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Fateful handshakes

Published : Jun 04, 2010 00:00 IST

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T+T-

The advantage of a summit meeting is that the participants possess the authority to settle disputes. The disadvantage is that they cannot be disavowed. A summit conference can make binding decisions more rapidly than any other diplomatic forum. By the same token, the disagreements are liable to be more intractable and the decisions more irrevocable. The possibility of using summit conferences to mark a new departure in the relations of states should not be underestimated.

Henry Kissinger; The Necessity for Choice, 1961; page 188.

SUMMITS are as old as history. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train with camels camels that have spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. I Kings 10.2.

This Biblical reference is to the summit between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. The term summit was first used by Winston Churchill at Edinburgh on February 14, 1950, in the worst days of the Cold War. He called for another talk with the Soviet Union at the highest level, adding that it was not easy to see how matters could be worsened by a parley at the summit.

On May 11, 1953, soon after Stalin's death, he proposed that a conference on the highest level should take place between the leading powers without long delay, warning that if there is not at the summits of the nations the will to win the greatest prize doom laden responsibility will fall upon those who now possess the power to decide. After these speeches, the word summit became part of political vocabulary. However, his own Foreign Office baulked at the idea while Dulles was distinctly cool to it.

George Kennan was an inveterate critic of summitry. He wrote: The multitude of ulterior problems that press upon a Prime Minister or a head of state is so great that no single subject, especially one not regarded as of primary importance, is apt to receive detailed and exhaustive attention. Nor can the senior statesmen stay with a problem for any great length of time. Their time is precious, other responsibilities take them away. Churchill wanted a meeting which should not be overhung by a ponderous or rigid agenda or led into mazes and jingles of technical details, zealously contested by hordes of experts and officials drawn up in vast, cumbrous array. It should meet with a measure of informality and a still greater measure of privacy and seclusion.

Heads of states can resolve deadlocks better than officials obsessed with and bound by existing policies. But there must be a desire to compromise and if the problems are complex, as most are, there must also be the fullest preparation beforehand. Else, we shall witness the sight of leaders whom Kennan graphically described as harried, pressed, groaning under the spotlight of publicity, under the limitations of physical and nervous strength, under the multitudinous pressures of high position, flitting from problem to problem like bees from one flower to another, touch each only briefly and sporadically, hoping always that some sort of pollination will spring from their magic touch.

Used well, the summit is a useful diplomatic weapon in the cause of peace. One's thoughts turned to two summits in April; one in Thimphu in 2010 between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, and the other in New Delhi, 50 years ago, between the Prime Ministers of India and China. The former was a resounding success; the latter was a failure of grave consequence. Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani were determined to succeed. The impasse had lasted long. There has been little analysis of the real causes of the failure of the meeting between Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai.

Correspondents have reported extensively from Thimphu on the April summit. Its success came as a big relief. The alternative was an impasse until the Prime Ministers met in September in New York during the United Nations General Assembly session. Sandeep Dikshit's report in The Hindu of March 30 should be read by those who eke out a living by striking hawkish postures. In fact both at the summit inaugural and outside the venue, the other six SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] leaders had expressed their unhappiness over the Indo-Pakistan dispute overshadowing the Sixteenth Summit of an organisation that is in its 25 years of existence but had little tangible to show as compared with other regional bodies.

One's thoughts turned to the 1960 summit as one followed the very useful series in The Hindu entitled This Day That Age. It reported that on April 20, 1960, Nehru spoke to Zhou in blunt terms and his speech, supposedly welcoming the guest, revealed a keen sense of personal anguish and disappointment at the recent happenings.

To this day falsehoods are trotted out about the summit by former officials who ought to know better but do not. It is particularly revolting to read such stuff amidst claims to have offered independent advice laced with profuse professions of integrity.

We can learn a lot from the practice of summitry over the ages. David Reynold's work is a classic on the subject. He covers the entire span of history from Babylon to Bush and Blair. Six Summits are analysed in detail Munich (1938), Yalta (1945), Vienna (1961), Moscow (1972), Camp David (1978) and Geneva (1985). He has drawn extensively on the archives. He reads between the lines of the documents and compares the official records with the diaries of participants and their memoirs. The fundamental point to remember is that government records are not themselves the historical reality; they enable historians to reconstruct the reality.

Reynolds sees these meetings as falling into three loose categories. Two encounters were essentially personal summits in which the main object was to forge a relationship between the two leaders. Chamberlain embarked on summitry to find out for himself if Hitler was clinically mad. In what I call plenary summits the dynamics of personal encounter are balanced and complemented by the presence of specialist advisors and there is also a concerted effort to resolve substantive problems. Yalta in 1945 and Camp David in 1978 fall into the category. Progressive summits, my third category, involve personal and plenary elements but in addition the single meeting became part of a series, both between leaders and also among lower-level specialists. The summit in Moscow in 1972 tried to start such a process but failed, largely because of Nixon and Kissinger's Machiavellian methods. In contrast the sequence that began with the Geneva summit of 1985 was successful thanks to that rare but absolutely vital combination rapport between leaders [Reagan and Gorbachev] and teamwork with their advisors.

