Natural Friends

How to assess the 44th president of the United States in his dealings with the world’s largest democracy and one of the world’s two great rising powers of the 21st century? At the three-year mark in Barack Obama’s presidency, this seems a reasonable question to pose.

Brookings colleagues Martin Indyk, Ken Lieberthal and I have attempted to address this question in a new book about the Obama administration’s foreign policy to date that we call Bending History, after Obama’s favourite Martin Luther King, Jr quote.

In fairness, none of us is a specialist on South Asia. And in that vein, we do not impose any big prediction or recommendation upon the reader about Indian economic, domestic or foreign policy. But all of us understand the significance of India as a global player — a fast-growing economy, rising power, key actor throughout the Indian Ocean region and into the Middle East and East Asia too, a technology innovator, and a natural friend of the US even if our difficult history as nations has often postponed the proper realisation of that friendship.

Speaking just for myself, I would distil our book’s findings about the Obama administration’s foreign policy into a few key points. One, Obama has, on balance, had good instincts towards India, appreciating its growing importance and future potential and great assets and strengths. Also, like his two predecessors, he seeks a stronger U.S.-India partnership. That said, on balance, his administration has not been known for major initiatives towards India.

On the economic front, Obama has been stymied on the U.S. end by large budget deficits, recession, and high unemployment rates which have, among other things, complicated the pursuit of major new trade initiatives. Progress towards major new economic interactions on specific issues like fighter jet sales or nuclear energy cooperation has been less, or slower, than some had hoped.

In security terms, while Americans have appreciated India’s willingness to do more in Afghanistan, the nature of Pakistan’s objections to such an enhanced Indian role — and Pakistan’s ability to stoke the problems within Afghanistan should it so choose — have limited how far the US and India have been able to cooperate on this subject.

Obama made a good trip to India in November 2010, but his promise to seek a permanent UN Security Council seat for India, voiced during that visit, may not be actionable, because it begs the broader question of what other permanent members should be added to the Security Council — a highly contentious subject around the world, to put it mildly.

The administration’s “rebalancing” towards Asia in 2010 and especially 2011, as Obama sought to channel US energies and military attention away from the broader Middle East region, focussed less on the subcontinent than on the Western Pacific and East Asia regions.

Energy and climate change policy has continued to bedevil the Obama administration, especially in its dealings with the U.S. Congress. A silver lining is that this may, in fact, reduce the chance of clashes with countries like India, given the different views of the two countries on which nations should make the greatest efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

More positively, Obama has favoured the G-20 grouping of nations over the G-8 for addressing many key global issues — and this has naturally enhanced the role and importance of countries such as India, appropriately enough. At the operational level, there is greater quiet U.S.-India collaboration in military and civilian spheres in general.

Where does this leave us? It is not a bad record but it is certainly not a pathbreaking one either. That is too bad in one sense. Obama raised such high hopes in his campaign, at home and around the world, that one might have wished for more — and India and the U.S. are, in many ways, natural partners who could do so much more together. That said, the relationship has evolved gradually, without a huge role for government in either country. And perhaps the strong inherent attractions between the two countries make it less important that any one president in Washington or prime minister in New Delhi achieve a major breakthrough. We are gradually, and perhaps inexorably, headed for stronger ties — and that may be the best and most durable scenario of all, with improved ties and improved partnerships driven by the citizens of the two countries rather than their politicians.