Great Expectations, Or The Limits Of Summit Diplomacy

November 7, 2010

President Obama is spending the weekend in India. What can we realistically expect from summit meetings?


India celebrates Diwali with the Obamas this weekend. Among the commentariat, expectations have risen like Diwali expenditure and fallen like bank balances!

Will the American President lend support to India’s claim for permanent membership of the UN Security Council? Will he condemn Pakistan for its part in facilitating this environment of insecurity in South Asia? Will he stand on Indian soil and criticize outsourcing? The touchy Indian political class took anticipatory umbrage, so that when the President arrived, they could hit the ground running with their critiques.

President Obama’s election campaign and victory captured the imagination of people all over the world. That would have been reason enough to look forward to his visit. Place it in the context of an interdependence that has deepened in the last three decades through the movement of people, goods, ideas and popular culture, and it acquires even greater interest.

That India and the US have been groping their way through the dark to a closer friendship is not news to anyone reading this blog. This, however, has been the most obstacle-ridden track of a multi-dimensional relationship. The obstacles have been rooted in distrust that is decades old, in different political and decision-making styles and in different readings of the world. If India is anxious about the US’ relationship with Pakistan and about being (seen as) as a pushover, the US is concerned that nothing should interfere with its campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and that the growing constituency of the unemployed should find satisfaction in all policy spheres. Because neither side fully appreciates the other’s concerns, they are even harder to overcome, except through a sustained, prolonged engagement.

No democratic leader can overturn the direction of her country’s foreign policy unilaterally; without a popular or institutional base of support, no such u-turn is likely to be lasting. So why do we pay so much attention to Presidential and Prime Ministerial visits? Why do we debate whether our high expectations are justified or should be lowered?

This is being written on the second morning of the Obama visit to India. President Obama began his visit with a stop at the 26/11 memorial at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Speaking to survivors briefly, he spoke of their courage and humanity, nodded to the rescue forces and said that the US and India were united in their quest to secure their citizens. He did not mention Pakistan. He did not list counter-terrorism measures. He did not specify punitive action. But it was the presidential equivalent of a condolence visit. Was it the time and place for any of these topics?

After a lingering stop at Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s former residence, President Obama addressed a conference of Indian and American businesspersons. He articulated American concerns even as he made a positive assessment of the prospects and benefits of Indo-US trade and collaboration. He spoke about mutual perceptions and misperceptions as well, and made announcements of deals that would benefit the US economy and also of measures that would benefit Indian companies. But the fact that he spoke about outsourcing as a concern to Americans, rankled.

The question is: What should we expect from visiting Presidents and Prime Ministers? An eminent retired Indian diplomat once mocked the scholarly tendency to give a great deal of importance to joint declarations and summit statements. He regaled us with tales that underscored the cosmetic quality of these speeches. The point he was making was that summit visits are icing, not cake.

The luggage of the visiting leader includes the concerns of the people that she represents—and it should. In the age of instant communication and simultaneous broadcasts, the audience for any speech made abroad is in large part the audience at home. It is that part of the audience that votes and to which the leader is accountable. Inevitable, even desirable, that the visitor’s speeches should reflect their mandate to her.

Travelling heads of government move along a tightly scripted itinerary—of destinations, interactions, speeches and agreements—from which they cannot depart. This script is a product of processes that are internal to their country’s political and administrative systems and that reflect the history of the two (or more) countries’ interactions. Yes, they occasionally flout protocol and court accidentally-on-purpose photo opportunities, but that simply reinforces the existence of a script. The same holds true of the host country’s leadership.

So if everyone at the summit is really a puppet on multiple strings, then what is the point of the meeting? What has genuine impact on foreign policy? Perhaps it is simply communication. “I will come over and tell you what’s on my mind, and you can tell me what’s on yours.” And in settings created especially for such conversations, we will pretend to listen to each other.

For the rest of us, what makes the difference between a run-of-the-mill, ritual summit and a summit we remember for years? It’s what the state department now labels “public diplomacy.” On the second morning of the Obama visit, it’s easy to predict the images that will linger: the Obamas at the 26/11 memorial; signing the guest book at Mani Bhavan, and at a Diwali celebration with school kids. It’s the president leading a professorial interaction with college students. It’s not going to be the business conference or even his speech in Parliament. Once the commentariat class moves on, we will likely forget those. The moments in which the elected representatives of one people reach out to befriend another people, leave abiding memories. That’s the lesson for diplomats and journalists alike.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s