The venture is akin to mountaineering. The metaphor of the summit is apt. There is the same sense of fulfilment and the same excitement. Summitry has three stages preparation, negotiation and implementation.

Reynolds recalls interesting historical episodes in a lively manner. Summits involve status and substance. The importance of status in vividly illustrated by perhaps the most celebrated summit in German history the meeting at Canossa in 1077 between Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. In German this is known as der Canossagang, the journey to Canossa, more aptly in Italian as Pumiliazione di Canossa, for it was truly a humiliation. In the Investiture Controversy the power struggle between the Pope and the emperor over the right to appoint Bishops Henry had renounced Gregory as Pope, only to find himself excommunicated. This papal edict not only imperilled Henry's immortal soul, it also laid him open to revolt by the German nobility. He sought a meeting with Gregory, who, fearing violence, retreated to the castle of Canossa, in safe territory south of Parma. This forced the emperor to come to him.

What exactly happened is shrouded in legend, but supposedly Henry arrived in the depths of winter, barefoot and in a pilgrim's hair shirt, only to be kept waiting by Gregory for three days. When he was finally admitted to the castle on January 28, 1077, the emperor knelt before the Pope and begged forgiveness. He was absolved and the two most powerful figures in Christendom then shared the Mass.

The reconciliation was short-lived. After being excommunicated a second time Henry crossed the Alps with his army and replaced Gregory with an antipope of his own. But the events themselves matter less than the myth that grew up around Canossa. During Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's struggle to rein in the Catholic church, he famously declared in the Reichstag on May 14, 1872: We will not go to Canossa, neither in body nor in spirit. The phrase to go to Canossa entered the language as a synonym for craven surrender, almost the equivalent of Munich. To many Indians Z.A. Bhutto's arrival in Simla in June 1972 was a case of going to Canossa. They discovered before long that he had pulled off a deal to his advantage.

One of the most sincere practitioners of summitry was Mikhail Gorbachev. He proposed to Reagan on September 19, 1985: A quick one-on-one meeting, let us say in Iceland or in London, maybe just for one day, to engage in a strictly confidential, private and frank discussion (possibly with only our foreign ministers present). The discussion which would not be a detailed one, for its purpose and significance would be to demonstrate political will would result in instructions to our respective agencies to draft agreements on two or three very specific questions which you and I could sign during the visit to the United States. This is precisely what Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani did in Thimphu on April 29.

Unfortunately, Reynolds does not bestow the same attention on the Charles de Gaulle-Konrad Adenauer summit on September 14, 1958, which truly altered the course of history in Europe. Adenauer was against going to Paris, a Canossa for him; de Gaulle proposed an overnight stay in his country home in the remote village of Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, several hours east of Paris. Adenauer found de Gaulle's nationalism to be much less virulent than is usually thought. The French President was well informed about world affairs and particularly aware of the great importance of Franco-German relations.

They had a fruitful walk in the woods. Over the next few years, the two leaders had regular meetings, culminating in the Franco-German Treaty they signed in Paris in January 1963. They used it to set out organising principles for the new Franco-German partnership. These included summits at least twice a year and meetings every three months between the Foreign Ministers and the Defence Ministers. To root all this at the popular level, there were to be exchanges among schools, youth organisations and the military, as well as intensive teaching of the other's language. This is a good model for India and Pakistan to emulate.

The Nehru-Zhou summit was doomed to failure because as early as on March 22, 1959, Nehru had closed the door to fruitful negotiations by citing, incredibly, a treaty of 1842 to claim that the boundary was settled then a patent falsehood.

On April 22, 1960, in a private session Zhou proposed four points, one of which was an explicit disavowal of any claim in the eastern sector; in other words, acceptance of the McMahon Line. He omitted this in the six points he propounded at his press conference on April 25 (for the details see the writer's article Maps and borders, Frontline, October 24, 2008). Zhou had come to New Delhi to settle the dispute. Mao Zedong had told Nikita Khrushchev as much in Beijing on October 2, 1959. Significantly, the suggestion for a summit was made by Zhou on November 7, 1959. In reply, Nehru (November 16) insisted on some preliminary steps in advance. Zhou rejoined on December 17 by proposing a date and place December 26 in Rangoon. He wanted some agreement of principles, that is, the outlines of a deal. Nehru wanted clarification about the facts (December 21).

