Strongmen usher in age of undiplomatic diplomacy
What happens when strongmen meet? We know that the world is slowly filling up with populist nationalists, from Manila to Washington. But how do they plan to deal with each other? Will they join forces against the sanctimonious, supra-national powers that dismay them all? Or will they compete, as erstwhile tough guys seem most comfortable doing?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if they find an entirely different way to frame their international engagement, one sure to puzzle, infuriate and sometimes amuse onlookers.
Take last week’s summit meeting between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both leaders appear completely unchallenged at the moment, having defeated fellow-travellers and subdued their countries’ liberal establishments. There’s much room for relations between their nations to improve: Trade between them is well below potential, although India’s state oil company has tentatively begun investing in Turkish oilfields and pipelines.
Modi’s government, though, seemed to be at pains to sprinkle some nails on the red carpet it laid out. A day before Erdogan landed, Indian officials hosted the president of the Republic of Cyprus—not exactly Istanbul’s favourite regime. President Nicos Anastasiades cheerily repaid the favour, supporting a permanent role for India on the United Nations Security Council and membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and backing an India-sponsored convention against terrorism.
To make matters worse, India had sent vice president Hamid Ansari to Armenia a few days earlier. Ansari duly visited Yerevan’s genocide memorial and wrote in its guest book that “there cannot be two opinions regarding the killing of innocent people.”
It’s hard to imagine a more confrontational set of diplomatic choices to make shortly before a state visit from a prickly and proud Turkish leader. Yet Erdogan seemed equally comfortable needling his Indian hosts. Shortly before he left for New Delhi, he gave an interview to an Indian news channel praising his “dear friend” Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister. Erdogan added that he thought Pakistan should also be part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and offered to “get involved” in settling disputes over Kashmir. There are few more sensitive buttons he could have pushed.
Needless to say, this doesn’t look like anything resembling traditional diplomacy. And it’s not as if India, for example, doesn’t need Erdogan’s support. Since Modi took power, he’s focused on trying to isolate Pakistan internationally, and he’s had some success with the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Turkey should have been next on his list; its military and Pakistan’s have traditionally been close. They conduct joint exercises; Pakistan has sought to buy Turkish weapons; and Turkey trains Pakistani pilots. Modi would love to cut that cord.
Meanwhile, Erdogan wants India to take action against Fethullah Gulen’s extensive network of business organizations and schools in India—and, of course, wants permission for Turkish Airlines to fly to more destinations in India.
So why the discordant notes? Perhaps that’s how diplomacy is going to be done now. We may see fewer gentle reiterations of pre-existing positions, and more schoolyard tough talk, followed by warm handshakes. Donald Trump’s aggressive anti-China tweeting even as he seeks Beijing’s help in reining in North Korea is, when seen this way, a sign of the times rather than a policy stumble. Similarly, the aggressive public vibes surrounding the beginning of Britain’s negotiations to exit the European Union may just be the prelude to some conventional horse-trading.
Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, shortly after his India trip, seemed to confirm that noisy jostling will now precede any significant deal-making. The Turkish leader had earlier praised US air strikes on the Moscow-backed Syrian regime, and a minor trade war had broken out between his country and Russia. Nevertheless, he and Putin emerged from their talks seeking to cooperate on “safe zones” in Syria.
I suspect that what we’re seeing is a reconsideration of the messaging underlying international relations. Leaders who pride themselves on their strength are going to speak loudly and often, frequently to placate the hyper-nationalist domestic constituencies that elected them. But they may not see this bluster as a barrier to cooperation going forward. Indeed, they’re more likely to see the jousting as a way to prepare the battlefield, as it were—to create a position of strength from which to negotiate.
So, the next time Donald Trump tweets out something that might seem guaranteed to infuriate a friend, ally or would-be partner, remember that he may not be an outlier. Rudeness now rules. Bloomberg