Paris Gourtsoyannis: Brexit Britain shouldn’t be above dancing diplomacy

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C) pays his respects at the Sikh Shrine Golden temple in Amritsar on February 21, 2018.'Trudeau and his family are on a week-long official trip to India. / AFP PHOTO / NARINDER NANUNARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C) pays his respects at the Sikh Shrine Golden temple in Amritsar on February 21, 2018.'Trudeau and his family are on a week-long official trip to India. / AFP PHOTO / NARINDER NANUNARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
Have your say

Does Justin Trudeau really deserve ridicule over his trip to India, asks Paris Gourtsoyannis.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been criticised for livening up an event during an official visit to India by donning local garb and knocking out his best bhangra dance moves.

The moment has been shared widely on social media, so you can see for yourself how he got on. Being generous, there isn’t a second career waiting for him in Bollywood.

Trudeau can at least console himself with the thought that, in a roundabout way, his stunt succeeded: the ridicule has transcended national and cultural boundaries.

But the clip has also become the focal point of real anger at a visit branded a disaster by commentators on at least three continents.

The backlash raises questions about how the west views itself in relation to rising powers elsewhere in the world, and how diplomatic overtures are received at home and abroad - questions that, as both the UK and Scotland seek new relationships in a post-Brexit world, are relevant here, too.

Trudeau is someone a lot of people love to hate, in spite of their total disinterest in Canadian politics. Better known around the world for hairstyle and boyish good looks than his policies, the Canadian Prime Minister has long been subject to claims he is all style.

Now he faces accusations of empty gesture politics and a desperate, exaggerated cultural sensitivity for the sheer volume of photo opportunities in India featuring Trudeau and his family - wife Sophie Grégoire and children Ella-Grace, Xavier and Hadrien, who all accompanied him on the trip - generally looking like models in a glossy tourism magazine.

I have a degree of sympathy with Trudeau, who like all of us is probably living his own experience. Trudeau’s father was condemned as a wealthy dilettante and Communist stooge for his own voyages around the world, as a private citizen and later as prime minister himself.

As a young man, while crossing the Middle East, he grew a beard to blend in with locals and avoid suspicious authorities. His children were frequent travel companions and did their bit for Canadian diplomacy, getting cuddles from the likes of Fidel Castro.

Nor is the Trudeau showmanship particularly novel - the current Prime Minister’s father was photographed pirouetting behind the Queen during a Commonwealth meeting at Buckingham Palace.

None of it seemed to damage Canada’s standing in the world. On the contrary, Pierre Trudeau’s similar brand of photogenic internationalism and cultural curiosity helped usher in an era where the country was seen as a moral leader and honest broker.

The same is probably true now. But the pictures have rankled bank home in Canada, where the apparent lack of any substance to the trip in the form of a trade deal or bilateral agreement has prompted claims that the Trudeaus are on the taxpayer-funded jolly of a lifetime.

It doesn’t look like Trudeau’s overtures were universally well received by his hosts, either. I’m obviously the wrong person to speak about whether people in India found Trudeau’s charm offensive charming, or simply offensive.

Because there was no meeting with his Indian opposite number Narendra Modi until the end of the week-long jaunt, a snub was assumed, but that has more to do with an awkward row over the Canadian government’s attitude towards to Sikh nationalists than the camera’s love of the Trudeau family, and vice versa.

Coverage in local English-language media seems to have involved a lot of mockery of the over-the-top outfits, but also some voices speaking up in his defence and welcoming the attempt, however gauche, to show appreciation for local culture and customs. Much of the criticism in this country, however, seems to have come from commentators for whom Trudeau is a lightning rod of liberal, internationalist politics that they can’t abide.

“This is what happens when people vote for style and glitz over substance,” tweeted the Tory MP Nadine Dorries, a woman who in 2013 decided she could best serve her constituents by appearing on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

Other criticisms seem to be based on the idea that, putting aside the hamminess of Trudeau’s performance, any attempt to meet a non-western culture on their terms is inherently dishonest and false.

In a widely-shared article for Vice Canada, the journalist Drew Brown suggested that you would never see other leaders acting out the reverse diplomatic overture - but Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping have both been taken down to the local pub by successive British Prime Ministers. Is it any more false for the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party to sip a pint of bitter at the Plough?

In the 21st century, no western country should expect its closest partners to be drawn exclusively from its nearest neighbours, or those whose cultures most closely resemble their own - least of all Britain, which will have to make new friendships to replace the ones it is downgrading.

Diplomacy is transactional; sometimes you’ve got something to offer, and sometimes you’re the one asking. When Nicola Sturgeon was trying to build sympathy for Scotland’s position in the wake of the Brexit vote, she travelled to Germany for lunch with the junior foreign minister in a meeting that drew mockery at home despite being conducted in standard business attire.

After Brexit, Britain will definitely be the one asking, so taking the time to forge relationships now is essential. That will require some of the humility and cultural curiosity that was Trudeau’s likely aim in India, however awkwardly those good intentions were deployed.

Who knows; we may see Theresa May’s dance moves after all.