As the election of 2009 in the world’s biggest democracy creates history by returning the Congress-led coalition to power, it is an opportunity to pause and ponder on what kind of global scenario the Prime Minister will inherit and how he might address it. If the dominant trend in the world had to be summed up in one word, it would be “reset”.
This “reset” trend is the direct result of the renewed efforts of the 100-day-old Obama administration to reach out to the world and mend fences that were ripped up by the Bush administration. The US and Russia dramatically and literally pushed the “reset” button, indicating just how antagonistic the relationship had become. Although no such gadget was employed in the case of China, Beijing and Washington also reset their relations to build a “green partnership” and to avoid getting bogged down in petty sea skirmishes. The US also offered to reset its relations with its long-standing bête noire, Cuba, although the Castro brothers remain suspicious and cautious. Similarly, the Obama administration has very openly reached out to Iran, and Tehran’s coy response might change once its June elections are over. In the interim, senior US and Iranian officials have already made contact for the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Finally, the US prominently reset relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, clearly indicating that neither Kabul nor Islamabad can expect a blank cheque from Washington any longer.
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All these initiatives might suggest that the Obama administration is deliberately reversing the Bush administration’s policies, similar to Bush’s own ABC (anything but Clinton) policy change. However, there is a key difference. Unlike the Bush administration, which was ideologically driven and dominated by neo-conservatives, the Obama administration is much more pragmatic and is not changing policy just for the sake of doing so. It is seeking to change policies that have not worked in the past and is likely to keep those that are seen to be effective. The Obama administration will not rebuild fences where they already exist but will probably give them a fresh coat of paint.
What are the implications of this for the incoming government in New Delhi? Will Indo-US relations also be “reset”? Or are they likely to be a continuation of the Bush administration’s policies?
Though early days for the Obama administration and many key officials are still to be appointed, there are clear indications that the new pragmatism will not “reset” the relations to a pre-Bush era. For instance, Phil Gordon at Brookings Institution and a nominee for a senior state department position notes: “In an ideal world, rejection of the nuclear deal would preserve the sanctity of the nuclear non-proliferation regime… In the world we live in, however, it would do little to prevent non-proliferation and significantly harm India, the United States, and their ability to do good things together”. Similarly, Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for South Asia, has at the insistence of India dropped Kashmir from his portfolio (although this might be to the detriment of India in the long run) and will focus only on Afghanistan-Pakistan.
This pragmatism notwithstanding, there is a need to reset some aspects of the Indo-US relationship so that the world’s two biggest democracies can do good things together. First, there is a real need to deepen the relationship beyond just the 123 Agreement on the nuclear deal, otherwise there is a real concern that it may become unidimensional. This could be done by looking for greater cooperation on new security issues, such as cybersecurity (given the vulnerability of the Indian software industry to cyber attacks), climate change (akin to the green partnership being considered between China and the US) and maritime security (especially protecting trade routes against piracy).
On cybersecurity, India and the US could work closely with each other and also Russia and China to develop at least some basic norms and a common lexicon to ensure that they develop clear red lines so as to avoid an inadvertent lapse into cyber warfare.
Similarly, climate change has the potential of becoming one of the divisive issues if not addressed cooperatively. This is certainly the Chinese perspective, which has led them to work with the US on building a “green partnership”. In addition, although India and the US have had some maritime cooperation (evident in the joint tsunami rescue operations), there is potential for greater cooperation, especially in anti-piracy operations.
Second, perhaps for the first time, Washington and New Delhi share the same deep anxiety about counterterrorism, Pakistan and Afghanistan and should explore the possibility of positive engagement in these spheres of mutual concern. In the counterterrorism sphere, India and the US should build on the cooperation between the Indian intelligence agencies and the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA (evidenced by the unprecedented visit of the CIA chief to India within days of the Mumbai attacks), which led to the first-ever public admission by Pakistan of the role of its nationals in the attacks.
In a similar vein, India should also seek greater coordination and cooperation in Afghanistan with the US-led operations. This does not necessarily mean military cooperation (although it might be in India’s interest to work closely with the US and Nato-led International Security Assistance Force) but also to integrate New Delhi’s impressive assistance programme with that of other key countries operating in Afghanistan. The Indian model of development assistance in Afghanistan has been widely praised and should be promoted to the US and its allies, who are launching a new initiative on Afghanistan.
Sadly, based on the election manifestos, none of the key political parties, including the victorious Congress-led coalition envisage such a reset. The BJP’s manifesto, which does refer to cybersecurity and Afghanistan, ties itself up in knots by calling for the strengthening Indo-US strategic partnership, on the one hand and seeking to backtrack on the 123 Agreement, on the other. The Congress party manifesto merely calls for the relationship to be deepened further without clearly elaborating on the specific areas and issues where such a deepening might occur. Unless the new Congress-led government in New Delhi is more pragmatic and imaginative than its election manifesto reflects, Indo-US relations will wear the same old coat of paint.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org