July 10, 2008

Familiar Futures at White House

This column originally appeared in The Indian Express on July 10, 2008.

With the UPA government positioning itself to bring the US-India nuclear agreement to fruition, the ball will soon be back in Washington’s court. The timetable for completing the deal under George W. Bush’s presidency is ambitious, and India may still have to consider its completion under the next president, either Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama. Nuclear calculations apart, Indian analysts naturally wonder where US-India relations will head under the two leading presidential contenders.

Some, rather superficially, have emphasised Obama’s worldliness to suggest that he would be more favourable to India. He carries a Hanuman talisman and speaks a language that resonates well in India. He offered condolences for the death of Sam Manekshaw. Yet others fear Obama’s non-proliferation policies and populist rhetoric on economic issues may make a McCain presidency preferable.

It is important to keep in mind that many positions articulated by the two so far have catered to domestic constituencies. These may not reflect their policies as president. American politics, much like the Indian version, is prone to pandering. Both candidates are also likely to reach across party lines if elected. The bipartisanship and competition for the electoral centre mean that on many topics (including immigration, climate change and tax cuts) McCain and Obama have at times articulated similar policies, although they have naturally differed on details. As president, both are equally unlikely to enable greater high-skill immigration, are expected to prioritise a verifiable climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, and will likely provide tax breaks for US consumers.

But there remain several vital points of divergence between the two candidates from an Indian perspective. Conventional thinking suggests that a McCain presidency may see more foreign policy continuity with the Bush administration, while Obama is expected to do more to repair America’s image. Both assertions are only partially true.

On policy towards Russia and Iran, Obama would perhaps be preferable for India. McCain has been scathing of Russia, invoking Cold War rhetoric, and threatening to expel it from the G8 in favour of democratic India and Brazil. He has promised to establish a League of Democracies which would conspicuously leave out Russia. This could provoke some major differences with India, despite the potential membership benefits. Meanwhile, Obama has repeatedly stated his willingness to engage the Iranian leadership, a welcoming prospect from New Delhi’s perspective.

On most other major policy issues, however, McCain is likely to prove marginally or considerably more favourable for New Delhi. India would prefer a protracted US military presence in Iraq to bring stability to the region, which McCain has promised, rather than the power vacuum, internecine violence and chaos that could ensue from an American troop withdrawal. Obama’s almost certain focus on the Afghan arena may engender closer cooperation with India, but could also lead to pressure on Delhi to work towards “resolving” Kashmir. The Kashmir dispute is widely perceived in Washington as a partial cause for Pakistan’s inability to fight the Taliban on its western border.

Regarding trade policy, McCain has argued in favour of lower trade barriers and has explicitly called for Asia-wide trade liberalisation. Obama is perceived as slightly more protectionist, having not always been supportive of free trade agreements, and occasionally emphasising “fair trade” to minimise some of the US’s comparative disadvantages. But it is worth noting that Obama’s economic advisers are mostly centrists, and that in recent interviews he has extolled the virtues of free trade.

Obama had also been consistently critical of outsourcing. However, since clinching the Democratic nomination, he has moderated this sentiment. At a June speech on the economy in North Carolina, he underscored investment in innovation and education as a remedy for joblessness. In this matter, he has begun to converge more with the position articulated by McCain.

India’s role in Asia’s security architecture, which had been one of the underpinnings of Bush’s policies towards India, is unlikely to be stressed as much by Obama as McCain. Among other things, McCain has explicitly endorsed continued quadrilateral cooperation between the US, India, Japan and Australia.

The last, and perhaps most significant, area of divergence relevant to India concerns non-proliferation. Obama has said that he wants to ratify the CTBT. He also wants to negotiate a fissile material cut-off treaty, which will be far more unpalatable to India. McCain agrees that the non-proliferation regime is broken, but wants to shift debate to Article IV of the NPT, which ensures the right for all states to get nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. In a May 27 speech on non-proliferation, McCain said that he wants to cut down American and Russian nuclear stockpiles. He also explicitly said that he supported the US-India nuclear deal, a statement that Obama has yet to make.