Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gestures during his first press conference in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2004.
Ways Obama can tend bonds with India
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
November 24, 2009
Related: Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics, Harvard Kennedy School
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The Future of Diplomacy Project
PRESIDENT OBAMA faces a classic diplomatic challenge in South Asia - how to balance a short-term need for progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan without losing sight of our equally important long-term ambitions with India.
The Obama administration is right to focus on fixing a faltering war in Afghanistan and shoring up a weak and unstable Pakistan. But it has been less attentive to one of the most important bipartisan achievements of the Clinton and Bush years - the creation of a long-term US friendship and partnership with India. Few issues will be more important for Americans in the next half century as the global balance of power shifts toward Asia.
With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Washington this week, US-India relations have stalled on some critical issues. Influential Indians complain the Obama administration is diminishing America's prior strategic priority on India to avoid antagonizing regional rivals Pakistan and China. They worry the Obama team does not embrace the core conviction that India's dramatic rise to global power is clearly in the US interest.
Some of this criticism may be misguided, if not premature. Obama cannot avoid making the Afghan war a priority. Indians should also not view every American initiative through a zero-sum lens. After all, Obama's decision to make Singh the first state visitor of his administration is a positive symbolic gesture.
Still, relations between the two countries are strained by important differences on terrorism, climate change, trade, and, potentially, future sanctions against Iran. To be fair, India is a difficult and irresolute partner on some of these issues, particularly climate. But, Obama can act more vigorously to restore the energy on India left to him by his predecessors.
The president has an opportunity during Singh's visit to present his vision of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called US-India 3.0 - the third phase in constructing a US-India partnership. What should he propose?
First, India is focused on making a dramatic reduction in poverty among India's 700 million poor. Singh has long called for a Second Green Revolution in India and believes the United States is uniquely capable of helping. Obama could offer assistance from America's Midwestern land-grant institutions that were pivotal in achieving historic breakthroughs in Indian food production four decades ago.
Second, the president could build on common US-India strengths in education and science by proposing more significant cooperation in space research and environmental technologies that would play to the comparative advantage of our private sectors and the 100,000 Indian students in the United States.
Third, Obama should push for stronger military and strategic ties between the two countries. India is a natural military partner of the United States given our common interest in resisting terrorism in South Asia and beyond. Our navies and air forces, in particular, have trained and worked effectively together in recent years. Our defense ties will be transformed should India decide to purchase advanced American military technology to replace its aging and outdated Russian equipment.
Fourth, the United States should work more actively behind the scenes to urge India and Pakistan to restore their Composite Dialogue, reduce bilateral tensions, and commit to progress on the Kashmir issue. India must be more sensitive to Pakistani concerns over its involvement in Afghanistan while Islamabad should finally prosecute the terrorists responsible for last November's reprehensible Mumbai attacks. As the United States is now the key power broker in the region, Obama is uniquely positioned to help nuclear-armed India and Pakistan avoid the nightmare fear of war that has bedeviled their relations since Partition in 1947.
Finally, as America looks to a future where China's growing power will be a central challenge, building this new US-India partnership is fundamental to all we seek to accomplish in Asia. Stronger Indian political and military bonds with the United States, Japan, and Australia are the best way to ensure these democratic powers can balance and limit the potentially dangerous aspects of China's rise in the decades ahead. And, in a larger sense, India can be our most effective international partner in tackling the daunting array of transnational challenges - climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and pandemics, to name some - that are now at the heart of America's global agenda.
Juggling short-term crisis and long-term opportunity is difficult in a complex and combustible South Asia region. But that is what Obama must now do more effectively as he welcomes Singh to Washington and puts his stamp on this pivotal relationship. He should embrace this moment to restore direction to our partnership with India that has been among the most positive bipartisan foreign policy successes of the last two administrations.
For more information about this publication please contact the American Primacy and Its Discontents Project Assistant at 617-496-5324.
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