Barack Obama’s India Trip to Save an Alliance

As the president hits India this weekend, he will find it is still George W. Bush country. Tunku Varadarajan on an alliance that Obama has allowed to wither on the vine.

Charles Dharapak

Barack Obama’s visit to India, starting Saturday, may offer him some small respite from the drubbing that has made this week the nadir of his political life; but if he’s looking (a la Elizabeth Gilbert/Julia Roberts) for some Eastern salve for his battered soul, he isn’t going to find it in Mumbai or New Delhi. Obama will encounter a hospitable people, of course: Indians are never unkind to their guests. Why, they’re even stripping coconuts from trees that line a path he’s scheduled to walk down, lest a hard nut ping him on his un-turbanned head. But he will find little of the spontaneous warmth and genuine bonhomie that was lavished on George W. Bush when the latter visited India in 2006.

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Howard Kurtz: How Dems Can Stop the BleedingTwo years after Bush’s departure from the White House, India is still Bush Country—a giant (if foreign) Red State, to use the American political taxonomy. By that I mean that the political establishment and much of the non-leftist intelligentsia still looks back with dewy-eyed fondness to the time when India’s relations with the United States flowered extravagantly under Bush. It wasn’t just a matter of securing a mold-breaking nuclear deal with Washington; it was a case of India dealing, for the first time in the uneven history of its relations with the United States, with an American president who saw India as a partner-in-civilization.

Bogged down in health care and bailouts at home, and in “Afpak” abroad, Obama has let the alliance with India wither on the vine. This has frustrated India deeply, especially as a perception came to grip New Delhi that some of Obama’s neglect was payback to India for its closeness to his predecessor. India pushed back hard and furiously at Obama’s early, tone-deaf attempt to foist Richard Holbrooke on the Indian subcontinent as some sort of “Kashmir czar,” and New Delhi has returned, to a noticeable extent, to the pre-Bush method of dealing with America: watch first, and closely; trust later, and sparingly. It is remarkable how an alliance that had seemed so electrifying—indeed, one that had all the hallmarks of a “paradigm shift” in international relations—has been so quickly squandered.

America’s interest in India is two-fold: “material” interest, both military and economic; and “ideal” interest, consisting of politics, ideology, and political culture. There are many countries with which we share only the former, and many fewer—the U.K. is the perfect example—with which we share both. India should, and does, fall into this latter category, and we should--as the sage political scientist Ken Jowitt, of Berkeley and the Hoover Institution, argues—have a higher threshold when it comes to engaging in conflicts with such dual-interest countries. We should be more tolerant of differences with countries like this and not stop drinking French wine or eating Indian curry when we have disagreements. As a rule—and by contrast—disputes with countries like Russia or China (with whom we have a single-interest equation) should be qualitatively different. The question is: Does Obama see international relations in this way? India thinks not.

Gallery: Obama’s India Visit

Elliot Hannon: Two Nations with Different InterestsBy far the most important geostrategic relationship for the next generation will be that of U.S.-India-Japan. As Charles Hill, a professor at Yale, put it to me, “This will need to be the first true democratic league of great powers.” But the Indian political and strategic leadership does not think that Obama gets this. After all, he has been distinctly frosty in his dealings with America’s democratic allies (Israel being one example, and Britain, to a lesser extent, another), while making quite the point of reaching out to tyrannies and dictatorships. Indians wonder why the U.S., under his leadership, seems to lack the clarity and confidence of its Founding Ideals, in comparison to the Bush approach to India.

Broadly, there are three problem-themes that will rear their heads when Obama sits down to talk to Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister. The first is security, mainly naval. What to do about China’s blatant aim to make the maritime waters of East and South-East Asia into the PRC’s internal territory? And what, the Indians will ask, does Washington make of China’s flanking “embrace” of India?

“If you put yourself in Delhi looking southward,” Prof. Hill says, “you would feel China’s arms coming down on your left along the Burmese panhandle and down your right side through Pakistan to PRC-controlled ports on the Indian Ocean.” Obama has to assure India that the U.S. won’t go all wet (to use a phrase from Maggie Thatcher’s playbook), and that it intends to defend the freedom of the high seas in accordance with international law—no matter what confrontations and conflicts arise.

Second: What worries India most—and this is a worry shared by Britain, Israel, Japan, and others—is the sense that Obama has stepped America back from support and defense of democracies in his bid to distance himself from the Bush-era emphasis on democratization. This is getting urgent, because some otherwise sane intellectuals in India (and in other parts of the world) are starting to become enamored of the “Chinese model,” i.e., one of open economics and closed politics. In an era of economic despair, it is easy for vulnerable or inchoate democracies to follow the Chinese siren of growth-above-freedom. India, a mature democracy that is also now a dynamic economy, is a philosophical counterpoint to China. One would think that the United States, as a part of its global forensic rhetoric, would use every opportunity to stress the virtues of the “Indian,” i.e., democratic, growth model; and yet, have we ever heard Obama speak up clearly in its favor?

The third problem that will thrust itself into Obama’s talks with Singh will be the continuing deterioration of the international state system, with Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan (among other places) falling out of the established world order, while at the same time playing host to terrorist entities that would seek to create an entirely different order. In this case, Obama needs to assure India that the U.S. sees India as a full and indispensable ally in the maintenance of international peace and security (a.k.a. the war against terror). And that includes ensuring that the U.S. will never again hide from India the sort of terrorist-related intelligence that it wouldn’t dream of withholding from Israel, say, or the U.K.

Obama will have to talk up India’s geostrategic importance as a counterfoil to China’s Middle Kingdom-colonialism and Pakistan’s potential implosion. There would be much to gain in nudging India toward closer relations with other Asian countries, all of whom seek to guard against Chinese hegemony. Would a kind of understated, loosely defined “east Asian Nato” be the answer, comprising Japan, India, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan? (This may even come to be a way of coaxing Vietnam into greater democracy.) This needn’t be an exercise exclusively in security: All of these countries crave a way to build commercial relations that don’t have to crisscross China all the time. All of this would encourage India to start thinking furiously of its future stature in the region—and help it to secure its goal of a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

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Bogged down in health care and bailouts at home, and in “Afpak” abroad, Obama has let the alliance with India wither on the vine.

Washington would love to hand off a part of the expense, worry and responsibility of incessantly prodding Asian security into place by helping to set up a self-perpetuating local architecture, with India as a kind of pillar. That would spare the U.S. the headache of needing to confront every threat to stability as the 24/7 global enforcer. This notion might, of course, strike some of us as far-fetched, not least because India seems so unprepared for such a role. In that case, it’s time for India to grow up and get itself a pair of chopsticks. This is not a matter of being America’s poodle (as India’s legion of tedious leftists are wont to bleat) so much as India protecting its own security and prosperity, and its own ideals—indeed, doing so in a manner that does not crave a U.S. umbrella.

In all this, Indian-Americans serve as a bridge for the relationship that needs to be built between India and the U.S. However, they are not enough. Other Americans—non-Indian-Americans—need to be part of the link, visiting and working in India, and getting into the embrace of the relationship. The alliance cannot be confected by ethnic ties: It has to be broader to be truly durable. The model is not that of American Jews and Israel. It is the U.K. and America—where the ties are not based anymore on common ethnicity or religion, but on common ideals. One can only hope that Obama, in Delhi, will stress these ideals, even as he struggles hard with them at home.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)