For the first time, the world is experiencing ice-breaking events that are not attributable to global warming. But they are definitely related to warming of another kind. There has been a sudden surge of warming of bilateral and one-to-one interactions among nations. Multilateralism is on the back-burner, at least for now. The United Nations is resigned to the position of a passive bystander. Regional groupings are curious ringside onlookers.
The Moon-Kim summit in the demilitarised border of South and North Korea, the Marcon-Trump bromance in the White House and the Modi-Xi riverside dialogue in Wuhan are cases in point.
All this warmth coming soon after the high tension between the US and China reminds us of what Otto von Bismarck, a former German Chancellor, once said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” That was at the end of 19th century. Now, in the 21st century, not only are smart technologies disrupting the way the world lives but even the new-found smart diplomacy is disrupting the way resolutions are sought for long-standing conflicts.
The neoteric approaches, “start-ups” in terms of today’s technology, espoused by these leaders, almost instinctively, are setting the agenda of “no-agenda talks” and communicating with “no-communique methods”.
The last such out-of-box diplomacy of recent times was seen almost 35 years back. In 1971, the so-called “ping-pong-diplomacy” triggered by table tennis players from the US was seized by Chairman Mao and responded to by Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State — and gave both countries the confidence to thaw their icy relations. The initial moves were shrouded in secrecy and intrigue. In July 1971, Kissinger faked “illness” to avoid the paparazzi closely following him while on a visit to Pakistan and did not appear in public for a day. He was actually on a top-secret mission to Beijing to negotiate with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai about a visit by President Nixon to China, which eventually did take place soon after.
The subsequent “shuttle-diplomacy” for the Palestine-Israel peace deal by Kissinger was effective to a certain extent. The final peace deal was clinched, however, through intimate bilateral interaction facilitated by the passive but positive role by Norway.
The informal dialogue with the “Chai-Diplomacy” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on the banks of the Yangtze river in Wuhan last week was indeed a unique event in more senses than one.
Firstly, it was initiated by China after an eyeball-to-eyeball military stand-off between the second and third largest economies of the world. Second, the two leaders spent more quality time together than scheduled — for two days, away from their capitals, without aides who often display classical hawkish diplomacy — to give a strong, positive message to the world.
That meeting also pointed to a new hope for a positive and constructive approach in facilitating solutions for global challenges, including climate change, sustainable development, food security, combating diseases, natural disasters and cyber security. The responsive cooperation “to pull together their expertise and resources in these areas and create a global network dedicated to these challenges for the larger benefit of humanity” was the surprise message from the leaders of two giants that were logjammed just 10 months back.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic overture, almost coinciding with the Modi-Xi informal summit, has reversed the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula from brinkmanship towards diplomacy. From threatening nuclear missiles to the hopes of peace missions was a warm and welcoming transition.
Starting with joint winter Olympic Games participation by the two Koreas, both Kim and Moon have taken bilateral diplomatic gamble. The “Olympic diplomacy” has worked so far and it is anybody’s guess how Kim will play when it comes to specifics in implementing the “complete denuclearisation” of the peninsula.
But the body language and humour of the two leaders during the crossing of the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea were a clear indication that the future now will be driven by bilateral interests in an “amicable atmosphere overflowing with feelings of blood relatives”, as stated in their joint statement.
The world also witnessed, again at around the same time, another scene of witty and comic body language of yet another duo. The media called it “dandruff diplomacy”. Emmanuel Macron, French President, and Donald Trump, US President, almost displayed disruptive diplomacy. Trump’s trait of firing anyone who disagrees with him, was seen to turn into a language of “love thy disagreement”.
He jokingly brushed dandruff off Macron’s suit, in front of reporters, but it showed Trump’s appreciation of Macron’s steadfast and positive criticism — and probably suggested a willingness to listen. A definite disruption in Trumpian tactics.
On trade-tariffs, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Agreement, Macron has definite and strong disagreements with Trump. By inviting Marcon, to address the joint meeting of the Congress, Trump was taking the risk of allowing a foreign leader to openly disagree on the floor of the highest political chamber of his country. But that showed the selective open-minded dimension of his diplomacy.
Modi-Xi, Kim-Moon and Macron-Trump have given strong messages through their distinctive diplomacy. First, that neighbours can resolve their conflicts bilaterally. Second, that global threats like terrorism, climate change and nuclearisation have to be addressed through open dialogue and disruptive diplomacy. Third, leader-to-leader informal contacts have the power to resolve conflicts. Lastly, in a rapidly changing century of degradation of ecosystems, global dialogue also needs bilateral initiatives.
(Rajendra Shende is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, a former UNEP Director and IIT Alumnus. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)