Trump snub: inept diplomacy

US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Estero, Florida, on October 31, 2018. AFP

US President Donald Trump has turned down India’s invitation to be the chief guest at the upcoming Republic Day celebrations, laying bare the Narendra Modi government’s inept diplomacy with a country that’s supposed to be our most important strategic partner. In July, in response to concerns over Modi’s sudden bid to reset relations with China with the Wuhan summit, the government let it be known that just before Modi had left for his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, he had sent out the invitation to President Trump. The revelation was meant to showcase Modi’s clever diplomacy of wooing both China and the US and to calm fears that the government, after four years of “overcoming the hesitations of history” to strategically move closer to the US, had made a sudden shift to the China-Russia camp. One wonders what the Chinese must be making of Trump turning down Modi’s invite.  

The R-Day invitation was extended to Trump without apparently trying to confirm first whether the US President was inclined to accept it. Instead of using diplomatic back channels to explore the mood in the White House first, the Modi government simply extended the invitation, perhaps confident that Trump wouldn’t dare say no. Finding out first whether an invitation will be accepted is standard diplomatic procedure. By disregarding it, the Modi government is now left with egg on its face. Should it not have been careful in dealing with a mercurial US President? In refusing the invite, the White House has cited “scheduling constraints”. The annual State of the Union address, which is delivered between 21 and 29 January, is apparently preventing Trump from visiting India. However, this reason did not stand in the way of his predecessor, Barack Obama, from being the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2015. Indeed, Obama put off his presidential address that year to be present in Delhi, an indication of not only the priority he accorded India in his foreign policy agenda but also, the sheer elegance that marked his diplomacy.

The Modi government has tried to save face by claiming that the invite to Trump was only an unofficial one. This is unconvincing, especially after attempts to project the invitation as a ‘diplomatic coup’ by Modi at a time when other world leaders are struggling to establish a rapport with Trump. The government must take responsibility for this embarrassment. Foreign relations are not all about hugs and handshakes. Diplomacy involves substantial work, which clearly the government did not do before it invited Trump. India will have to pursue a more substantial diplomacy if it wants to avoid similar snubs. What will Modi say to the next world leader he invites to grace the R-Day parade – “Trump refused, so you please come”?

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