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Suhasini Haidar
Saturday , September 21, 2013 at 10 : 11

Lessons from world leaders


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In the world of foreign policy, few events really surprise anyone. Yet as the foreign ministers of the US and Russia came out of their meeting in Geneva, Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov made an astonishing picture. The two leaders complimented each other, Kerry reached out his arm to playfully jab Lavrov, as they spoke of the deal they had reached on bringing Syria into the international chemical weapons regime. While the world is still understanding the full impact of that meeting, the way forward in West Asia, and the emergence of Russia as the new mediator on the world stage, there are many lessons for India and Pakistan, poised as their relations are at the moment.

The first lesson is that it is never too late to talk. Without over-dramatising the situation in the Mediterranean Sea, a full blown conflagration over Syria was a distinct possibility just two weeks ago. The US had deployed 5 destroyers capable of launching tomahawk missiles, with more aircraft carriers and warships standing by in the Red Sea. Russia had mobilized 12 destroyers in all, its largest such deployment since Soviet days, including the "carrier killer" missile cruiser Smetlivy that was dispatched from Sevastopol even as Lavrov met with Kerry. These ships weren't just part of naval defence operations, they were escorting ships carrying weapons to help Syria stave off the attack from the US. The theatre had been prepped for war, when on August 27 US DoD officials told the press the strikes on Syria could happen as early as the 29th, and would likely last about 72 hours. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin accused Western countries of behaving 'towards the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade'.

This was no empty rhetoric, and it bears remembering that in the same week President Obama and President Putin had faced-off at the G-20 in St Petersburg, after the US cancelled its bilateral talks with Russia, angry over the Snowden issue. The atmosphere was flammable and charged, much like the atmosphere between India and Pakistan has been over the past month, yet President Obama and President Putin were able to send their foreign ministers for talks - with the authority to discuss a breakthrough. As PM Manmohan Singh prepares for his visit to the US, with the possibility of a meeting Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif, it is this confidence that should power him, rather than the diffidence of the present.

The next lesson is that "stated positions" can only be the beginning of talks. In order to conclude successful talks, it is necessary to move beyond what you are willing to give, and end up short of what you were prepared to receive. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up his expectations for talks, when on his return from the G-20, he said that "If the terror acts do not stop, if those who voice terrorist thoughts move about freely, if there is no significant progress in bringing the culprits of the Mumbai massacre to book, that I have to factor in before arriving at a final decision (for talks with the Pakistan PM)." The truth is none of of those demands can be deliverable before the talks, and in fact will only be achievable if there are talks. Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif has recently referred to Kashmir as the "jugular vein" of Pakistan- repeating that stated position will hardly allow for any movement in talks with India. Both leaders may wish to take a leaf from Presidents Obama and Putin here-after weeks of the US threatening unilateral strikes, and Russia refusing to entertain any resolution at the UN against Syria, the final agreement spoke of both an acceptance of the UN's authority. From Russia too, that had vowed to veto any anti-Syrian resolution, came an acceptance of the UN's authority to enforce and if necessary punish Syria if it doesn't keep its word. These are significant steps back from what both had been saying all these weeks.

In taking those steps towards dialogue, as both PM Singh and Sharif have established they want to do, they will also need to acknowledge the resistance to peace from elements in both countries. While in India Dr. Singh has to battle an increasingly vocal military, as well as the resultant echoes of an angry polity that appears on television channels to oppose talks. Mr. Sharif has already come face to face with the resistance to his open proclamations of peace with India within Pakistan- led by LeT founder Hafiz Saeed, and many question why the killing of Indian Jawans took place just as the two countries were readying to announce the next round of secretary-level talks. Over the Syria deal, President Obama has been accused of softening, and being 'outplayed' by Putin, while Putin is accused of being bullied to the talks table by the American show of strength. As Ed Husain of the Council for Foreign Relations said, pulling back from war as the two world leaders did was not so much a "moment of weakness, but a moment of intelligence and strength." However difficult, it is that narrative of intelligence and strength that the two subcontinental leaders must pursue- after all Dr Singh would only be following BJP PM Mr. Vajpayee, who visited Islamabad a year after the Parliament Attack, and invited Gen Musharraf to Agra a year after the Kargil war.

Finally, the leaders must be able to talk over the walls that those elements that run counter to their plans for dialogue. A startling survey by the Lowy Institute conducted in May 2013 found that 94% of Indian respondents see Pakistan as a "threat". The same survey also found that 89% of Indians agree that ordinary people in both countries want peace, 87% agree that a big improvement in India-Pakistan relations requires courageous leadership on both sides, and 76% agree that India should take the initiative.

It is this courageous leadership that both sides must show, in speaking over their respective establishments and each others to speak to the people in both countries. It was how President Putin explained his editorial in the New York Times last week "speaking directly to the American people and their political leaders." "It is important to do so, " he said, "at a time of insufficient communication between our two societies....We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement."

(Suhasini Haidar is Foreign Affairs Editor, CNN-IBN. She is presently in Islamabad attending a conference)


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More about Suhasini Haidar

Suhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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