Whispers Behind the Welcome

Indians are looking forward to Obama's arrival, but worry that he won't live up to Bush's legacy of substantive engagement.

On the face of it, Barack Obama has much to look forward to when he visits India this weekend. His poll numbers at home may be at a low ebb, and his party may have been shellacked in Tuesday's midterm elections. But the U.S. president remains popular in the world's largest democracy, if not his own. According to the Pew Research Center, three out of four Indians say they have confidence in Obama (only two out of five Americans said the same in a July Washington Post-ABC News poll). The president will likely receive rapturous applause when he addresses India's Parliament, an honor denied to President George W. Bush on his visit in 2006. One of New Delhi's best known restaurants promises to unveil its much-anticipated "Obama platter," and the president's hotel in Mumbai is keeping a $11,250 bottle of Scotch handy, just in case.

But among India's commentariat, the lack of enthusiasm in the run-up to the president's visit is palpable. Some are disappointed by Obama's decision not to visit Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The White House blames this on a packed schedule, but the popular view in India suggests a president fearful of covering his head with a cloth, as custom demands, lest he bolster the persistent myth in red-state America that he is a Muslim. According to one prominent commentator,  TV anchor and columnist Barkha Dutt, Obama's presidency has traveled from "audacity to anxiety."

Nor are Indians thrilled by what many see as the United States' pampering of Pakistan, which received a $2 billion injection of military aid last month. A spate of newspaper stories and op-eds have suggested that Washington did not pass on intelligence about the Pakistani-American Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Headley that could have helped prevent the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which killed 166 people. Against this backdrop, Indians are bristling in advance at the thought of being asked to make nice with their Western neighbor. "Do we ask [the Americans] to kiss and make up with Osama bin Laden?" the widely read columnist Vir Sanghvi asked.

On Afghanistan, Obama's decision to announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011 and to back negotiations with elements of the Taliban hasn't earned him many friends in New Delhi. Simply put, Indians worry that they'll be left to bear the brunt of resurgent Pakistan-backed radical Islam in the region.

The United States and India's economic relationship is strained as well. On paper, the two countries are fast becoming close friends: Counting both goods and services, the United States is India's top business partner, with trade between the countries more than tripling between 2002 and 2008 from $19 billion to $66 billion, a whisker ahead of India's trade with China. But Indians are still smarting over an immigration bill passed by the U.S. Congress in August that makes work visas more expensive for software professionals, who are the symbol of India's economic rise. Not surprisingly, the president won't be visiting Bangalore, India's software capital. According to the Times of India, the (private) American organizers of a business summit for the president in Mumbai upset Indian CEOs by asking whether their companies were involved in outsourcing, a politically sensitive subject in job-starved America. Some detect a snub in Obama's perceived eagerness to keep a distance from anything that might play poorly with voters back home.

Americans may be oblivious to these slights, but Indians are not -- the country's rambunctious media follows the ups and downs of the bilateral relationship in microscopic detail. This means that an obscure State Department official in Washington can be a household name in New Delhi and the most trivial diplomatic incident -- say, the president choosing not to visit one of several places scouted by his advance team -- can become front-page news. The facts don't necessarily get in the way of a juicy story: Last month, several newspapers carried a report (untrue, as it turned out) that first lady Michelle Obama would create traffic snarls and tar India's image by visiting with prostitutes in Mumbai's infamous red-light district.

New Delhi's strategic community also harbors nostalgia for the Bush years, when the former president made India a centerpiece of his foreign policy in Asia. Bush championed an unprecedented civil nuclear deal with New Delhi, a high-profile vote of confidence in a rising Asian power. The Obama administration may claim a broader agenda -- one that includes an enhanced role for India in Africa and Afghanistan and in shaping the international rules that govern space, cyberspace, and maritime affairs -- but it has offered no big-ticket diplomatic items that ignite Indian imaginations as the nuclear deal did. It also lacks the rhetorical ambition of the Bush policy, which then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 as an effort "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century."

