US & India: Hope of deliverance


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

**This column first appeared in Mint, on June 8, 2014. All views are personal. Brookings India does not hold an institutional view on any subject.

Initiatives by US President Barack Obama and Prime Minisiter Narendra Modi, leaders of the world’s biggest democracies, last fortnight evoked dramatically contrasting reactions: it appeared that the former could do no right while the latter could do no wrong.

Obama’s major foreign policy speech at West Point Academy; the Taliban prisoners for Sargent Bowe Bergdahl exchange; the one-billion dollar price tag European Reassurance Initiative; and the initiative to reduce carbon pollution from power plants were criticized even by friends and allies of the administration.

In stark contrast, Modi’s unprecedented initiative to invite leaders from neighbouring countries to his swearing-in; the decision to communicate directly with secretaries from all ministries; and the commitment to a series of bilateral and multilateral meets starting with neighbouring Bhutan and including the US, won near universal praise including, cravenly, from some opposition members.

The disparity of responses to Obama and Modi’s initiatives are partly on account of the new incumbent’s honeymoon period and the second-term blues that engulf every US president. Despite this mismatch there is an opportunity for the two leaders to forge a mutually beneficial relationship. So far the indications are that both leaders have pragmatically sought to reach out to the other.

Following early moves to paper over the vexed visa issue, Obama extended an early invitation for a bilateral meeting, which Modi accepted with decent alacrity and the stage is being set for a much-anticipated late September meet. While Obama’s West Point speech was panned by some in the US, particularly for not mentioning either the pivot to Asia-Pacific or China’s growing assertiveness, it offers opportunities for Washington and New Delhi to deepen their relationship particularly in global governance.

First, the speech put greater emphasis on the role of diplomacy and political solutions rather than military intervention. As Obama noted: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” His call in the context of Syria (and other similar crises) to “push for political resolution” would resonate with the Indian preference for diplomacy rather than the use of force.

Second, it not only stressed the role of multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in keeping peace and supporting human progress, but also admitted “just as the world has changed, this architecture must change as well.” Obama’s commitment to “evolving these international institutions to meet the demands of today” is another opening for India to work closely with the US to reform these bodies in its own interest. The previous opportunity following Obama’s public call for a UN Security Council seat for India was lost despite India’s tenure on the council due to political disengagement in New Delhi.

As a corollary, Obama’s call to “deepen investment in countries that support peacekeeping missions” is an open invitation for New Delhi to engage Washington to not only enhance its peacekeeping capabilities technologically but also to prevent the unsavory annual dust-ups at the UN between donor countries and troop contributing countries.

Separately, Obama’s call to reduce carbon pollution from power plants might also offer a chance for India to seek greater investment and technology transfer for clean technology as well as to attempt to reach a common understanding in global negotiations on climate change.

Obama’s initiatives, coupled with the visit of Nisha Desai Biswal, assistant secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, early in the tenure of the Modi government, provides an opportunity for India and the US to work together as responsible global and regional diplomatic players. There appears to be, to cite the contemporary bard Paul McCartney, hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds India-US relations.