John Kerry's visit: Indo-US ties need a therapist, not a traveling salesman

"The bigger picture has to guide us and the end game has to guide us," expounded US Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry was speaking about US-India relations to the Center for American Progress (CAP). Fine words indeed but are they words America’s secretary of state can really live up to?

His CAP talk was heralded as a “major foreign policy speech” by the Indian press. It’s all part of the hoopla to the big build-up to Kerry’s visit to chart what CAO called “a new and ambitious course” for US relations with an “emerging powerhouse regionally”. Then Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker co-wrote an op-ed in the Economic Times about India and US relations being on the “cusp of an historic transformation.”

John Kerry in a file phot. AFP

John Kerry in a file photo. AFP

It’s all a pink pages prelude to a red carpet welcome and meant to be music to Indian ears except of course for decades Indo-US relations always seem to be on the cusp of historic transformation. But there appears to be many a slip between cusp and lip. Somehow even a nuclear deal for India and Alphonso mangos for America have not been able to push us over the finish line.

Something always gets in the way. Devyani Khobragade. Spying. Snooping.

And this time there might be one other obstacle to circumvent – Kerry himself. John Kerry has not been exactly the most polished diplomat America has had to offer. His tenure has been filled more with gaffes than achievements.
“Though he has plenty of competition for the title, John Kerry may have already become America’s worst secretary of state in history,” writes Jonathan Tobin in Commentary Magazine.

Let us just hope that his big India trip does not turn into what the Washington Post calls the Kerry modus operandi – “Secretary of State John Kerry is in the wrong place, talking to the wrong people about the wrong thing.”

His recent goof ups have been costly for America’s image abroad. He alienated Egypt on the attempt to get a no-condition ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. He angered Israel by his push for a proposal it regarded as too Hamas-friendly. His rush to broker a nuclear deal with Iran angered the French.

The problem is America’s diplomat-in-chief has always violated the first tenet of diplomacy – listen more than you talk. And he will have to watch his words carefully especially in India where he is trying to woo a Prime Minister who until recently was persona non grata. And India remains friendly but wary, the allegations of spying still hanging heavy in the air.

In that situation, Kerry’s biggest task is really to assuage, cajole and reassure. His job is to salve some wounded pride and mend fences. But Kerry, if his recent speech and op-ed are any indication, seems to think of his role as that of America’s chief traveling salesman rather than chief diplomat.

Despite trotting out the time-worn clichés about the “world’s oldest democracy” and the “world’s largest democracy”, Kerry’s checklist of what it takes to becoming a “full partner” still looks more like a shopping list.

His Economic Times op-ed listed his focus areas:

US companies can play a leading role in bringing cutting-edge technologies, equipment, capital, services and know-how to India.

We can expand practical programmes like vocational training, community colleges and healthcare industry skills.

Creating a business climate that is open to global business and investment and intellectual property rights.

Addressing energy security needs - further cooperation on civilian nuclear power, renewable energy sources and supporting a regional energy network.

President Obama's SelectUSA initiative, which connects foreign investors with opportunities in the US.

During his CAP speech he lavished praise on Tata Motors for creating thousands of jobs in the United States. He talked about removing trade barriers and limits on US technology in areas from energy to agriculture.

All of this is important. Visits are about bolstering trade. But Kerry will have to also deal with something far trickier – a lingering sense of suspicion that will require far more finesse. And his problem has always been as Tobin writes his “exalted vision of his own diplomatic skills” and “his naked zeal for the deal”.

The visit of an American secretary of state is usually presented as a favour to the country in question. That will certainly not be the case here. The Modi government, confident in its mandate will be determined to spin the trip as the courtship of Modi - part of America’s wooing of the politician it shunned till now. Kerry will surely face an aggressive press in India. “America does not appreciate the sensitivities of India. And therefore, there is anger in India. There is a sense of resentment," says D H Pai Panadiker head of the Indian thinktank RPG Foundation. That resentment, justified or not, cannot be assuaged simply by some shopping therapy.

And just parroting Modi’s slogan sab ka saath sab ka vikaas in an American accent will not be gesture enough to take that “historic transformation” he is daydreaming about from cusp to reality.

Updated Date: Jul 31, 2014 12:40 PM

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