As the pro-India argument goes, the United States may not see eye to eye with India as often as it does with traditional allies. Among other things, the two countries differ on climate change, global trade liberalization, and the best way to contain Iran's nuclear program. But the rise of a stable, multireligious, English-speaking democracy between the badlands of the Islamic world and authoritarian China is nonetheless in America's interest. This places the United States in the unfamiliar position of cultivating a relationship of equals with a sometimes prickly partner rather than naturally assuming a dominant role.

But India is just as conflicted as the United States. New Delhi is still in the process of shedding the suspicion of the West that long defined its foreign policy, oscillating between seeking America's embrace and fretting about being suffocated by it. The nuclear deal is a case in point. New Delhi was happy to have Washington do the heavy lifting to carve out an India-shaped exception in the global nuclear non proliferation order. But it chafes at U.S. pressure to amend a tough nuclear liability law that allegedly hurts American firms by giving state-backed French and Russian companies the inside track on commercial contracts.

In the long view, however, it's silly to read too much into a season of peevish punditry. Thanks to India's membership in the G-20 and its election to a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council beginning in January, India and the United States will have more sustained, high-level contact with each other than ever. India accounts for the largest number of foreign students in the United States, and 2.5 million people of Indian origin now call America home. According to the Pew poll, two-thirds of Indians feel positively toward the United States, among the highest such figure in Asia, and the feeling is mutual: A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll says Americans feel nearly as warmly toward India as toward long-term allies South Korea and Israel.

And though Indians may complain about U.S. military aid to Pakistan, the fact is that the United States now conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. With purchases of military transport planes from Lockheed Martin, maritime reconnaissance planes from Boeing, and early-warning aircraft from Northrop Grumman, as well as a possible $12 billion fighter-jet order, India is quickly emerging as a major buyer of American defense equipment. Senior Obama administration officials have suggested that the president will ease curbs on high-tech exports to India. And U.S. backing for India's longstanding effort to secure a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council might also be in the cards.

Odds are, then, that with hindsight Obama, like his predecessor, will be remembered for doing his bit for a burgeoning relationship. And that's not counting the Obama platter.



India's Strategic Future

Why India needs to move from "strategic autonomy" to strategic cooperation with the United States.

Unlike in Washington, where governments are noisy in articulating their worldviews, for the permanent bureaucracy that runs New Delhi's foreign policy, silence is golden. But Delhi's reluctance to articulate a grand strategy does not necessarily mean it does not have one. Since India embraced globalization at the turn of the 1990s, many of its traditional strategic objectives have evolved, and the pace of that evolution has gathered momentum as India's economic growth has accelerated in recent years.

Yet the United States remains unclear about its potential ally's goals and objectives. Despite significant advances in Indo-U.S. relations during George W. Bush's presidency and bipartisan agreement in Washington to support India's rise, Barack Obama's administration has found it hard to make big strategic advances. U.S. officials dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to find India -- and particularly its reluctance to offer concessions on Kashmir that might presumably encourage Pakistan to cooperate more thoroughly in Afghanistan -- part of the problem. American negotiators on climate change and trade find the notorious prickliness of the old non aligned India alive and well. And the Pentagon is frustrated in its efforts to build a partnership with a New Delhi that resists cooperation on U.S. terms. But American strategists should take heart: If Washington can be patient, endure an extended courtship, and above all take a longer-term view of the relationship with Delhi, it will find much to like about India's foreign policy.

The problem for India's top strategists is not that they don't seek a grand bargain with the United States. It is about negotiating equitable terms. It is also about bringing along a political elite and bureaucracy that are adapting too slowly to the new imperatives of a stronger partnership with Washington. But make no mistake: Engagement with the United States has been the Indian establishment's highest foreign-policy priority over the last decade and a half.

India's grand strategy has four broad objectives. In all four areas, strategic cooperation with the United States is critical.

India's first objective is to pacify the northwestern part of the subcontinent, or the AfPak region, as it is known in Washington. All of India's great empire-states  throughout the last 2,500 years, from the Mauryans to the British Raj, have had trouble controlling these turbulent lands across the Indus River that frame the subcontinent's western frontier.

Indeed, ever since Alexander the Great and his army first arrived on the banks of the Indus, most foreign forces and alien ideologies have come to what is now India through the northwestern route. In the past, India managed to absorb the invaders and modify their ideologies. All it needed was sufficient time. But weakened by the subcontinent's partition in 1947 and faced with U.S. and Chinese support for Pakistan during the Cold War, India has had little time and space to manage the conflict with its troublesome sibling to the northwest.

