Once more, with feeling: Hillary Clinton visits Chennai

July 20, 2011


Chennai’s shiny new Anna Centenary Library auditorium was packed. We assembled early, from noon onwards, for Secretary of State Clinton’s speech. The speech was scheduled for 3 p.m. but we were told 2:30 p.m. And so we filed in with small purses, no water—the high and might, rich and famous, bold and beautiful, and students of Chennai and some of us besides—and lunch becoming a past-life memory, and waited.

I know why I was willing to wait. It was my way of showing appreciation to a politician who has put in her time on issues of real concern and who may well be remembered for placing gender justice on the State Department agenda with a minimum of opportunism attached.

And so when she came in at exactly 3, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. The very brief welcome by the Librarian was much nicer than the usual ceremonial welcome with soporific speeches. And Ms. Clinton led the applause when the Librarian said this was Asia’s largest public library. Since most of us haven’t been inside yet, we joined more sceptically.

Ms. Clinton’s speech was very much in the same mode as President Obama’s Parliament speech (see my post on this). As she checked off her hat-tips and tut-tuts, I could have sworn the speech had the same structure—which is not really an issue. Diplomatic speeches are not cutting-edge policy statements. So what were these?

She opened with a “vanakkam” which got her a round of appreciative applause. Then she talked about how happy she was to come to Tamil Nadu and Chennai, and said nice things about culture and history and contemporary American connections to this town (which in the past includes the Ice House and the fortune that founded the Secretary of State’s alma mater).

Why was India so important to the US? Because the Obama administration believes that much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia, she said. And then elucidating “how to inject content” into the Indo-US relationship, she tipped her hat to democracy, pluralism, opportunity and innovation as “bedrock beliefs” that the two countries share.

Reiterating the US’ support for India becoming a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in a reformed UN system (whatever that means, whenever that happens!), the Secretary of State said that the US welcomed India assuming a global leadership role. But she asked: What does global leadership mean and what does it mean for Indo-US relations? In that moment, I thought we were back in November 2010, listening to President Obama.

And after a little while, came the little nudge about Burma. Yes, India has interests and investments in Burma, so the US was happy to see the Foreign Secretary meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The words left unspoken: But really you can do more if you decide to, and if you want to assert your position as a leader, you should. If this annoys Indians because it sounds like a lecture, it is also not untrue—power comes at a price. President Obama reminded Indians of this in several ways through his visit but never as explicitly as in his Parliamentary address. And both he and Secretary of State Clinton subtly pointed out that US support for India’s claim to such leadership would depend on India’s willingness to shoulder its costs and responsibilities.

Of course, this nasty medicine was served with plenty of sugar: India had so much to offer in support of the democratic transitions in West Asia; Ms. Clinton described India’s Election Commission as the ‘gold standard.’ Apart from democracy, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and sustainable development (especially agriculture in arid areas) were three areas where India had something to offer, in her view.

The Secretary of State identified the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia as two regions where the US and India could work together. Chennai, she suggested, was a very good location from which to speak about these, since it was a reminder of India’s old connections to this region and its maritime history. The main point to this cooperation was trade; open markets and freer trade would make everyone prosperous. But the language of Ms. Clinton’s speech was colourful and evocative; she recalled the Silk Road and called for the creation of a web of Silk Roads that an entrepreneur in Chennai might use to get her products to a customer in Central Asia.

In this part of her speech, Ms. Clinton said Tamil Nadu was an example of what was possible when everyone enjoyed equal rights in a society, and then used that as a way to introduce Sri Lanka into her speech. When she said, every citizen deserved the same hope, there was a buzz of approval. But this was also the one place where she made a very strong statement that peace is not possible when the peace process ignores women’s rights and minority rights. But in spite of the passion with which she spoke these words, the audience in Chennai did not really react. It must have been as disappointing to the speaker as it was to this blogger.

In fact, after her ‘vanakkam,’ the only real response Ms. Clinton got came when she quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wish that he should be able to travel so freely across the subcontinent that he could eat breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Interesting, when you consider how much criticism he currently receives. The applause was so great that she paused to say, applause is not enough.

Anyway, having spoken about Sri Lanka in Chennai—acknowledging the city’s interest in that country’s affairs—she made sure to talk about India’s assistance to the Maldives and the need for a regional solution to flooding problems in Bangladesh.

The end of Ms. Clinton’s speech was written to be rousing and inspiring but the audience remained cold.

Anti-Americanism comes very easily to Indian audiences, but I want to ask those gathered in that room why they were there. They were never going to hobnob with the Secretary of State; so that cannot be the motivation. They were not moved by the content and seemed largely disinterested in it. They were just not there; and as I have written this post and reflected on it, the watery applause they gave Ms. Clinton makes me wonder. What brought them to that room? Interactions (even non-interactive ones like this!) are a two-way street and both parties go under the scanner.

