Millennium Post

The (un)importance of being Hillary

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has reached a stage in her career when one says auf wiedersehen and moves on. She has declared that she’d not contest as President Barack Obama’s running mate in the election this year if Vice President Joe Biden is dropped. 'It’s like being the First Lady which I have been before,' she chirped, adding that the post has 'no job description'. She has ruled out running for President in 2016 and has said she would not accept her present job for another term if Obama is re-elected and wants her to be at Foggy Bottom again. Earlier this month, she shocked the world by being photographed in Bangladesh without a trace of make-up (except a thin lipstick line) and with a heavy pair of granny glasses. When asked by the media about her altered dress code, she said 'it’s just not something I think is important anymore'. The picture went viral on the internet, though.

However, Hillary’s recent three-nation tour of China, Bangladesh and India  turned out to be a conspicuous non-event, raising doubts not only over the Secretary of State’s current state of mind but a change of status of America vis-à-vis the emerging economies. Her tour began in China where the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue was scheduled in Beijing. It coincided with a thoroughly misconceived US project which saw Chen Guangchen, a blind dissident, sheltering in the US Embassy building. While Hillary Clinton had important matters to discuss with the Chinese authorities, including extracting an assurance from them that they’d cut back on purchase of Iranian crude, and thus leave Iran with fewer dollars to shop around for nuclear weapon parts, the Chen affair became a spoiler. The Chinese protested with an unusual edge to their voice, and the Americans, opting for discretion rather than valour, left the dissident in a hospital under the care of the Chinese authorities. For the Americans, the opportunity of playing the old line that China has no human rights went up in the air. It soured the mood so much that China further toughened its position on the US-led anti-Iran sanctions.

The Secretary of State’s next halt in Bangladesh was probably a stop-over badly planned; as foreign minister Dipu Moni was in India and Pranab Mukherjee, by far the weightiest Indian political personality, had woven in and out of Dhaka just a day ago. Of course Hillary met prime minister Sheikh Hasina but it’s doubtful if she had anything to exchange except pleasantries. What is likelier, though, that it was expected by the ruling Awami League that she’d leverage her position with India, a US strategic partner, for an early solution to the country’s problem with India over sharing of Teesta river water. It’s a thorny problem as the country’s anti-India elements, with whom the opposition BNP is packed, would never let go of it as an opportunity to call AL an Indian 'stooge'. And India is helpless because the chief minister of the bordering state of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has refused to agree on a deal until it is made fair according to her. Predictably, Dipu Moni knew the screenplay well ahead and understood that in a changing world hit by superpowers facing economic meltdown, and the glamour of power fading away like colours in a box of molten crayon, regional problems could no longer be fixed by a transcontinental big daddy.

Hillary resolutely retained her innocence. She came to Kolkata (the first US Secretary of State to visit the city) hoping that her charm offensive with Mamata might work. In global diplomatic circuits, the feisty Bengali lady’s reputation as a spoiler had already spread far and wide. It was bolstered by TIME’s description of the West Bengal chief minister, in putting her on the 2012 TIME 100 list, 'as a mercurial oddball and a shrieking street fighter. But ultimately she proved to be the consummate politician'. Perhaps Hillary expected Mamata to give at least a conditional nod to a couple of points, namely agreeing on Teesta water sharing, and a tentative agreement to allow the entry of foreign retailers like Walmart into the Indian market. In her hour-long meeting with Hilary Clinton, Mamata was the picture of composure. But the claws were out even before the local US consulate could issue a statement, as the state government forbade it to make even a remote reference to either Teesta or mixed retail FDI. For Hillary, it was wrong number as Mamata did not yield an inch.

Hillary’s next and final stop in New Delhi was an unmitigated disaster. Pranab Mukherjee gave her the slip again, as he was away in Manila, elected as Chair of the Asian Development Bank board of governors. Though she managed to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Miniter S M Krishna, there was no official statement forthcoming that India was with the US in desisting from buying Iranian crude. The government response was limited to an observation that the Indian refiners were scaling down their sourcing of crude from Iran, though that could be due to a variety of reasons including the requirement pattern of the refineries.

To add to the Secretary of State’s misery, during her stay in the capital, a trade delegation from Iran comprising two dozen business representatives were handshaking and exchanging business cards with Indian exporters in the ballroom of a big hotel in the capital. A rupee trade agreement with Iran, now in force, enables India to pay with the Indian currency for 45 percent of its crude import from Iran. It suits India as its economy is reeling under a current account deficit. It also eases pressure on Iran’s dollar reserve, enabling it to buy Indian products, particularly pharmaceuticals, at low price. Hillary’s intervention was redundant.

The Secretary of State’s pointless peregrination is indicative of a global power shift. With its own economy in doldrums, the US can’t fit into its habitual 'globocop' role. The Chen episode shows that it cannot hope to subdue a rising power like China with the familiar litany that it has no democracy. The lukewarm response in Bangladesh proves that even a tiny nation wouldn’t like big powers to meddle in its relations with a neighbor. Hillary’s lesson in New Delhi is that India is anything but a client state that former President George W Bush perhaps expected it to be after the 2008 civil nuclear deal. And Mamata, by her silence, has told her that today’s India is more like a partnership firm than a corporation with a CEO. Hillary is too old to learn how to do business with such an entity.
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