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The Indo-US Relationship: Is Diplomatic Style Important?

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  • March 27, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Kanwal Sibal
    Discussants: K. C. Singh and Christopher S Raj

    The presentation of Professor Steven Hoffman began by examining the question “Is diplomatic style important and what impact does it have as far as Indo-US diplomatic negotiations are concerned? Professor Hoffman began by noting that diplomatic style is important enough to deserve careful attention. During the period between 1997 and 2007, he interviewed diplomats on both sides. According to him, some practitioners pointed out that tone or style naturally ranks below substance in importance, but not always. An experienced Indian diplomat called style a “force multiplier” in Indo-US relations. When the two sides engage, they do deal with the matter of ‘how do we talk to each other?’ A former American diplomat said that diplomatic style and substance intertwine. To separate style from substance for the purpose of analysis can prove useful, but is not easy and real care must be taken in doing so. His presentation puts forward some results produced by such an effort. Professor Hoffman adopts a historical narrative that analyses change and convergence in Indian and American diplomatic practices. Change in style accordingly began in June 1998, and is still taking place today.

    Professor Hoffman divided his presentation into five parts. First, he described problematic practices on both sides. For instance, Americans could be overbearing, demanding, arrogant and deadline imposing, etc. and similarly the Indian side could be self-righteous and arrogant as well. Professor Hoffman got this sense after examining published sources and interviews.

    Secondly, he provides two historical illustrations on diplomatic style. The first being Indian foreign secretary J.N. Dixit’s diplomatic negotiations with George Bush Sr’s. administration in 1992, and second the dialogue between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott during the period 1998 to 2000. Professor Hoffman says that in diplomatic style, there is a learning process underway. In every negotiation, substance comes first and when basic parameters set in well then style matters. In the last ten years, India and the United States sustained a momentum but episodically there were problems during the negotiations on the Indo-US nuclear deal. He noted that the Obama administration is sending the right signals to carry forward the momentum built by the Bush Administration.

    Thirdly, Professor Hoffman describes US diplomatic practices during the George W. Bush administration and refers to US ambassador India Robert Blackwill’s statement about the adoption of a radically new diplomatic style. Blackwill had said that “America will not be a nagging nanny” and that the Bush administration does not intend to lecture India on its national interests. According to Professor Hoffman, the Ambassador’s public comments and phraseology did reflect a real ideological and policy change in Washington.

    Fourthly, Professor Hoffman points out that in fact India and the United States were developing a set of mutually accepted practices that may also be called rules that came into existence in the mid-2000s. Professor Hoffman pointed out the developing shared rules of engagement in Indo-US relations: No Naggy Nanny, India to be treated with respect, recognition of India’s major power status, avoidance of vitriol, and developing rules to maintain momentum in the US-India relationship, avoiding surprises from either side, shaping issues jointly, deepening and broadening the range of interaction, establishing personal relationships and institutionalizing the relationship.

    In the last part, Professor Hoffman puts forward his interim conclusions. Shared or common diplomatic practices make communication of substance easier, increases mutual understanding, allows each side to educate the other, enhances trust, acts as a force multiplier, and helps ease if not eliminate historical resentments paving the way for substantive mutual gains. He emphasizes that no matter how bilateral ties between India and the United States evolve during the next few years, this study makes a case that diplomatic style is important, in this particular relationship. What has been learned and gained should be maintained, and even built upon further. One may hope that a reasonably common set of guiding diplomatic practices will characterize the full range of US-India ties in the future.

    Points raised during the discussion

    • It is important to understand whether style reflects substance. If practitioners are frank and enjoy a level of trust and also do not question the other’s fundamentals, then style matters.
    • One cannot have different style while dealing with different countries. It is substance and issues which make the difference, not style. If the United States and China can develop without changing their diplomatic style, then why should India change its diplomatic style. The substantive nature of India-United States relations began with the Indian nuclear tests in 1998. It was not change of style but in substance.
    • Systemic differences between India and the United States also lead to differences in negotiating style.
    • Differences in negotiating style between India and the United States is also the result of systemic differences; an Indian Foreign Minister is invariably a politician whereas in the United States Secretaries of State are frequently drawn from academia, business, armed forces, etc.
    • In the United States behavioral sciences have taken a major lead in shaping policies. Style reflects behaviour and in this process selection of words used during negotiations plays an important role.
    • Diplomacy carries historical baggage. Personalities like Henry Kissinger played a crucial role. Their personality and diplomatic style prove influential as Kissinger was successful in United States-China rapprochement process in 1971.
    • Diplomatic style matters and works so long as diplomats are sensitive to substance.
    • Diplomats respond to the leaders. Leaders set the substance and diplomatic style works accordingly.
    • For success in negotiations, parties need to understand the bottomline well.
    • While understanding the change in Indo-US relations, it is important to note that India’s economic progress and new found prosperity have played a major role in this process.
    • India is a major power and it is interesting to analyse where the United States places India in its ‘Grand Strategy’.
    • Sometimes diplomatic behaviour or style only works as a lubricant.
    • Factors like culture, personalities and national identity should be kept in mind and engagement should be in terms of principles.
    • Style certainly matters in Indo-US Relations as in any relationship. But it has been observed that when core issues are discussed, style takes a back seat. Style becomes different when contentious issues are discussed.
    • Diplomatic style works in negotiations if it is carried out with a certain degree of caution and care.
    • It is important for Indian diplomats to have a good knowledge about the United States, and a good way is to gain exposure in American universities.
    • Charisma of personalities involved in diplomatic negotiations works because it builds trust and enhances confidence, as happened in the case of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue.

    Prepared by Sanjeev Kumar Shrivastav, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.