October 29, 2012

What the Presidential Race Reveals about US-India Relations

The following article originally appeared in India America Today on October 29, 2012.

Washington, DC - With good reason, India has barely featured in the remarkably close and contentious 2012 US presidential race. Unlike Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and China, India is neither the site of a US-led war nor is it perceived as a major security threat. And, thankfully, India has not become the object of criticism for the purported loss of American jobs, despite continuing employment woes. Yet what little commentary has appeared on India in the context of the presidential election has shed more heat than light. Partisan rhetoric about the benefits and failures of each party obscures what is evidently a mixed record for both candidates. Nonetheless, India stands to benefit from this election, regardless of the outcome on November 6.

Democratic proponents of President Barack Obama point to the advances made by his administration in improving ties with New Delhi. This record involves the president’s lavish welcome of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington in 2009 and Obama’s high-profile visit to India the following year, the only first term visit by a US president to India in the previous three decades. Administration officials also point to their establishment of a formal strategic dialogue encompassing a diverse array of issues, and led by the Secretary of State. Cooperation between India and the United States at the working level has also continued apace, broadening and deepening over the past four years. Furthermore, it is true that many potential sources of tension that Indian officials feared would gain traction under an Obama presidency were deftly managed. Despite efforts early in Obama’s tenure to focus on non-proliferation, his administration made no attempt at reversing the US-India nuclear agreement, but in fact pushed New Delhi to facilitate greater access to the Indian civilian nuclear market for American companies. Similarly, Obama was hardly the protectionist that many of his detractors feared, based upon his rhetoric during the 2008 campaign. Circumstances, not least the recession and India’s political stasis, tempered both potential conflicts and opportunities.

But Obama’s India record has not been without its blemishes, although some can now safely be considered inconsequential. It took a long and nervous two months after Obama’s inauguration before an administration official provided any meaningful indication of the new government’s India policy. The establishment of a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan initially sidelined India’s presence in the policy making process, and threatened briefly to create a one-dimensional focus on the so-called “Af-Pak” challenge. Some Obama administration officials operated under the misguided belief that pushing India to resolve the Kashmir dispute on less favorable terms was integral to stabilizing the region. Efforts at establishing a de facto condominium with Beijing by the Obama administration, eventually scuttled by Chinese high-handedness, threatened to sideline New Delhi even further. The administration initially rejected or watered down several concessions in bilateral talks with their Indian counterparts, leading to the furtive removal of White House officials deemed too accommodating of Indian interests.The inability to nominate and confirm a full US ambassador to India for almost a year, despite accelerated efforts to do so for China, also signaled the low priority accorded the country.

These failings were offset in time by reversals on US policy towards both “Af-Pak” and the Asia-Pacific, from which India has benefited. Despite initially criticizing India for its activities in support of the Karzai government in Kabul on the grounds that they justified Pakistan’s double-dealing, the Obama administration grew to welcome India’s presence in Afghanistan. It even endorsed New Delhi’s tactical cooperation with Tehran in this arena. Dialogues on homeland security and East Asia have both been beneficial, with India’s presence increasingly appreciated as a balance to China’s growing weight in the Asia-Pacific. Nonetheless, the less than stellar record of the first Obama administration, particularly in its initial two years, presented the Romney campaign with easy fodder for criticism on the grounds of strategic shortsightedness.

As he stepped closer to sealing the Republican nomination, Romney gathered an experienced and well-informed team of foreign policy professionals to advise him. Many of these advisors were veterans of the George W. Bush administration and played important roles in establishing a strategic vision of the broader Indo-Pacific region, and in brokering sensitive bilateral agreements with India.

But the inability of Romney or his foreign policy surrogates to identify the weaknesses in Obama’s handling of relations with India, and to exploit them, points to a worrying trend. The priority they have accorded to the alleged betrayal of Israel, lapses in US security in Benghazi, and purported naiveté concerning Russia, all over much more pressing challenges facing the next US commander-in-chief, is somewhat inexplicable. Equally perplexing is the absence of any rhetoric on India as part of an appeal to the increasingly influential Indian-American community.

However, despite aspects of mismanagement or shortsightedness by both camps, India probably stands to benefit regardless of the outcome of the November 6 election. A second Obama administration will almost certainly place greater priority on legacy projects and will have the luxury to pursue long-term initiatives. This could conceivably translate into enhanced economic relations with India, as well as deeper cooperation in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan and in managing China’s peaceful rise. Despite turning over a new leaf on many issues, a Romney administration promises to pick up where the George W. Bush White House left off in its unprecedented outreach to India.

Under either circumstance – an Obama reelection victory or a Romney upset – a bigger concern for India may well be managing Washington’s expectations regarding India’s ability to deliver mutually beneficial outcomes. The good news is that New Delhi can shelve most of its trepidation about the actual election results. The challenge is that it must now begin contemplating the manner in which it should optimally engage the next administration.