So my question to those who planned this event is: what was the point of having so many people—many very busy—gather in a room for so long just to listen to Ms. Clinton breeze in, speak and breeze out? You could have screened this and had a discussion. Or had her take some questions.

What was in this event for Ms. Clinton or the gathered Chennaiites? It’s not so clear at all. She got a tired, somewhat dehydrated and restless audience for a speech that didn’t need them to be there. They got an afternoon away from work (nice for some, including me) and a chance to meet friends they have no time for otherwise, but really this can’t have been the objective of the US Consulate. Might Ms. Clinton have done better to visit another social service organization, working in the area of child rights, perhaps? Would a town-hall in a college which is off the Consulate’s radar otherwise, have opened new connections?

Other notes:

• Ms. Clinton mentioned “Passport to India,” a programme to encourage American undergraduates to study in India in larger numbers and build connections with India.
• She also used the feminine gender everytime she had an example to narrate in the third person singular… very, very nice, and noted with great approval!

Last question for academics: Analyses of speeches like this one either start with a checklist of desirable mentions and omissions and then scan minutely and critically, or like this one, they are readings of style and structure. As a foreign policy scholar, I wonder, does the first miss the woods for the trees, and does the second fail to appreciate the work on each tree in its emphasis on the woods as a whole?

PS: The State Department’s account is here. Full text of the speech is here.

A Feminist Foreign Policy for the US?

January 21, 2010


Gender issues may not be new to the world of international diplomacy, but the high profile being accorded them by the Obama-Clinton led State Department seems new.


It’s just about a year since the Obama inaugural. That euphoric morning, the mantra of ‘change’ was everywhere. But in the life after the inaugural, the logic and process of government dominate to slow down the whirlwind and subdue it to the measured pace of administrations everywhere. One thing, this blogger would suggest, has changed. And that is the growing profile of gender issues in the discourses and programmes of the US State Department.

One of the very first things that President Obama did right after taking oath was to lift the ban on federal funding for family planning programmes that recognize abortion. From there on, take a look at these notes from the last six-seven months:

  • § On June 12, 2009, Melanne Verveer was sworn in as Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues.
    § In July, Secretary of State Clinton and film star Aamir Khan spent a couple of hours during her visit to Mumbai speaking before a large audience about the importance of education, especially for girls.
    § Sexual violence against women received a great deal of attention from the Secretary of State on her visit to seven African states in August, including time taken to speak with activists in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (See also: Jane Morse, Conflicts in Africa Exacerbate Gender-Based Atrocities, August 3, 2009) During this visit, it was announced that the US would assist with a three-year program to provide medical aid, counseling, economic assistance and legal support to vulnerable women and girls.
    § In September, when the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to end sexual violence during armed conflict, Hillary Clinton spoke out against those states that had turned a blind eye to such violence in recent conflicts.  (See earlier ASI post on this topic.)
    § In November, the State Department’s Program on “Women’s Empowerment: Preventing Violence Against Women and Children” invited Take Back the Night Foundation to speak about its history and its work on preventing and ending violence against women to groups across India. Dr. Suraiya Baluch, an American of South Asian origin who sits on their Board, made the trip to cities across India during the global fortnight of advocacy against gender violence (November 25 to December 10).
    § In January, Clinton addressed the 15th Anniversary meeting of the International Conference on Population and Development with these words: “Now, as those of us gathered in the Ben Franklin Room on the eight floor of the State Department know very well, the topic of reproductive health is subject to a great deal of debate. But I think we should all agree that these numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable. For if we believe that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, then we cannot accept the ongoing marginalization of half the world’s population. We cannot accept it morally, politically, socially, or economically.
    …. So we’re here today to examine the distance that remains to be traveled before the world fully realizes the ICPD goals. This is a journey that the Obama Administration and the United States Government will travel with you. But we need to travel quickly, because we only have five years to meet our original goals.” (Italics added)

It’s fair to say that foreign ministers and foreign policy establishments issue hundreds of statements and press releases and really most of them are meaningless. But given the high profile of each of these, it could be said these are shifts intended to be noted.

What’s the history?

Traditionally, women and gender issues have only featured in international relations as victims—to be protected, lamented, assisted. A growing global women’s movement over the last half-century has forced a gradual accommodation of women’s issues on the global agenda.

