New Delhi: Though a Republican, William Cohen, served in the second term of Democrat president Bill Clinton as defence secretary. A Congressman since 1973, first in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate till he stepped down in 1997 to take over as defence secretary, he now heads The Cohen Group, which describes itself as a firm that provides strategic advice to corporate leadership. Cohen was in New Delhi last week to attend India Economic Summit organized by the World Economic Forum. He spoke to Mint about the recent elections in the US and the possible contours of the country’s foreign policy under the leadership of President-elect Barack Obama. Edited excerpts:
What are your thoughts on the just concluded historic election in the US?
It is very remarkable. I don’t think I have ever seen a single individual to be as magnetic a personality as Barack Obama. I was watching a football game the other evening and I saw 90,000 people in the stands and I said, but Barack Obama gets crowds like that; he got 200,000 in Germany. I don’t think we have ever witnessed anything like this. It is quite a phenomenon and is exciting for us to see. It offers great potential and hope to the US internally and I think much of the world is looking at the US believing and hoping that it will be a change on how we conduct our foreign policy and how we relate to the rest of the world.
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Do you think that these expectations will eventually prove to be a burden?
They are very high and perhaps impossible to measure up to. But I think there is such an element of goodwill that whatever the expectations...knowing that he is going to try and put the best team together; that he is going to bring “change” that people can believe in as he campaigned on that slogan... I think people will be satisfied that he is making the effort.
He is bound not just to succeed in every endeavour. But if he puts a great team and cabinet together and establishes a determination to work in a bipartisan fashion that will include having a couple of Republicans in his administration, I think it will send a very positive signal domestically and also internationally.
Do you really think that he will reach out to the Republicans after such a bitter campaign?
I think he will and I think he has to…because the issues he has to contend with transcend partisanship.
But the Republicans and Democrats are ideologically opposed to each other on almost everything.
I don’t think they are ideologically opposed. For example, senator John McCain, who is a very good friend of mine, came out in favour of doing something on climate change and global warming. Now, the rest of the party wasn’t necessarily supporting him. Nonetheless, he was, for all practical purposes, the leader of our party for the past year.
In terms of foreign policy there should be no difference between the Republicans and Democrats. The American people are strongly behind Barack Obama’s determination to reduce our footprint in Iraq, to increase the size of that footprint in Afghanistan, to contend with the instability we see in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Strategic leadership: Cohen says that if Obama puts a great team and cabinet together and establishes a determination to work in a bipartisan fashion, it will send positive signals both at home and abroad. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
So, there is no real substantive difference between the parties on those issues. So, I think a strong foreign policy that is bipartisan or non-partisan; I think the American people expect that, deserve that and hopefully get that.
You don’t see any big shift in the US foreign policy?
I don’t see a big shift. But I think the difference was that if you look at the campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain actually narrowed the gap between where they were when they started out. McCain at one point said that we could be in Iraq for an indefinite period of time and he cited as example South Korea and Japan; he said, we could be there 50 or 100 years. It was a statement not of fact or desire but if a country requires us to maintain a presence at their invitation, we will stay as long as necessary to make sure stability is maintained. But by the time he got through with the campaign he indicated that he thought by the end of his first term, if he was elected, we would see a substantial reduction in our presence (in Iraq).
Obama started out with the proposition that the day he was sworn in we would start removing the troops. And, then he narrowed it to within 16 months depending upon circumstances on the ground. So, you could see both the candidates coming from here (gestures with his hand) to the centre.
Expanding your footprint in Afghanistan would inevitably mean a greater focus on South Asia because of the role Pakistan will play in that strategy. How do you see the Obama foreign policy addressing this issue?
Again, there should not be any difference between the Republicans and Democrats on this issue. McCain and the Republicans certainly want to make sure Afghanistan doesn’t fail or we do not fail; we, meaning the US and Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). And frankly, Nato is going to do a lot more than it has done to date in order to stabilize Afghanistan... The US will have to put more troops into Afghanistan.
The proposal as it stands now is not nearly enough and we are going to be asking our Nato allies and other non-Nato countries to contribute as well. Otherwise, you could see Afghanistan revert to Taliban control and all that means for stability in the region.
Do you see a new approach as far as South Asia is concerned?
I think what most of the world wanted to see was a change in the perception of how the US makes its decisions and executes them. I think there was a sense in the first four years of the Bush administration that we were being seen as “unilateralist”; that we were going to take action no matter what the other country thought about it. There was resistance and resentment over that fact.
The second four years...you saw change when President (George W.) Bush decided that we can’t go it alone. I think you are going to see in President Obama a reaching out to other countries and saying we need to understand your culture. The history and condition under which you have to and then we engage them. I think that is desirable for us to do. It is much desired by the rest of the world.
I think that applies to South Asia as well. I think we are going to strengthen our relationship with India, maintain a strong relationship with Pakistan as well understanding that the challenges facing Pakistan are quite serious.
We are concerned about and we want to see what we can do to help make it more stable and promote democracy and at the same time dealing with the issue of Taliban on the border with Afghanistan.
Specifically about India, would the Obama presidency reverse the unprecedented trajectory in the relationship between the two countries established by the Bush administration?
I don’t see any fundamental change. I think under the Obama administration you are going to see a continuation of the policy instituted first by (then) president (Bill) Clinton, who made a historic trip to India in 2000, and that was the breakthrough. And then, of course, President Bush really capitalized on that and became much more active in promoting this relationship culminating in the civil nuclear arrangement, which I was very much involved in promoting.
I think it was important that India continued to expand its power-generating capability and this agreement will contribute to that. And, it helped remove some of the antagonism and distrust that has existed over the years to say that we can have a strategic relationship. It doesn’t mean that we are going to be formal allies, but certainly we have a commonality of interest.
Do you believe that the civilian nuclear deal signed between India and the US will be tested under an Obama administration?
There are bound to be tests. I am sure there are bound to be tests in the future in terms of we may have a different approach in dealing with Iran. India has a much different relationship with Iran than we do. But as was said during the particular course of this meeting (World Economic Forum), virtually every major country has indicated that it is unacceptable for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon or nuclear weapons capability. What that will do to unleash more proliferation in the region, that is not in anyone’s interest including Iran. And, so the question becomes that we all agree on that but what are we going to do about that.
India may have a different approach. So far, they have been willing to indicate to Iran that they should not go forward; whether or not they will vote to impose sanctions on Iran becomes another test. Now, will that alter our relationship? No.
Given that traditionally Democrats have a conservative outlook on trade, how does a Congress controlled by the party impact an Obama administration’s approach to trade policy?
It is hard for me to say. In the short term there will be some inclination to retrench and organized labour will want a bigger voice; that they will talk about the need to protect new jobs. But ultimately, any administration, including an Obama administration, will have to come out in favour of freer trade. I don’t think there is any alternative to that.
There are lots of discussions about raising standards in other countries trying to protect human rights, environmental concerns, but ultimately an Obama administration will promote freer trade.
Going back to the elections, has an Obama win refocused the entire debate on race in the US?
I think it shows a remarkable degree of maturity on the part of the American people; that we, white America, have come a very long way in our race relations. But to say that because you have a president who happens to be black that is going to really eliminate issues of racism is overly optimistic.
I think the issue of race is so deeply ingrained in our country that it is going to take a few more years; as a younger generation comes forward, it becomes less and less of an issue. It is like saying that if you had a Jewish president who had been elected, would that eliminate anti-semitism, then the answer is no.