By this time Nehru and the opposition, more so the Jan Sangh, Lohia & Co., the Swatantra Party, and so on, had whipped up public opinion. He had already decided not to accept any kind of compromise.

Neville Maxwell's report is worthy of credence: As usual Nehru gave full and probably excessive weight to public attitudes. At a meeting at the turn of 1959-60 attended by himself, Pant, N.R. Pillai (the Secretary-General), and one other, the Chinese barter' proposal was discussed; Nehru is reported to have closed the discussion with the observation: If I give them that I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India I will not do it' ( India's China War; Penguin; page 166). He cites his source: Recounted to the writer at the time by one of those present (page 521). The book and his reports to The Times reveal his access to reliable sources.

So maladroit were the officials advising him that a Note to China dated April 7, 1959, contained this grossly improper and factually false attack on a leading opposition party: The Government of India would like to point out that the particular procession in Bombay referred to in the Chinese Embassy's note was organised by a party called the Socialist Party, which broke away some years ago from the major socialist party in India, namely the Praja Socialist Party. This splinter party consists of a small group of irresponsible persons who have no importance in the country and do not in any way reflect the standard of conduct followed by the major political parties in India. In fact it is the definite programme of this party to indulge in highly objectionable behaviour towards government. It is not difficult to guess the identity of the official in the Ministry of External Affairs who wrote this.

While it is the leader, Nehru, who is largely to blame, the media, academia and the opposition, especially the Jan Sangh (the Bharatiya Janata Party's ancestor) and the perverse Lohiaites cannot escape blame. To this day they and former diplomats attack Nehru, the hardliner, for appeasement.

China's main enemy

It was his hard line that gifted to Pakistan an entente with China of lasting consequences for India. On May 16, 1959, Ambassador Pan Tsu-li read out to Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt a statement obviously drafted by Mao.

He said: On the whole, India is friend of China, this has been so in the past thousand and more years, and we believe will certainly continue to be so in one thousand, ten thousand years to come. The enemy of the Chinese people lies in the East the U.S. imperialists have many military bases in Taiwan, in South Korea, Japan and in the Philippines which are all directed against China. China's main attention and policy of struggle are directed to the east, to the west pacific region, to the vicious and aggressive U.S. imperialism, and not to India or any other country in the South-east Asia and South Asia. Although the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan have joined the SEATO [South-East Asia Treaty Organisation], which is designed to oppose China, we have not treated those three countries as our principal enemy, our principal enemy is U.S. imperialism. India has not taken part in the South-east Asia Treaty; it is not an opponent, but a friend to our country. China will not be so foolish as to antagonise the United States in the east and again to antagonise India in the West.

You can wait and see. As the Chinese proverb goes the strength of a horse is borne out by the distance travelled, and the heart of a person is seen with the lapse of time'. Our Indian friends! What is your mind? Will you be agreeing to our thinking regarding the view that China can only concentrate its main attention eastwards of China, but not south-westward of China, nor is it necessary for it to do so. Friends! It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts. Is it not so? If it is, here then lies the meeting point of our two sides. Will you please think it over? Allow me to take this opportunity to extend my best regards to Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of India. Note the nuances between the U.S. and its allies and between them and India.

On May 23 , Dutt read out to him a statement drafted by Nehru himself. The Government of India have learned of this statement with regret and surprise. It is not only not in consonance with certain facts, but is also wholly out of keeping with diplomatic usage and the courtesies due to friendly countries. It is a matter of particular surprise and disappointment to them that a government and people noted for their high culture and politeness should have committed this serious lapse and should have addressed the Government of India in a language which is discourteous and unbecoming even if it were addressed to a hostile country. After a reference to India's past culture and background and Mahatma Gandhi's teachings, the statement added: The Government of India do not consider or treat any other country as an enemy country, howsoever much it may differ from it. In his note to Vallabhbhai Patel on November 18, 1950, Nehru had called Pakistan our major possible enemy.

Pakistan proposed boundary talks to China on October 23, 1959, but China was unresponsive to the U.S. ally whom it distrusted. It relented over a year later in January 1961. The Sino-Pak boundary pact was signed on March 2, 1963. The rest followed.

In the train of a wantonly wrecked summit followed the reckless Forward Policy (1961) and the war of October 1962. The irony is that at least six times in August-September 1959 Nehru admitted publicly that the Aksai Chin was disputed territory. He could well have conceded that to Zhou in April 1960. Through Pan Tsu-li, Mao had, in May 1959, warned Nehru that the alternative to an accord was Sino-Pak entente. Pakistan owes Nehru many thanks for that. For, in 1959 China treated Pakistan with deep distrust as a member of SEATO and the United States' much allied ally.

The Nehru-Zhou summit of April 1960 will rank very high in the annals of summits that failed because of hubris and wreaked havoc of lasting consequences which are still with us.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 04, 2010.)

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