Since 1975,  the international community has taken increasing cognizance of the separate and different experience of women in every sphere of life. Momentum gathered from that year dedicated to women’s advancement, through a similarly dedicated decade that culminated in the formulation of Forward-looking Strategies at Nairobi in 1985. These were reviewed in Beijing in 1995 following a decade in which the world had verily changed: the Cold War ended; the Soviet Union collapsed; ethnic conflicts seemed to replace interstate wars; new ideas about security were emerging; and perhaps most critically, information and communication technologies made globally networked advocacy easy.

Since Beijing, we have seen the emergence of gender-related norms into the mainstream of international relations. The mass-rapes in Bosnia brought an old reality to light: the use of rape as a weapon of war. In 2000, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 recognized the impact of war on women and posited that women should be a part of peace-making and peace-building. Outrage has steadily mounted to culminate in the adoption by the Security Council in 2008 of a resolution condemning war rapes. The 2009 UN Security Council Resolution takes 1325 further, condemning sexual violence during conflict and mandating peacekeeping and postconflict operations to take women’s needs into account. Finally, it should be noted that the third Millennium Development Goal relates to gender equality: “Promote gender equality and empower women.”

Bosnia and Rwanda first brought gender violence during conflict into newspaper and talkshow agendas in the US, but the email petitions that were circulated by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) in the mid-1990s seeking support to condemn the Taliban’s policies on women and women’s education seem to me to mark a watershed in the way global gender issues entered into ordinary homes and offices.  Activism surrounding these petitions and the news coming out of Afghanistan certainly contributed in some measure to the post-9/11 support for US intervention in Afghanistan. For a few years now, the State Department has been recognizing women around the world that it identifies as exceptional advocates for women’s right and advancement.

In other words, these issues are not entirely new to the world of international relations or diplomacy; it’s the high profile they are now being lent that is new. And interesting.

Why this high profile activism now?

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that it is the culmination of a thirty-year global change.

But what sorts of international relations observers would we be, if we did not cynically ask: What is the realpolitik of this change, if we do accept that there is change? FP establishments tend to be status quo, and if they are embracing this change, then it is tempting to subject to a realist reading: what’s in it for the US? It’s hard to buy into the idea that genuine idealism and humanitarian interest motivate any administration, anywhere. As President Obama pointed out in his Nobel lecture, we face the world “as it is.”

So why high-profile social activism in the foreign policy establishment? Does it have to do with Hillary Clinton being Secretary of State, not just because she is a woman but because so much of her work in the past has related to these issues? Does it have to do with a changed domestic environment in the US where economic downturns are forcing attention to social hardship?

While this is probably a question best answered by historians, such a change raises other interesting questions that we might take the opportunity to revisit.

Two interesting questions

1. Do women make a difference in decision-making roles?

“Where are the women?” is the famous point of departure for liberal critiques of international relations. It is a moral given that women should be well represented and that women should be able to participate in every sphere at every level. There is more ambivalence about whether the mere presence of women makes a substantive difference in favour of women’s interests, broadly generalized.

The essentialist assumption that women will extend a caregiving, nurturing presence to the policy sphere is not substantiated by history. It is common to cite recent examples of Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher to illustrate that women in power make the same decisions on the same bases as men. Furthermore, gender issues do not necessarily find space on their lists of priority.

But the coincidence of Hillary Clinton’s swearing-in and the raising of the profile of gender issues in the State Department makes it worthwhile for political and diplomatic historians to take this opportunity to explore this question.

Take a look at:

David Rothkopf, It’s 3 a.m. Do You Know Where Hillary Clinton Is? Washington Post, August 23, 2009.
Megan Carpentier, Ms. Magazine publisher Eleanor Smeal talks Hillary and international women’s rights, Madam Secretary: FP Blogs, January 23, 2009.
John Meacham, Meeting of the Diplomats, Newsweek, December 21, 2009.

2. What are the elements of a feminist foreign policy?

Feminism has been defined as the “radical notion that women are people” (Cheris Kramarae) The advancement of women’s issues and interests worldwide, a gender perspective on other issues and a structural rather than de-contextualised view of the world surely must make up some elements. But what would a truly thoughtful, comprehensive list comprise?

Here are a couple of links, to which I will keep adding as I come across interesting links.

Christine Stansell, The War on Women: Establishing a Feminist Foreign Policy, Dissent Magazine, June 26, 2009.
Nona Willis Aronowitz, Searching for Feminism on America’s Roads, Women and Foreign Policy: The World Affairs Blog Network, December 26, 2009.

Surely, this is not the last post on this subject!

Postscript (A little confession)
Found a paragraph on a campaign we run here against gender violence on America.gov. We are not funded by the US government, don’t invite guests through the local consulate, pretty much are a local, community initiative. But if the official radar are now sensitized to pick up such obscure signals, it must mean that they have been tuned to do so.

