Diplomacy is all local
The nuclear safety summit showed that no one is really interested in foreign policy leadership right now.
Barack Obama’s nuclear safety summit was about a topic that, like Mom and apple pie, no one can really be against. But it was remarkably thin on actual accomplishment.
Various nations brought little policy gifts for the US president – but it was all stuff they would have done even without a summit. The communiqué was nice-sounding and non-binding. Countries like India and Pakistan agreed to come on the understanding they would not pressed on anything or have any serious requests sprung on them.
Career US diplomats privately called it a “non-event.” The press took the least possible notice that it could. The Indian press treated the bilateral between Obama and Manmohan Singh as the news and the nuclear safety agreement as a side story.
Obama,said an ex-US diplomat and now Washington lobbyist, gives the impression that he is ticking off boxes: nuclear safety today, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference tomorrow, nuclear posture review yesterday. But he’s ignoring the really big ticket nuclear items like the test ban treaty and fissile material control. There is a sense of compensation. I can’t do anything, so let me give the impression of much activity.
Politics, it’s often said, is all local. I argue that diplomacy is heading the same way.
Obama, still the leader of the only superpower, is being statesmanlike in a manner that seems more about symbolism than substance. This makes some sense. His first year of extending hands didn’t get him very much from Iran, China and so on. His focus remains very clearly domestic. And he’s got tricky midterm elections coming up. He almost certainly believes in nuclear safety and so on, but he can’t expend too much energy on that right now. A recent Gallup poll showed that national security was a matter of concern for all of 2 per cent of Americans. Even the two wars the country is fighting got 4 per cent.
The evidence is that other governments were thinking that as well. Definitely that was the case with Manmohan Singh. His 40 minutes with Obama was remarkable for its focus on issues that, strategically, were remarkably petty. Two thirds of the time was spent on Pakistan-related issues – is it a surprise that the US still hyphenates the two countries when India does the same? David Headley is important, but can easily be handled at a lower-level. Obama can’t order the US judiciary to go any faster than it wants. There are a number of issues, like US technology controls and remaining sanctions against Indian technology entities, that require White House pressure on the US bureaucracy. They didn’t get a mention.
Singh was playing to the gallery, focusing on issues that were of importance to the aam aadmi. This was the foreign policy equivalent of populism. Again, the diplomacy was all local. His presence was barely noticed by anyone from the rest of the world. He was invisible on Al Kamen’s rating of world leaders at the summit.
This seems the pattern pretty much with all the heads of state who showed up in Washington. Somewhat like the dull speeches made at the UN General Assembly, the assumption was that only the old folks at home would be paying attention. So no one attempted to be a world leader or assume the mantle of global statesmanship. It was about being banal and below the horizon.
There was a greater frisson at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, partly because the world economic crisis was still on everyone’s mind. Leadership was a necessity. Right now, nothing is on anyone’s mind but next month’s rent. For the rest of this year, leadership in foreign policy will be treated as a luxury.