Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fifth bilateral visit to the US on June 25-26 is a test of his diplomatic skill and mettle wrought by the heterodox presidency of Donald Trump. Unlike the Indian leader’s previous triumphal marches across America, when he preached to the choir and enjoyed the doting attention of the White House, this trip is not guaranteed to be a joyride until it is over or not even then.
The notoriously fickle and uncoordinated approach that Trump brings to foreign policymaking has shaken US allies. No amount of prior preparation or coaching before meeting him can account for surprise elements that he might introduce. An experienced world leader like Modi will surely have a technique to handle Trump in one-on-one sittings, but the former must hedge against the latter’s maverick behaviour by using other levers in the American system to ensure continuity of extensive ties between India and the US.
Diplomatic Stick and Carrot
Whenever Trump disses a partner country, his secretary of state, secretary of defence and national security adviser rush in as firefighters to reassure alarmed interlocutors that nothing is amiss and that America will keep working with them as usual. US senators and representatives have also acted as bridges to calm down agitated partners and sustain joint programmes with nations that get caught in the crosshairs of the irascible Trump.
Cultivating close understanding with second-rung American policy framers and implementers is thus essential for Modi and his team as they navigate an internally divided and strategically disjointed US administration.
Personal chemistry with foreign counterparts has been a cornerstone of Modi’s diplomatic achievements, and he will surely want to hit it off with Trump.