Benefits of a personal relationship between leaders of nations are exaggerated.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended unprecedented hospitality to President Xi Jinping of China during his recent state visit to India. Modi travelled to Ahmedabad to be with Xi. He received Xi when the Chinese leader reached his hotel from the airport. Modi also personally showed him around the Sabarmati Ashram and hosted a splendid Gujarati banquet on the banks of the Sabarmati river. No other Indian prime minister has ever made such extraordinary gestures to a visiting foreign leader. Significantly, this was to a leader of a country with which India continues to have a relationship of conflict, although economic ties are expanding.
If Modi took such personal care of the Chinese leader, he received equal consideration from his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, during his official visit to Japan. Abe was Modi’s constant companion in Kyoto. Indeed, no Indian prime minister has been so received by a leader of a major world power. Unlike the case with China, India has no bilateral conflict with Japan; relations have been below their potential, but very friendly.
What is the purpose of extreme gestures that go beyond international protocol? How are they perceived by the recipient? Do they build personal rapport, trust and confidence between leaders? More importantly, what is the role of such personal bonds or special gestures in improving problematic bilateral ties?
Many diplomats place great emphasis on the need to develop good, if not great, personal relations between national leaders to resolve contentious issues and achieve breakthroughs or take bilateral ties to higher levels. In a recent article in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, veteran Pakistani diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi — who has also served as his country’s high commissioner to India — advised Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Modi that “despite mutual misgivings, the development of a personal relationship based on mutual confidence and trust should be a priority for both leaders”. For decades now, “retreats” have been organised during some multilateral summits so leaders can mingle in a relaxed setting, without aides, to address difficult issues.
Some seasoned Indian diplomats in recent TV talk shows suggested that Modi should strike a personal rapport with US President Barack Obama. Before leaving Delhi, Modi said of Obama, “His life’s journey is… an inspiration for people around the world.” In a warm gesture, Obama accompanied Modi to the Martin Luther King Jr memorial in Washington. It was clear both were comfortable with each other during their interactions from Modi’s very successful visit to the US.
At a time when many leaders are in direct telephonic contact, some of them want to foster personal relations to smoothen the interaction between their countries. This urge is most seen in leaders of weaker states who deliberately court a more powerful leader. How does this play out in building enduring ties between two countries? US-Afghan ties offer a good illustration.
Former President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan built an excellent rapport with then President George W. Bush. They had a weekly video conference; the bureaucracies were often bypassed. This changed under Obama. Karzai and Obama remained cold to each other and the weekly contact ended. Karzai became increasingly critical of US policies and actions
in Afghanistan after 2009 and bilateral relations plummeted.
Long-term relations between states are based on a coincidence of interests. A change in leadership may lead to changed perceptions of interests, but this is seldom the case. Friendship or friction among leaders can mask the true nature and substance of relationships and can therefore be counterproductive in the long run. The establishments of the concerned countries must be largely on board for continuing strong ties.
As time is a big constraint, an attempt is made to promote understanding between leaders through one-on-one meetings, with
or without note-takers, where leaders can candidly and openly talk about their differences and problems. It is felt that, in such a setting, a leader can take his counterpart into confidence about his domestic compulsions. Hence, such interactions can lead to processes for the resolution of longstanding bilateral problems by building trust. However, how often does that happen?
A fascinating insight is publicly available in the records of one-on-one conversations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in their five summits (1985-88) to ease global tensions and reduce strategic weapons. The second summit at Reykjavik witnessed many hours of personal negotiations between the two leaders on nuclear weapons. At crucial moments, they called in their foreign ministers. At one stage, “Ron” proposed that they eliminate all nuclear weapons and “Mikhail” agreed. The experts of the two sides sweated in the adjoining room, alarmed at the pace at which their presidents were abandoning the anchors of their national security. Eventually Reagan’s insistence on continuing with the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) led to the collapse of the summit. The summit process went on and an arms reduction treaty (INF) was worked out by the experts, which the two leaders signed in Washington in 1987.
Attempts at cultivating rapport between Indian and Pakistani leaders are instructive. When negotiations between Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had collapsed at Shimla in 1972, the two met alone. Bhutto assured Indira Gandhi that he was committed to solving the Jammu and Kashmir issue with the LoC as a permanent border. “Mujh pe bharosa kareeye (trust me),” he told her, but did not keep his word. At the Agra summit, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf held fairly long one-on-one discussions. This writer was Vajpayee’s note-taker. Musharraf overplayed his hand and talks between the two sides broke down. Like Bhutto in Shimla, he too asked for a last meeting with Vajpayee, but without note-takers. Vajpayee met him but did not soften his stand.
Modi has displayed a sure instinct in the foreign policy area with quick and deft moves to safeguard and promote India’s national interests. However, excessive hospitality and the quest for establishing a personal rapport with his counterparts can be perilous, especially in an age of instant communication. Certainly its benefits are exaggerated.
The writer is a former diplomat