India, US must work together to solve problems, says Barack Obama
Positioning India as a natural partner of the US, former US President Barack Obama said on Friday that there was no problem that could not be resolved if the two countries worked together.
In his address at the 15th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi, Obama, who completed two terms as the 44th president of the US on 20 January, spoke of how the world’s largest and oldest democracies have many things in common, cementing his belief that a defining partnership between the two countries can help “chart a course for a better future, especially at a time when democracy itself is being questioned”.
He also highlighted the role played by soft power in building the India-US relationship with an anecdote about how when he was at university he had Indian and Pakistani roommates whose respective mothers taught him how to make the popular lentil dish of dal.
“I believe I am the first US president to have a dal recipe,” Obama said to cheers and applause. “My keema (mince meat curry) is also excellent. My chicken (preparation) is ok,” he said, adding “those kinds of connections extend beyond any policies governments may make” and outlive the “ebbs and flows of national government”.
Once known as “estranged democracies” for being on opposite sides during the Cold War, India and the US have now repaired ties, with New Delhi now designated as a major defence partner of Washington. Obama was the first US president to visit India twice—during his two terms as president of the US between 2009 and 2017. Obama was also the first US president to be invited as India’s Republic Day chief guest in January 2015, a move that signalled India was no more shy of acknowledging the US as a key partner.
In his speech, the former US president also spelt out an agenda for a more inclusive world that would comprise technology and diplomacy while making a pitch for nations to “work together in multilateral fashions”.
“Invest in people. Skill them, educate them. Empower them to start their own business,” Obama said, in a reference to the increasing use of automation in businesses.
He also called for an open mind in the consumption of news and information, saying: “We consume information that suits our biases” which, he said, posed a threat to democracy.
Stating that the US and India could not by themselves solve the problems of the world, the former US president urged countries to make sure people did not feel isolated or marginalized and to do away with distinctions. “There is something in us humans—we like making distinctions,” Obama said, adding that sometimes these were based on race, sometimes on religion and sometimes on class.
In his speech and later in a discussion, Obama subtly criticized some of the decisions and actions of his successor Donald Trump—from jettisoning the 2015 Paris climate accord to using Twitter as a medium for announcing policy decisions.
Obama praised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the part he played in reaching the Paris accord but was critical of Trump—whom he did not name—for dismissing the perils of global warming as a “hoax” at least once in a Twitter post in January. In June, Trump announced that the US was pulling out of the Paris accord, much to the chagrin of European and other leaders.
When asked for his views on politicians and leaders using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to post their views and sometimes even policy decisions, Obama described all such social platforms as powerful tools that had the power to do good as well as bad. “Those of us who are leaders in any field... I think it’s important to be mindful about the power of these tools but also its limits and understand that it can be used for good or for bad,” Obama said.
Answering questions on the US-Pakistan relationship during his term in office, Obama said the US had faced the “consistent hard problem” where it was seen that elements in Pakistan had connections with terrorist groups. The former US president also said his administration had been able to find “no evidence” that authorities in Pakistan had been aware that Al Qaeda ideologue Osama bin Laden had been sheltered in Abbottabad. It was Obama who ordered a US Navy Seals’ strike to take out bin Laden in May 2011.
“I think what is a true and understandable source of frustration is the view that sometimes there are connections between explicit terrorist organizations based in Pakistan and elements that are connected to various more official entities inside of Pakistan,” Obama said in response to a question on whether the US had different approaches towards dealing with terrorism affecting itself and that affecting India.
“But that’s not just true for terrorist organizations that were directed at India, that’s true for those like (the) Haqqani (Network) that killed US soldiers. That poses a difficulty that’s been a consistent hard problem for us to solve.”
Referring to the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which India blames on Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, Obama said the US was “as obsessed with how to dismantle that network as India was” in the aftermath of the attack. “In fact, our intelligence and military personnel were immediately deployed to work with the Indian government in any way that the Indian government determined it would be helpful in getting this done,” he added.