American commentators often discount the threat that Pakistan's military poses to India. Indian strategists don't have that luxury. Armed with nuclear weapons and allied with radical Islam, the Pakistani Army remains extremely dangerous -- a situation compounded by America's current dependence on Islamabad to pursue its objectives in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas across the border.

The challenge for India is not just about managing its differences with U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New Delhi has no choice but to work with Washington to stabilize its northwest. That in turn involves encouraging the United States to think very differently about Pakistan and its relations with Afghanistan and India. And that demands getting the United States to pressure the Pakistani Army to end its promotion of extremism in Afghanistan and India.

Both New Delhi and Washington want to move the AfPak region toward political moderation, economic modernization, and regional integration. Neither can achieve these objectives on their own. But they have so far failed to have an honest discussion about how to move forward together, let alone begin coordinating their policies.

India's second objective is to become an indispensable power in the littorals of the Indian Ocean and southwestern Pacific. For nearly two centuries until partition, the British Raj was the source of stability and the main provider of security in these regions. But after independence in 1947, India chose an inward economic orientation and focused on the global mobilization of the Third World during the Cold War. Not surprisingly, India resented the dominance of the Anglo-American powers in its strategic backyard.

As the power of a rising China today radiates across the subcontinent, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific, balancing Beijing has become an urgent matter -- especially given the relative decline of the United States. In the past, India balanced Beijing through a de facto alliance with the Soviet Union. Today, it needs a strategic partnership with the United States to ensure that China's rise will continue to be peaceful. With Washington yet to make up its mind on how best to deal with Beijing, India has no option but to hedge against growing Chinese power as well as the dangers of a potential Sino-American condominium. This necessarily involves nuanced bilateral economic and political engagement with China, albeit with eyes wide open.

Meanwhile, New Delhi's focus is on China's neighbors. India is holding on to its old partnership with Moscow, stepping up its economic and security cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and Mongolia, and raising its economic and strategic profile in Southeast Asia and Australasia.

India's third objective is to increase its weight in global governance and eventually emerge as a "rule-maker" in the international system. In that sense, India's civil nuclear initiative with the Bush administration was as much about producing electric power as it was about redefining India's position in the global nonproliferation regime. But U.S. support for India's bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council has been elusive. The United States, instead, wants to test whether India is a "responsible stakeholder" in the negotiations on issues ranging from climate change to international trade. From India's perspective, these American benchmarks have tended to be self-serving and defined by the latest intellectual fashion in Washington. India is prepared to engage on these issues and participate more fully in global decision-making bodies on the basis of its own enlightened self-interest, but is not prepared to take tests from anyone.

India's fourth objective is to strengthen the factors that are critical for becoming a credible power on the regional and global stages. This involves sustaining its current high economic growth rate, consolidating its advantages in knowledge industries, providing education and skills to its younger population, and modernizing its armed forces and security agencies. On all these fronts, India needs deeper and more open cooperation with the United States through the integration of their advanced technology sectors, trade liberalization, opening the Indian education system to American universities and community colleges, U.S. investments in the Indian defense industry, and American expertise to upgrade Indian intelligence gathering and processing. New Delhi is already engaged with Washington on all these fronts, but the results remain way below potential.

Most of all, the United States needs to recognize that it is dealing with a new India. For too long, India saw itself as a weak, developing country unwilling to unlearn its anti-colonial grievances. Only in recent years has India begun to inch away from its previous focus on  the chimera of "strategic autonomy" to emphasize its own role in shaping the regional and global environments.

In the past, India's internal identity as a liberal democracy was in tension with its external image as the leader of the global south against the West. A rising India -- with its robust democracy, thriving entrepreneurial capitalism, and expanding global interests -- is bound to acquire a new identity as a champion of liberal international order.

What remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration can seize this moment. Obama has certainly talked the talk, but it is not clear whether his administration is ready to walk the walk to accommodate India's rise. That might require a leap into the unknown -- a historic revision of the international hierarchy of power -- that so far, the United States has been unwilling or unable to take.