Few takers for Obama’s Sanskritic statecraft

(This column was published in DNA edition dated January 20, 2010, the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s taking over as US President.)

Venky Vembu

A year ago today, Barack Obama made history when he was sworn in as America’s first black president, with the promise of wholesale political change and a John Lennon-esque heal-the-world message. Today, however, much of his political goodwill at home, as reflected in opinion polls that capture the mood of the moment, appears to have been expended. It’s a fair bet that were he to run for office today, on the strength of what the world has seen of him in the year gone by, he probably wouldn’t be elected.

It’s not that Obama has been a disastrous president. In fact, given the enormity of the problems on his in-desk on his first day at work, and despite the hyperpartisan political environment in the US, there is a perceptible sense of forward movement, however gradual, on the range of issues that his administration is grappling with.

Yet, if Obama has lost political ground and appears a mere shadow of the inspirational man the world saw on the campaign trail, it’s more because of his style of statecraft on the international stage. On virtually every issue, Obama has abided by an ancient Sanskritic scriptural statecraft regimen recommended for kings – the sama-dana-bheda-danda approach – which may have worked well in an earlier (and simpler) era of governance, but which is ill-suited for more contemporary times.  

In spirit, the approach emphasises gradualism when dealing with other states or parties, starting from sama (political conciliation). If that doesn’t yield results, the successive stages are dana (offering incentives or rewards), bheda (using dissent) and, finally, danda (punishment). It’s pretty much the carrot-and-stick approach, with additionally nuanced variations.

On practically every heavyweight policy initiative – from the Af-Pak war to negotiating with China to dealing with the Iranian nuclear dilemma – Obama went to extraordinary lengths to signal, at the first level, that unlike his predecessor, he was prepared to be conciliatory. That isn’t in itself a flawed approach, but given that in almost all these cases, he’s had to revert from sama and dana to bheda and danda only shows up his initial approach to have been borderline naïve.


When Obama took office, for instance, he perhaps genuinely believed that given that he was “un-Bush”, and given that the historic nature of his presidency projected a new social face of America, his personal charm and conciliatory approach would be sufficient to get other countries to do business with the US. But strategic affairs are driven by an institutional memory of countries, which individual personalities can alter only up to a point.

With China, Pakistan and Iran, for instance, Obama’s conciliatory approach has yielded no results. Early on, Obama signalled as part of his sama approach that his administration did not believe in “containing” China’s rise: towards that end, he even downgraded, in a nuanced way, US relations with India, which had been elevated to a “strategic” level under Bush. Likewise, ahead of his visit to China, he declined to meet the Dalai Lama as a concession to Chinese sensibilities, and even in his public comments in China, he was inelegantly cautious.

Yet, it wasn’t until the Chinese stonewalled him on every major issue on which he sought their support – and an apoplectic Chinese diplomat even jabbed a disrespectful finger at Obama at the Copenhagen climate change summit – that Obama got the message that perhaps the Chinese were immune to his considerable charm. His sama diplomatic approach with Pakistan and Iran has had similar results, or lack thereof, and he’s subsequently had to gravitate to a more hardline position.

The fact that Obama has eventually had to arrive at a position that would have come to him more instinctively if he had had a less benign view of a world persuaded by sama and dana only shows up the limitations of his statecraft approach. Given this learning experience, the only way ahead for Obama is, perhaps, to be more “un-Obama”.


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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