December 1, 2008

Anticipating Obama

The following article appeared in the December 2008 issue of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review.

India-US relations under the new administration

BARACK OBAMA inevitably conjures up extreme reactions. For international relations liberals in the United States and elsewhere, his election provides instant relief from the diabolic machinations of the George W Bush administration, all but assuring benefits to international peace, the global economy and the climate. Favourable comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt and John F Kennedy abound, to the point of becoming cliché. In stark opposition to President Bush, Mr Obama is touted as open-minded, respectful and cosmopolitan, a natural diplomat-in-chief.

In contrast, the president-elect is portrayed by his sharpest detractors—relegated, now, to a small coterie—as a danger to the future of the United States and the global economy; essentially, a naïf, an appeaser and a protectionist. In India, the policy elites have drummed up fears of a return to the bad old days pre-dating Bush's tenure, when the United States mostly ignored India, remembering only to lecture it on non-proliferation, Kashmir and HIV/AIDS.

Both extreme characterisations are naturally caricatures. The general consensus in Washington is that Mr Obama is likely to be a pragmatist, although not by any means a realist. It would be tempting, given President Bush's abysmal popularity ratings, for Mr Obama to adopt an ‘Anything But Bush’ policy, comprehensively rejecting his predecessor's agenda in a manner reminiscent of the ‘Anything But Clinton’ strategy of the Bush administration’s first year. Rather, like the metaphorical baby and bath-water, one of the direst results of a comprehensive rejection of all things Bush would be a major setback in US-India relations.

Such a radical turnaround in policy towards India is unlikely for several reasons. At one level, there is a clear recognition on the part of Mr Obama and his key foreign policy advisers that India is a rising power, and that the strategic partnership between the United States and India has great potential. Mr Obama's stated desire for bipartisanism in foreign policy could also mitigate a reactionary approach. While much can be parsed from the statements of Mr Obama and his key advisers, his platform with respect to India is not yet set in stone: the president-elect is still being briefed by US intelligence, his administration has not yet tested the resistance offered by agency bureaucracies, nor has he felt the structural limitations imposed by the international system on American foreign policy. There is also the question of personal dynamics; the appointment of specific individuals to key national security positions could alter the tenor of the US-India relationship, for better or for worse.

At the same time, there are several reasons to expect a period of cooling in bilateral ties. With the exception of the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign policy in general is unlikely to be a high priority for the next administration, and within foreign policy, India is unlikely to feature in the first, or even second tier of priorities. In addition, the Obama campaign’s policy team on South Asia was remarkably thin on India-specific expertise, with the larger number of Pakistan and Afghanistan experts somewhat indicative of where the emphasis was being placed in the region. Most disconcertingly, however, Mr Obama's think tank appears not to have adopted a strategic vision of the US-India relationship. This means each measure—every arms transaction, every dialogue, every trade agreement—will be treated on its own merits, not as part of a coherent whole.

While Mr Obama is by no means anti-Indian, there are several other reasons for India to be wary of his global agenda. First, he has given off mixed signals concerning his commitment to the global flow of goods and capital. On the one hand, he has often described himself as an ardent supporter of globalisation, and appointed centrists to key positions in his campaign and transition economic teams. At the same time, he has been critical of both outsourcing and free trade agreements. While some of this (such as his attacks on NAFTA) can be attributed to what Mr Obama admitted was "overheated" campaign rhetoric, his Senate record on these matters hardly inspires confidence, particularly his publicly-articulated concerns regarding pending free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea. With US-India bilateral trade and investment still nowhere near its potential, Mr Obama’s ambiguity might not bode well for India Inc.

Second, the burgeoning US-India strategic partnership under Mr Obama will be based, in part, on the prisms of third countries. Chief among these is China, where his advisers have indicated broad continuity with the Bush administration’s approach of hedging. Obama’s willingness to talk to Iran—despite the concerns of several domestic constituencies—is another welcome sign for New Delhi, as is his rejection of John McCain’s bellicosity towards Russia. Yet it remains unclear how an Obama administration is likely to approach the thorny issue of Pakistan, especially given its certain prioritisation of the war in Afghanistan. The liberal interventionist leanings of some of Obama's advisory corps could also accentuate conflicting positions between the United States and India on Myanmar.

In the context of strategic ties, renewed diplomatic interventionism on Kashmir remains another significant worry, having already received considerable attention in the Indian media. The theory of a Kashmir solution increasing Pakistan's ability to fight militancy on its North-west frontier has clearly filtered up to Mr Obama himself, and to the wider Democratic foreign policy community. The focus on Kashmir seems to reflect the Obama team's obsession with terrorism in Pakistan's northwest frontier as the most significant regional security issue, trumping all others.

Climate change, which is a clear priority for the Democrats, may prove another area of disagreement between the United States and India in the next four years. India has been enthusiastic about harnessing technological advancements to curb carbon emissions, but is loath to commit to a verifiable regime that places strict caps, viewing it as a limitation to the country's development. Mr Obama, meanwhile, is likely to pursue exactly that, having indicated that climate change will be one of his administration's highest priorities.

Finally, despite the culmination of the US-India nuclear agreement in October, non-proliferation will likely continue to bedevil the US-India relationship. Fears in some quarters that an Obama administration might attempt to reverse the nuclear agreement have been exaggerated. Although Mr Obama and his advisers share scruples about the agreement, the costs of re-bottling the genie unleashed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s unanimous exemption for India will be too high to overturn. However Mr Obama, with the co-operation of the Democratic leadership in Congress, is likely to push for the United States' ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which will place increased pressure on India to sign. More critically, Mr Obama may attempt to initiate negotiations towards a global, verifiable fissile material cut-off, something which the Indian government will almost certainly oppose.

US-India interactions over the past decade have provided a fascinating, and possibly unique, spectacle in recent international politics. Two large, vibrant democracies with frequently overlapping interests have been attempting to forge a co-operative relationship. The key actors in both states appreciate the goal of a mutually-beneficial partnership, and have also identified the broad areas for potential co-operation. The real debate—within both countries and between them—has been upon what terms that relationship should be formed. Should India acquiesce to US-sponsored international norms and institutions? Or does India's size and allure mean that it deserves special treatment from Washington? In other words, how badly does each side need the other, and how far is each willing to go to realise their partnership? Barack Obama's election adds a new chapter to the manoeuvring between the two states, one in which the expectation by the United States will be on India to meet it more than halfway.