Eventful fortnight in South Asia: Catching up

July 25, 2009


Communique from Egypt; a visit by Hillary Clinton; True confessions in a Mumbai court; misgivings in Sri Lanka; and outrage and introspection over airline security regulations.


This has been such an eventful couple of weeks in South Asian international relations that it’s useful to just step away and list what’s been going on.

1. India-Pakistan Joint Communique at Sharm El Shaikh, Egypt, July 16, 2009.

The Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers met on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Egypt. There was some speculation that the meeting would be inconclusive (read, pointless) but the ensuing joint communique has had Indian commentators and opposition leaders completely baffled. The communique delinks the 26/11 investigation in Pakistan from continuing India-Pakistan talks. This is a departure from India’s post-26/11 stand and would elicit commentary and criticism on its own. What has really riled Indian opinion-makers is the inclusion of Balochistan in the communique, hinting at Indian acknowledgment of a role in the Baloch crisis.

The text of the communique is online.


Shekhar Gupta, The Big Rewrite, Indian Express, July 25, 2009.

2. Hillary Clinton visited India last week.

The US Secretary of State spent five days in India, in Mumbai and New Delhi. What was really striking about the visit was the amount of time she devoted to ‘non-traditional’ security issues. Her most widely reported events included a breakfast with industry leaders; a television interview in the company of a leading actor discussing the important of civil society and citizen initiatives on education; a meeting with the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a pioneering Indian trade union of women in the informal sector; and a visit to a ‘green’ campus outside Delhi where the focus was on climate change issues. The traditional foreign policy segment of her visit seemed almost like an afterthought.

Moreover, Clinton stayed at the Taj hotel which was last seen under attack in November 2008. That has been widely read as an expression of solidarity with not just the victims of the terror attack but also India’s own war against terror. (See this for instance.) It is also a departure from the way US missions fortify themselves against the very communities they are meant to cultivate. (In all fairness, this is probably now true of most diplomatic missions.)


C. Raja Mohan, Before the chance fades, Indian Express, July 20, 2009.

3. 26/11 accused Kasab confessed in court

The whole world watched Kasab and his associates cause murder and mayhem in Mumbai last year. Only Kasab was captured alive, and although everyone had watched him in action, and he had spoken at length during the police interrogation, he was still taken to court. A special court facility was created in the interests of his security. Legal counsel was sought for him, and in spite of those in Mumbai who sought to deprive him of a defence lawyer, three people agreed to take on his case. The last lawyer made a valiant effort to get Kasab pronounced under-age; to improve the conditions of his prison tenure; to get him off the hook.

On Monday, July 20, Kasab decided to confess. With no word to his own defence lawyer.

Rahi Gaikwad, Ajmal admits to crime, The Hindu, July 21, 2009.
We were ordered to throw grenades first: Ajmal, The Hindu, July 21, 2009.
Rahi Gaikwad, From petty job to dacoity to terror camps, The Hindu, July 21, 2009.

And then, all injured innocence, two days later, Kasab asked to be hung if his intentions were suspect.
Hang me if my guilty plea is suspect: Ajmal, The Hindu, July 23, 2009.

The trial continues. The Indian establishment says his confession covers only part of the charge-sheet he faces.

4. Sri Lanka’s IDP camps: What is the P.O.A.?

As the clock ticks on the government’s 180-day rehabilitation promise, the questioning has begun. What does the government actually plan to do? Will they meet their deadline? And, most important, why is no one demanding answers?

5. Kalam and Continental Airlines

In order to understand why this is a diplomatic issue, it is important to know that in India several categories of VIPs are exempt from bodily searches conducted as part of routine security procedures. Former Heads of State certainly are. Moreover, beloved former Heads of State certainly are.

In April 2009, traveling out of Delhi by Continental, former President Kalam had stood in the queue like other passengers and been subjected to frisking, just as they were. He did not fuss.

In the last week, this has become a huge issue in India. A First Information Report (police complaint) has been filed against the airline, which claims it was following rules. The US Transportation Security Administration says Indian rules do not apply to its aircraft. In the meanwhile, every leading Indian politician has spoken out against the frisking and it has been taken up officially.

What Indian commentators are focusing on is Kalam’s own unpretentiousness. He stood in a queue, allowed the frisking without a fuss and did not lodge a complaint himself thereafter.

Kalam’s own personality invites outrage on his behalf, but can we truly say that every VIP—in an age of celebrity culture—is safe to allow without all the standard security checks? Can any state take that chance in a climate where young men get off a boat and shoot people at random in coffee shops and marketplaces?

A last note, befitting a fortnight like this: Vinod Mehta, Delhi Diary, Outlookindia.com, August 3, 2009.