India-US Nuclear deal The diplomacy-cultural context

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Culture and diplomacy are the cornerstones of the whole issue. A fusion of the high- and low-context cultures is needed for the nuclear deal to come through.

DESPITE APPROVAL of the nuclear deal at the topmost level, there has been little action on the ground.
DESPITE APPROVAL of the nuclear deal at the topmost level, there has been little action on the ground.

Robinder Sachdev

A cross-cultural analysis of current issues in the India-United States nuclear deal will demonstrate that there are two key issues that have cropped up in recent days that merit a better understanding of the calculus of the negotiations that are going on to consummate the civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India. Both the issues must be examined with the lens of cross-cultural communications to explain such baffling developments.

Two key issues

The first is the question of why the Americans are adding conditions after conditions to the deal, which supposedly has been agreed to between the two governments at the highest levels?

The second is why several lawmakers in the US are seemingly supportive of the deal, yet there is no action on the ground ? A large part of the answer to both these questions lies in cross-cultural communications.

Let us first deal with the seeming propensity of American interlocutors to add conditions to the deal even while India keeps fending off such amendments or additions.

The latest spanner in the works is the insistence by American interlocutors that India should return any material or equipment acquired under the deal if either side terminates the deal or is perceived to be in violation of the letter or spirit of the agreement for cooperation in civil nuclear energy.

The diplomacy in public, and public diplomacy, over the next few days on this issue can be well forecast bowing to its domestic constituencies, India will need to publicly reject such a proposal, and the US State Department will probably have to go back to the drawing board.

Such a tango on several propositions between the US and India has already played out often in the public sphere and one can safely hazard a guess that this latest proposal too will meet a similar fate.

Remember the brouhaha about the 123 agreement a few weeks ago? (Taking away India's rights for nuke tests.) Once it became known that the American interlocutors were keen on including that as one of the conditions of the deal, India's response was an immediate and reflexive public denial and rejection. So, why are such conditions being added to the deal on an ongoing basis?

The culture context

The US is traditionally a "low context" culture, whereas India is typically a "high context" culture. A low context culture assumes no context to any relationship and safeguards itself by spelling out each and every term of the relationship on paper.

High context cultures, on the other hand, assume that there is a significant context and trust to the relationship, and therefore do not reduce the complete understanding to pen and paper.

When the US President, Mr George Bush, and the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, signed the nuclear framework, it was signed in an atmosphere of high context where the overall context and trust of the relationship was deemed primary and the contractual details were deemed secondary. This approach suited the Indians well.

On the other hand, the Americans, once back home just to be sure, started drafting the detailed contractual terms. Of course, pressure from lawmakers and opponents of the deal in the US added to the clauses in the fine-print and therefore the American approach clashed with the Indian approach.

So, given the propensity of a culture to crossing the


and dotting the


of an agreement, propelled by the opponents of the deal, it is but obvious that such conditions will keep on creeping into the agreement.

`Yes' but `no'

The second trend, which is lately coming into public view, pertains to the fact that several lawmakers are seemingly supportive of the deal and yet when rubber hits the road, they are not in favour of voting to approve the deal, as it is being presented by the US administration.

Statements or sound bytes such as, "I support closer US-India relations and also support civil nuclear cooperation", that are often reported and understood by many in India as being supportive of the deal, are in fact misleading for those who do not understand American culture.

Sure, they are supportive of nuclear cooperation with India and sure they support Mr Bush's pioneering efforts to transform US India relations, but do they support the exact deal, which has been presented by the US administration?

The answer in many cases is a resounding no. They support nuclear cooperation, but they have concerns or they wish to add certain clauses, or they wish to wait and see the final draft submitted to the Congress.

The enthusiasm of many proponents of the deal and the fast paced sound-byte-driven media cycles miss out on the cultural context in which the statements are being made by the US lawmakers.

The fine-tuned and nuanced communication style of the US lawmakers is well understood within American culture; however, it can be misleading for the Indians.

The relations between the US and India are truly on an inflexion point a good deal between the two nations will offer a plethora of dividends for both, though there may be some interests being compromised by both. However, a non-deal will lead to an altogether different orbit for India in international affairs. Not to say that that orbit will be good or bad for US-India relations, but it certainly will be a different path.

Anyone who has participated in strategic dialogues between the two countries will tell you that the primary aspect that concerns Indian leadership the most about America is the issue of trust. Trust is the cornerstone of the whole issue.

Crossing the


and dotting the


are the premise of low context cultures. A fusion of the two is now needed.

(The author is a founding member and director of the US India Political Action Committee, Washington, DC, and the founding CIO of Imagindia Institute, New Delhi.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 19, 2006)
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