New Delhi: In the last 31 years, Edwin J. Feulner, head of The Heritage Foundation, has transformed the organization into one of the more prominent think tanks in Washington, DC. As a former consultant to president Ronald Reagan on domestic policy and an adviser to several government departments and agencies, Feulner has had an inside view of the American political system. He was in New Delhi last Thursday to participate in a conference hosted jointly by lobby group the Confederation of Indian Industry and The Heritage Foundation.
In an interview on the same day (ahead of Saturday’s decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or NSG, to allow India to be part of global nuclear trade, an important stage in the eventual implementation of the Indo-US nuclear deal which now needs to be approved by the US Congress), Feulner spoke about the importance of Indo-US relations and the impact on American foreign policy after the imminent change in leadership in that country. Edited excerpts:
Upbeat on ties: Edwin J. Feulner, president, The Heritage Foundation. Madhu Kapparath/Mint
This is your first visit to India. What is your first take on the country?
Overwhelmingly positive. The opportunities and the will from the political leadership that I have seen here are really very encouraging.
Is Asia really emerging as the new centre of the world as some commentators such as Bill Emott (the former editor of ‘The Economist’) have argued?
Asia is not like Europe. You can talk about the traditional European nation states coming together and doing an EU (European Union). But the notion of taking India, China and Japan and combining them into one thing still seems to be a century off. You have to take each of these three, because of both the size and complexity, differently. I wouldn’t put them all together.
What will be the impact of the rising importance of these three countries on the rest of the world?
It means, from my perspective as an American, rethinking old relationships and evolving new relationships and getting rid of old stereotypes.
The traditional Washington view, until fairly recently, was (that) Japan was US’ primary ally in Asia. China has now become, in some parts, very much a strategic partner, and, in some areas, very much a rival. Until very recently, India was just ignored. That can’t continue to happen. How these three major entities sort it out among themselves and us, is the big challenge in the next decade.
Does the US engage in bilateral and strategic relations with India to contain China? No. What it does do is that it looks at its own national interest. With India and China growing and Japan changing its post-war limitations in how far it will be expanding its defence capabilities, we better adjust to the new reality. How that sorts out is still very much up for grabs.
The bilateral relations between India and the US have got a big push during the presidency of George Bush. Do you think this could change once the next president takes charge?
It began under (former president Bill) Clinton and (has) grown under (George) Bush. So you have bipartisan support there. That is very positive. Clearly, both presidential candidates have said that they support the strategic nuclear relationship. (Barack) Obama of course was not very enthused about it and in fact was responsible earlier for introducing an amendment that would have crippled the (civilian nuclear) agreement.
Now (the fact) that both are saying positive things about it shows that there is bipartisan support... Yes there are some pockets of resistance still. The overwhelming view, I think, from Washington now is that let us emphasize those areas where we can agree instead of picking the points of disagreement just to make debating points and to remind people that we are really different. We share so much in common that we should be emphasizing the positive and not the negative.
What will be the likely course of foreign policy under the new US presidency?
John McCain knows Asia very well. As a senior member of the relevant committee in the Senate for a long time, he knows the importance of bilateral and multilateral strategic arrangements in this part of the world... I would see a kind of broad continuity under McCain in this context.
Obama (is) a little bit harder to read, but knowing Joe Biden, who is his teammate and one with whom we worked in The Heritage Foundation on some projects over the years, again I believe (that) there will be broad bipartisan consensus on most of these issues and a continued appreciation that the US has interests in this part of the world and also needs friends and partners in this part of the world. We can’t go it alone.
At the same time, we shouldn’t be constraining ourselves by looking at things the old way, when we only think of Japan and China. How does India figure into that with these two political leaders? It is to be seen in specifics, but to be built on a very strong bipartisan foundation. So, I think it will basically move the same way.
How important is the nuke deal for the relationship between the two countries?
It is very important in terms of the internal developments of the Indian economy. Because the United States has put so much work and commitment into it, if it doesn’t go through in the immediate future, I think our Indian partners know that we are (still) strategically committed to (it in) the longer term. Whether three or four small countries, who have no other interest except for self-appointed political interests, can block it will be a great tragedy; but it will be a temporary block. But if that happens it throws up a problem for the Congressional timeline.
Even if that were to happen there is enough momentum inside Congress, on both sides, that at some point it is going to go through. I hope that it happens sooner rather than later such that the momentum is not lost.
But, I genuinely believe it will happen and the irony of course, however, is that so many of my Indian friends that tend to come down on one side (the Democratic Party, which has always been seen as more friendly towards India). And, it is the other side (the Republican Party) that has done most to advance the bilateral relationship.