How does the leader of the sole superpower tide over a massive financial crisis and complex security threats that have defied military and diplomatic solutions? No US president has faced problems of such a magnitude as the 44th president, Barack Obama.
Comparisons with Abraham Lincoln (who faced a union threatening rebellion) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (who had to contend with the Great Depression) are apt, but wholly inadequate. For no president has begun with so few arrows in his quiver as Obama does. What does this presage for American actions in a turbulent world?
A blend of force (military) and consent (diplomacy) was the formula of US pre-eminence after World War II. The presence of the Soviet Union ensured that consent was the dominant tool in this venture. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, force became the pole of American power in world affairs. But its true exercise had to await 9/11 and George W. Bush. Eight years of that have exhausted force, for the time being. Obama heralds a return to consent.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
South Asia is, perhaps, one corner of the world where such a switch is likely to matter. For all practical purposes, West Asia will witness a careful approach: US troops will be withdrawn from Iraq, European diplomatic efforts encouraged in Iran even if support to Israel will remain unwavering. But this will not mean despatching soldiers to Afghanistan. A combination of military overstretch and financial constraints prevents major deployments there.
That opens the door for a negotiated solution to the Afghan problem. It may create a headache for India. For, in doing this Pakistan is likely to be the key to the problem. It is certain to demand its pound of flesh. Indian ejection from Afghanistan, a “solution” to the Kashmir “problem” and, of course, ensconcing the Taliban in Kabul will be the price demanded by the rag-tag rulers of Islamabad.
It would be facile, from an Indian viewpoint, to say that this approach is doomed to fail. At this moment, this will only betray our insecurities. Let the new president find his feet, let his emissaries be welcomed in South Block and let cooperation be withheld.
Yet, our diplomats and leaders should be prepared for a change in tack: A Democratic president with a debt of $1 trillion is likely to be much more accommodating to China than any Republican in the White House. So, any efforts to “contain” China once again may be delayed and hence the need for any Indian assistance in the matter may not be required soon. This, however, need not worry New Delhi. It’s a different country from the Robin Raphael years and so is the world.
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