Vantage Point: Narendra Modi vs Donald Trump at Davos: Is global diplomacy at an inflection point?

US is beginning to sound like India of the 1970s while India is beginning to sound like America of the 1990s.

By Madhavan Narayanan | Updated: Feb 01, 2018, 08:53 AM IST

When contrasting speeches are made by two leaders that were not so long ago from different segments of the global economic hierarchy, it is time to take note. The big question to ask after the speeches by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and US President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum (WEF) last week in the Swiss Alps town of Davos is this: Is the world seeing an inflection point in global diplomacy in which the US, the erstwhile evangelist of globalisation, is beginning to sound like India of the 1970s while India is beginning to sound like America circa 1990? 

Modi spoke against terrorism and protectionism and made noises in favour of globalisation, even peppering his speech with concerns on climate change and high-technology issues like the emerging importance of data. His style was described by banker Uday Kotak as one of a statesman, not a salesman. Some commentators have inferred clearly that India is trying to signal it was ready for global leadership.

In contrast, Trump wore his inward-looking election slogan, "America First" on his sleeves in a speech that raised more questions than answers. At least one commentator felt this undermined Washington's role as a superpower.

Back home at the ASEAN summit of South East Asian leaders, Modi won praise for his speech as a global leader, while America's own respected think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, noted ( in a blog that Trump may have been right in defending fair trade, (but) "more worrisome, however, was Trump's firm embrace of bilateralism as the foundation for U.S. trade policy" as it talked of Trump's "explicit endorsement of bilateralism over multilateralism as a foundation for international trade."

The moderate magazine, "The Atlantic", which termed Trump's Davos talk a "disappointment" said: "Here was a president whose very ascendancy rebuked the kinds of values-global interconnectedness, trade, all things "elite" - so ostentatiously celebrated at Davos, and whose power threatened the relevance of the kinds of people gathered there."

We have certainly come a long, long way since 1990, when the US Trade Representative, Carla Hills, earned the sobriquet of "Crowbar Carla"  as she travelled to developed economies as well as developing countries like India, seeking to pry open markets for American business. I would love to use a cricket metaphor and say the US is now on the backfoot in global trade, but it is kind of wasted on a nation that plays baseball and a rough form of football - the kind Carla Hills played in global trade before the birth of the World Trade Organisation in 1995.

In a sense, Trump represents the same spirit as Ms Hills, but this time, the game has shifted from market access for America to protectionism that favours America.

As India stands poised to be the world's fastest growing major economy in the year to March 2019, Modi's statesmanly speech overshadows domestic concerns on everything from agrarian unrest and unemployment to rising oil prices that threaten economic recovery. But there is no mistake that there was enough legroom for the prime minister to make the speech he did at Davos.

The presence of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and a retinue of industrialists only strengthened India's soft power and economic potential. Hard ground realities remain for India to truly claim its status as a global power, but the contrast between Trump and Modi will certainly be viewed with interest as the two leading democracies of the world balance international influence with domestic pressures.

Trump's shifty, sceptical positions on climate change has triggered humour and outrage while Modi's government has in its latest economic survey candidly and elaborately acknowledged it could erode agricultural growth in India.

We will have to wait for further evidence and action to note the world has really changed because the US remains a high technology leader exhibiting strong (if inequitable) economic growth. But Modi's diplomatic overture is something truly noteworthy. In a sense, like in the days of the outmoded Non-Aligned Movement, India's diplomacy is trying to seize the high moral ground --but the shift in focus from fair trade and sovereignty to terrorism, climate change and technology marks a new chapter.

It is Breaking News of the quiet variety that needs to be acknowledged as such.

(Madhavan Narayanan is a senior journalist who has covered politics, diplomacy, business, technology and other subjects in a long career that has spanned organisations including Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent columnist, editor and commentator. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)