More than a handshake

Handshakes make news, especially when the hands belong to political bigwigs.

The latest handshake in spotlight was US President Barack Obama’s with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro at the memorial service of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Though the gesture seemed to be unplanned, it was nonetheless substantial. There are now conjectures that it could be the prelude to a breakthrough of sorts with the communist country, enabling millions of Americans and Cubans to benefit.

There is a history of such handshakes on the canvas of world politics, where foes have resorted to that act of civility. At times that gesture graduated into a thaw between warring nations. Some of the most influential handshakes in modern history have been those between former US president Harry Truman with Soviet leader Josef Stalin and the then British prime minister Winston Churchill during the Potsdam Conference in 1945, which changed the course of World War II, and ushered in an era of peace and tranquility. The handshake on the lawns of White House between Israeli president Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993 had two different interpretations for the world. Some called it ‘brave’s peace’ whereas others termed it ‘the great gamble’.

The list also includes epoch-making encounters between president Richard Nixon and Chinese icon Mao Zedong, president John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, as well as Chilean president Augusto Pinochet and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Some were premeditated while some occurred when the leaders bumped into each other in corridors on the sidelines of conferences.

A good example of scaling down bilateral tension took place in 2002 in Kathmandu when Pakistan’s president General Pervez Musharraf walked up to Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for a handshake. However, such gestures should be supplemented with an appropriate strategy and not simply be left dangling as mere photo-shoot opportunities or acts of political exigency. That is why the Obama-Castro handshake should walk the talk, especially when there have been glimpses of diplomatic reconciliation between the two countries. Obama has already gained ground with at least three archrivals — Venezuela, Libya and Iran — when he walked the extra mile to exchange pleasantries with Hugo Chavez, Muammar Gaddafi and Hasan Rohani, respectively. It now remains to be seen what leadership followup comes following Obama’s overture to Latin America.

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