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The Obama Administration: Debates and Trends in US Foreign Policy- An Indian View

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” – George Bernard Shaw I have been studying the developments in the USA and India-US relations for nearly fifty years and have developed no phobia. The apprehension about stronger and strategic ties between India and USA making India a client or vassal state of USA is not shared by me. I try to be realistic and, in the process, may appear as being cynical on occasions. My apparent cynicism stems from genuine concerns, which are naturally based on my perception of India’s national interests. There is a sense of déjà vu when viewing the Obama Presidency, because of the many parallels with the Camelot days of the (tragically shortened) Kennedy Presidency in the early 1960s. Both young presidents were elected, in major departures from history and tradition, on the basis of hopes and high expectations raised by visionary rhetoric and promises of change or transformation. JFK was the first non-WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) to be elected President and Barack Obama is the first non-white President. First, the Positives President Obama has brought about a change in the US official mindset, trying to replace war as a means of settling issues with international diplomacy and dialogue. The changes in the deployment of the anti-missile shield and in the approach to Iran are positive steps that should help in reducing tensions around the world. The President has been showing that the US is “out of the bullying business” and prefers cooperation to “going it alone”. His foreign policy philosophy and style have unfolded in his foreign trips and major speeches. It can be said with some certainty that governments and peoples around the world have now started feeling slightly better about USA and its president. The hard reality, however, is that USA is continuing to fight two wars far from its shores, seemingly without any clear idea of how to win or to disengage. I find it difficult to agree with the unstated logic of the Norwegian Parliamentary Committee (Jury for the Nobel Peace Prize) that visionary rhetoric, raising hopes and expectations, as well as a few symbolic actions, could be substitutes for real actions and “deliveries”. As the President has himself said, the award of the Peace Prize “is a call for action”. Hence it is time to start “transforming” rhetoric to actions and, as Nike says, “Just do it”.

Then, Some Indian Concerns The US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (2007) was signed by the Executive and ratified by the Congress. However, the sponsorship of the UNSC resolution which, in effect, seeks to dilute / change the terms of the bilateral agreement, raises doubts about the sanctity and credibility of bilateral agreements signed by the USA. The real values of the President’s assurance to the Indian PM that the UNSC resolution is not directed at India and the statement that the US commitment to carry out its obligations under the Agreement remains undiluted have to be seen in the coming months. There is an old aphorism that one cannot get at the peace talks what one could not get in the battlefield. In the current situation, it can be adapted to say that what has been agreed to in bilateral negotiations should not be sought to be diluted through a subsequent international instrument. [It is worth noting here that the US Senate’s refusal to ratify the CTBT is still current.] Tens of billions of dollars worth of commercial deals between India and USA, relating to nuclear reactors and power generation, would depend very much on how well the Obama Administration accepts the President’s admonition (though delivered in a different context) that rights come with responsibilities. Recent debates in the US are displaying extreme concern for Pakistan’s uneasiness about India’s role in Afghanistan. General Stanley A. McChrystal had said that it is “likely to exacerbate regional tensions”. Later, on 2 October 2009, Milt Bearden (ex-CIA Station Chief in Pakistan) said that “India is becoming involved in Afghanistan to an extent that Pakistan considers Afghanistan as developing into an Indian garrison.” [Of course, India has no troops in Afghanistan.] Chairman John Kerry of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee characterized Bearden’s presentation as a “very cogent and thoughtful oversight”. In a thinly-veiled effort to justify Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist actions against India, Steve Coll (President of the New America Foundation) said that “Pakistan believes that it requires unconventional forces, in addition to nuclear deterrent, to offset India’s conventional military and industrial superiority – and hence the tolerance to Taliban”. In effect, the earlier hyphenated US-India-Pakistan relationship that the Bush Administration was moving away from seems to have been reinstated and renamed the Af-Pak policy. On the other side of the coin, the Pakistani military establishment has vigorously disagreed with the political leadership and has termed the anti-terrorist conditions in the Kerry-Lugar Act on US assistance to Pakistan as violating Pakistani sovereignty. In relation to China also, the Obama Administration seems to show more concern for the sensitivities of China than for those of India. There is apparently a steady “transformative” reversal of the “pro-India” posture of President Bush. I would prefer to see USA-China, USA-India, India-China and India-Pakistan relations as inter-related issues – with none of them holding any other hostage. A rising India should be unwilling to be considered and used only as a counter-weight to a rising China. Military relations between India and USA are growing rapidly. Many joint armed forces exercises are carried out, even without sharing any stated or presumed joint strategy in South Asia – though there is “a shared strategic interest” on some issues including combating terrorism. Many analysts feel that the ongoing military cooperation between India and the United States is bound to grow (at least at the commercial level) as India plans to spend billions of dollars for modernizing it defense capabilities. India, they say, is preparing for short term threats from Pakistan and long-term deterrence against China. A former Indian Foreign Secretary (Kris Srinivasan) has written that “Big countries usually differ on big issues, like security and arms control, the environment or access to trade. But between India and the US, the small matters are blown out of all proportion and it seems, at times, as if India is searching for matters on which to take offence”. He says that, despite emotional reactions against any outsiders who dare to interpose themselves in Indo-Pakistan bilateral relations, there is nothing that the Government of India would like more than Washington’s benevolent attention and sympathetic understanding. Is the US devoting thought and time to Pakistan at the expense of India – a Pakistan (which is a client state in nearly every respect) where anti-Americanism is stronger than it is in India? An important question is whether President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can initiate and sustain measures to reduce the feeling of muted hostility that many Indian opinion-makers nurture? Conclusion The old saying about knowing one’s enemy applies equally to knowing one’s friend. President Obama and his advisers need to realize that USA and India have all the requisites and needs to be friendly to each other, even without any requirements imposed by their relations with China and Pakistan. The political leadership and the peoples of the two countries have clearly to understand the strengths and weaknesses, as well as concerns and sensitivities of each other and not take good relations for granted. An ambience of free consultations and explanations (of the evolution of policies affecting the other) would be very helpful. The promised and expected Obama-led transition from confrontation to consultation to cooperation should help both countries in the long run.

[The Center for Security Analysis and the US Consulate General in Chennai jointly organized a public lecture in Chennai on “The Obama Administration: New Faces, Debates and Trends in US Foreign Policy” on 15 October 2009. This brief note was prepared by Mr R.Swaminathan, President & DG, International Institute of Security and Safety Management, and former Special Secretary, DG (Security), Government of India, to form the basis of his talk on this occasion. He can be contacted at]

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