Germany’s ambassador to Pakistan, Martin Kobler, is returning home after having become the favourite diplomat of the country’s establishment and the large number of Pakistanis who consider a positive image more important than the positive realities. For two years, he tweeted about Pakistani hospitality, food, clothes, and even pottery, but never mentioned terrorism, human rights violations, or the political dysfunction normally associated with Pakistan abroad.
Kobler certainly made a certain type of Pakistani feel good about his or her country. But did he really advance German interests in Pakistan, which was his principal job, or even help Pakistan, which he might have been trying to do? After all, the outgoing German ambassador’s commentary did little to enhance bilateral trade and served little purpose than to endear Ambassador Kobler to Pakistanis tired of hearing criticism of their country.
It is not difficult to understand the frustration of Pakistanis, both at home and in the diaspora, over the negative portrayal of their country in the international media. They are hurt by adverse comments about anything to do with Pakistan because it reflects poorly on them even though they and their friends and family lead decent, productive lives.
Pakistanis would rather have their country’s name associated with good food, picturesque landscapes, a colourful culture, and the individual kindness of its people. But the harsh fact remains that discussion of any country by others focuses more on its politics and policies than on the virtues of its people or the beauty of its topography.
German scenery and Italian food did not change in the 1930s, but the two great European nations embraced ideologies that threatened peace, security, and individual freedom. How seriously could one take an ambassador who spent his/her tenure in Berlin or Rome during that period just praising the sights or tasting German beer and Italian wine?
Even tourists cannot gloss over harsh political and economic realities, let alone ambassadors from democracies in this era of the return of authoritarianism. The European Union, of which Germany is a leader, asserts that it “is based on a strong commitment to promoting and protecting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law worldwide”.
In playing the tourist at German taxpayers’ expense, Ambassador Kobler paid little attention to the notion of human rights being at “the heart of EU relations with other countries and regions”. He got excited by the praise from Pakistan’s establishment, its beneficiaries, and the Pakistanis who see admiration for Pakistan’s cuisine and mountains as palliative in the face of a series of adversities.
In the process, the German ambassador – who I am sure is a good, well-intentioned man and an otherwise sound professional – failed to uphold key aspects of the EU policy in public: promoting the rights of women, children, minorities and displaced persons. For all we know, Kobler might have raised issues, such as enforced disappearances, with Pakistani officials in private. But given his public praise, it is unlikely that his interlocutors took his private missives seriously.
The European Union’s Election Observer Mission for the July 2018 Pakistani elections protested that it had been given permission to observe the polls too late, limiting the scope of its work. Kobler did not join that remonstration. The observers noted that the election “was overshadowed by allegations of interference, restrictions on freedom of speech and the media, and unequal opportunities to campaign.”
Ambassador Kobler virtually overturned that criticism when he tweeted to congratulate “the millions of voters” who he said had “voted for the democratic handover of power”. This was presented to Pakistanis as an unconditional endorsement of the legitimacy of the election process, and was hardly what the EU Election Observer Mission had intended.
No one is suggesting that an ambassador should take up cudgels against the government or the elite of the country where they are assigned. But a Hippocratic Oath promising to do no harm must apply to diplomats as it does to doctors. Reassuring bad governments, and the people ruled by them, that all is well is the diplomatic equivalent of a doctor telling a diabetic that he does not need to limit his sugar intake.
As he leaves Pakistan, Ambassador Kobler can be sure that he will be welcomed back to heap praise on the people and land of Pakistan, ignoring the malfeasance of the institutions of state that have blighted the prospects for both the land and the people. But the German foreign ministry must make sure that their future representatives in dysfunctional countries do not add to that dysfunction with misdirected praise.
As for the Pakistanis who get intoxicated by the praise for their hospitality, culture, or panoramas, they must realise that improving Pakistan’s realities is more important than improving the country’s image. A German ambassador’s praise for Lahore’s street food does not change the fact that Pakistan has the world’s highest infant mortality rate and the second highest number of out-of-school children.
In seven decades, Pakistan has gone through four full-fledged wars, several proxy or civil wars, four direct military coups, multiple constitutions, and long periods without constitutional rule. It has lost half its land area in conflict and been accused of genocide leading to secession of the majority population.
Pakistan is associated in the mind of others with unremitting terrorism, frequent religious and sectarian strife, repeated economic failures, numerous political assassinations, continued external dependence, and chronic social underdevelopment. These are functions of politics and policy, not the result of people around the world not appreciating Pakistan’s cuisine or mountains.
Germany and Italy changed their image distorted by National Socialism (Nazism) and Fascism by assuring their neighbours of peaceful intentions and by rebuilding their economies under democracy with respect for human rights. That, not misplaced praise, is also the recipe for improving Pakistan’s image.