Peacemaking 1919: Being Reminiscences of the Paris Peace Conference (1933), and Diplomacy (1950).

Richard Crowder (currently British deputy high commissioner in Islamabad) follows that tradition. He is too discreet to write about his host country — yet. In time, he may follow the examples of Sir Nicholas Barring­ton and earlier still Sir Morrice James. In his present book, Aftermath: The Makers of the Postwar World (2015), Crowder has chosen to analyse the reconstruction of the world ravaged by the First and Second World Wars.

Throughout the tortuous negotiations ran a golden vein of poetry.

He begins by looking back: “Between 1914 and 1918, Europe had torn itself apart, slaughtering a generation, and, with them, the old certainties which had underpinned the late imperial age. Hatred and violence found a new voice.”

During and after the Second World War, the Big Three powers — the US, Great Britain and Soviet Russia — met in Tehran in 1943 and at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945. With Stalin’s warning in mind — “a man’s eyes should be torn out if he can only see the past” — they focused on the future. They agreed on the dissection of Germany and the appropriation of countries on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Crowder provides a chilling account of a meeting in Moscow between Churchill and Stalin in October 1944. To avoid future tension between the Soviet Union and imperial Britain, Churchill proposed “a simple division of interests”. He took a pen and on a list, aga­i­nst certain countries, he wrote a percenta­ge: Romania 90 per cent under Soviet influence, with 10pc for the UK and US; Bulgaria 75 aga­­inst 25; Yugoslavia and Hungary 50-50; and Gre­ece 90pc for the UK. Stalin looked at the list.

Wordlessly, he marked them with a blue tick. Churchill suggested: “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful for millions of people, in such an offhand manner. Let us burn the paper.” Stalin replied: “No, you keep it.”

Yet, throughout those tortuous negotiations and wartime insecurity ran a golden vein of poetry, composed by diplomats dodging bombs. Crowder unearths doggerel by Field Marshal Wavell scribbled en route to Moscow: “I cannot think my news will go down well/…will Stalin use Caucasian oaths and yell?” And the US ambassador to Moscow George Kennan’s moving lines: “Fortune’s mild and patient claimant/ has heard the rustling of the Time-God’s raiment/ and has contrived to touch the gleaming hem.”

Those diplomats were not embarrassed to reveal such sensitivity, no more than Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was when, 20 years ago, he recited before his Pakistani audience: Hum jang na honay dayenge; khoon ka rang na honay dayenge [We will not permit war; we will never allow more bloodstains.]

In contrast, his successor BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi has conducted his re-election campaign premised on anti-Pakistan bombast. He obviously has not read Harold Nicolson’s professional observation that the “exchange of insults is not the best method of conducting relations between sovereign states.” Pakistan waits for the outcome of the Indian general elec­tions with foreboding, the same dread that Chur­chill felt before the annou­ncement of the 1945 election result. It “hung like a vulture of uncertainty in the sky”.

Internally, the Pak­­­istan government has taken steps with almost Stalinist ruthlessness to achieve economic stability. Within 30 days, it removed the finance minister, the governor State Bank and the chairman Federal Board of Revenue — all while they were conducting negotiations with the IMF for a desperately needed bailout. Stalwarts argue that the PTI’s electoral promise of ‘change’ is being fulfilled. Critics wonder whether such transplants will ever blossom into improvement.

Mr Crowder’s erudite and immensely readable book contains two revealing vignettes on the price of power paid by those paid to exercise it. V. Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister for 10 years, was ordered by the Politburo to divorce his Jewish wife Polina. They had been married for over 25 years. As a submissive Communist, Molotov had to obey, but at home, he always laid an extra place at dinner, for her. And Churchill, after winning the war for Britain, lost the election in 1945. Hearing the result, he moaned: “I have no automobile, no place to live — what shall I do?”

Unlike some leaders, he had neglected to buy a retirement home in London.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2019