Donald Trump's India visit: Time for world leaders to get over pomp and pageantry of summit meets

Trump’s 2018 summit with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, only won him uniformly negative coverage at home. And Prime Minister Modi’s surprise summit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2015 led, in short order, to the Pakistani leader being deposed by his own army brass.

Praveen Swami February 23, 2020 18:03:45 IST
Donald Trump's India visit: Time for world leaders to get over pomp and pageantry of summit meets
  • Talks on an India-US Free Trade Agreement are deadlocked. there’s no daylight on visas for Indian information technology workers either.

  • The $3.5 billion in military purchases India is expected to announce didn’t need the intervention of the two leaders.

  • Leave aside the pomp and spectacle, and there won’t be that much to see at this summit.

Flush with the triumph of his armies at Austerlitz and Jena, Napoléon Bonaparte, emperor of France, rowed out one summer in 1807 to a barge moored on the Nieman river at Tilsit, to reshape Europe with his defeated enemies. There were two great white tents on the barge, one emblazoned with an 'N', for the French emperor and the other bearing the letter 'A', for Aleksandr Pavlovich, Tsar of Russia. There was no tent, Prussian diplomats sourly noted, for their monarch, Frederick William III.

Lavish entertainment and banquets greased the march towards peace. Napoléon and Alexander were regularly dining together, and taking long walks after dark. In one letter, Napoléon teased his wife with news that he had been flirting with Prussia’s queen, Duchess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

Then, a deal signed to "ensure the happiness and tranquility of the world", the two new-best-friends left Tilsit — and promptly set about stabbing each other in the back.

Modi-Trump meeting

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States president Donald Trump meet this week, there’s reason to ask what the fuss is all about. Talks on an India-United States Free Trade Agreement are deadlocked; there’s no daylight, either, on visas for Indian information technology workers. The $3.5 billion in military purchases India is expected to announce didn’t need the intervention of the two leaders; India and the United States won’t suddenly see eye-to-eye on Pakistan or Afghanistan, either.

Donald Trumps India visit Time for world leaders to get over pomp and pageantry of summit meets

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US president Donald Trump. PTI

Leave aside the pomp and spectacle, and there won’t be that much to see at this summit. And that’s true of most summits between leaders across the world. The sad end of the Tilsit treaty teaches us that personal warmth and charisma don’t carry nations all that far.

Past years haven’t been kind to the institution of the summit meeting. The 2019 summit between President Trump and North Korea’s chairman Kim Jong-un spectacularly imploded.

Trump’s 2018 summit with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin only won him uniformly negative coverage at home. And Prime Minister Modi’s surprise summit with then prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2015 led, in short order, to the Pakistani leader being deposed by his own army brass.

The summit meeting, it is important to understand, is an artefact of technology. For most of history, sheer distance meant rulers rarely met, delegating the task of diplomacy to professionals. The professional envoy’s message wasn’t usually that different from that of the professional extortionist. "From sunrise to sunset, all the world has been given to us", the Ilkhan emperor Abaqa Khan wrote to Sultan Rukn al-Din Baibars in 1266. "You must submit".

To the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as United States president from 1933 to 1945, scholar Elmer Plischke notes, only five of his predecessors had even set foot on foreign soil. For the most part, international relations were the business of the professional, not the politician.

Early in the last century, though, as relationships between nation-states became increasingly complex, leaders began see their personal charisma as a means to overcome bureaucratic resistance, and resolve intractable problems. “If you want to settle a thing, you see your opponent and talk it over with him”, said David Lloyd-George, Britain’s prime minister from 1916 to 1922. “The last thing to do is write him a letter”.

Talking it over, events soon demonstrated, wasn’t always the wisest course. In 1939, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain was beguiled by Germany’s Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, infamously holding out an agreement the two signed in 1939 as evidence “of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again”.

But bitter experience, the history of diplomacy shows, proved unable to temper the narcissism of political leaders.

Leading up to the Potsdam Conference of 1945 — where the leadership of the Soviet Union, United States and Great Britain decided the post-World War II structure of Europe — summits between world leaders had become increasingly common. The foundations had been laid for a new kind of diplomacy, with spectacle at its core.

The narcissism of political leaders

Following their intimate walks in the woods at Tilsit, Napoléon and Alexander promptly returned to the pursuit of power and interests. The French emperor obstructed Russia’s interests in the Balkans. In turn, his treasury under pressure, Alexander lifted a blockade meant to choke Britain’s Baltic and Russian trade. Finally, in 1812, Napoléon embarked on a disastrous war with Russia, which would see his army slaughtered and Alexander kicking open the gates of Paris two years later.

Even though the historical experience of summitry had — at best — been mixed, modern leaders continued to be seduced by their own assessments of the power of their personalities.

The results were predictable. President John F Kennedy’s summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961 ended up deepening mutual suspicions. Harold MacMillan’s faith in his own charisma led him to eschew a translator during a summit with Charles de Gaulle in 1962. The misunderstandings that followed led France to veto Britain’s first application for entry to the European Economic Community.

As diplomatic historian Peter Weilemann has noted, summit-driven diplomacy has often led to “superficial understandings that in the long term could actually aggravate differences. Heads of states are not experts in highly complex matters such as arms control, trade, or other issues on summit agendas”.

In stark contrast, professional diplomatic advice helped Kennedy and Khrushchev resolve the Cuban Missile Conference in 1963, saving the world from potential nuclear armageddon without a single face-to-face discussion.

And apparent summit success — like Richard Nixon’s Cold War-shaping meeting with China’s Mao Zedong in 1973 — came about because of a convergence of strategic interest, not personal warmth.

The reasons why world leaders continue to crave summits aren’t hard to understand. The mass-media attention that goes with summits; the spectacle of heroic world leaders appearing to grapple with intractable problems; status and prestige: in our mass-media age, these have powerful electoral and political dividends.

“Failures,” scholar Jan Mellisen has ruefully recorded, “did not deter presidents and prime ministers from their unabated love of the summit. The practice of summitry has become an addictive drug for many political principals”.

In a world where governments’ dealings are ever-more complex, and where technology enables secure, instant communication, the summit no longer serves any country’s national interest. There are few world leaders, though, willing to eschew the ersatz, taxpayer-funded glory that comes from pomp and pageantry, however little it actually signifies.

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