The Manmohan-Obama meeting at the U.N. General Assembly session is unlikely to be significant thanks to the stasis that has marked India-U.S. relations since 2008
There was a time when the United States was riding so high that the White House looked down on foreign heads of state using their presence in the annual United Nations General Assembly session to seek an audience with the leader of the free world. With its diminished status in today’s multi-polar world, it is Washington that finds it expedient to use the event for some old-fashioned diplomacy. On the list for this year’s summits, or “working visits,” are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. They could all be upstaged by a possible summit between Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Dealing with Israel
For Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, the context is domestic politics. Anything to do with Israel is local politics, as far as the U.S. is concerned. And the real problem with Israel is the intractable issue of Palestine. Having put his foot in it by clearly defining the emerging Palestinian state, Mr. Obama is now in a bind because of Israel’s customary intransigence. The meeting with the Nigerian is a patch-up effort aimed at soothing sentiments of black Africa’s most populous nation, which was left out of Mr. Obama’s itinerary in his June tour of Africa.
An Obama-Rouhani meeting though could put everything in the shade, even the UNGA. The estrangement between Iran and the U.S. has poisoned international politics for the past three decades. In the past year or so, they seem to be headed for an even more serious clash over Iran’s nuclear programme and the tightening of American sanctions. So any development toward resolving that situation would be good news, especially for countries such as India which have important geopolitical stakes in good relations with Teheran.
Where does the Manmohan-Obama summit fit in all this?
The relationship between India and the U.S. has been described in many ways: estranged democracies; natural allies; strategic partners; the defining partnership of the twentieth century; and so on. Today, if anything, there is one word to describe them, “dysfunctional,” which they both are, as putative allies and democracies. It is this reality upon which their efforts to put the mojo back in their relationship is foundering.
The real explanation for the stasis that has gripped India-U.S. relations since 2008 is largely economic, but there are also domestic causes on both sides. In June, leading U.S. business groups wrote to President Obama protesting what they called “unacceptable” Indian practices targeting U.S. business interests in India. Later that month, as many as 40 U.S. Senators signed on to a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry repeating the complaints.
Then, there are the political trends in the U.S. that make it seem increasingly inward looking and divided. The obsession of the Republican Party in undoing the healthcare law promoted by President Obama is a case in point. There are a hundred and one problems confronting the U.S. — degrading infrastructure, mounting deficits, a widening rich-poor divide, a deepening social divide between conservatives and liberals — but all that the U.S. Congress is obsessed with is undermining the Obama presidency. It is difficult not to believe there is an element of racism in it considering the efforts being made by Republican politicians to marginalise black voters.
The U.S. is uniquely gifted in its geographical location and natural resources, and upon these advantages it has constructed the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But it seems determined to expend its natural capital at a furious rate. Battered in Iraq, not quite rid of its military commitments in Afghanistan, it nearly stumbled into another one in Syria a month ago.
The lost decade
As for India, it now seems certain that we are in the midst of our lost decade. The Indian economy is sagging and the complaints of Indian businessmen against the Byzantine ways of New Delhi echo those of their American counterparts. No matter who wins or loses the coming election, in 2020 India will not be the global player it was hoping to be. Indeed, it will be lucky just to put the Indian growth story back on the rails by then. While the world economic crisis is one cause, poor political management and poorer policy choices are also responsible.
Even so, Washington and New Delhi believe, the show must go on. There have been several speeches and statements on the eve of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington — U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke in New Delhi of the importance of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative aimed at upping India’s defence capabilities. In his remarks to the Aspen Institute India last week, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon emphasised the durability of the ties that have developed in the last decade.
But it was a somewhat lowly official — a Deputy Press Secretary — Josh Earnest, who drew the bottom line. Briefing journalists on Air Force One last week, he said Prime Minister Singh’s visit would “highlight India’s role in regional security and stability, and provide an opportunity for the two leaders to chart a course towards enhanced trade, investment, and development cooperation between the U.S. and India.”
Parsing his words — India is increasingly important to U.S. calculations of stability in Afghanistan and South-east Asia. All other issues — increased trade, investment, development cooperation — are aimed at raising India’s capacity to meet these challenges. This is not the first time that India is playing this role. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. played a significant role in propping up India as a model democratic developing country. In geopolitical terms, it would seem that India and the United States are destined to be “natural allies,” though always in the future rather than the present.
Today, the U.S. is aware that India is unlikely to become its ally in the way that Japan, Australia or Britain and Germany are. But it is conscious of the fact that enhanced Indian economic and military capacities are to the benefit of the U.S. and its allies which are aimed at “balancing” China. That is because recent history and geography pit India against China. It is not just a matter of the disputed border, though this is not an unimportant issue. It is also China’s geopolitical compulsions to “build capacity” in the same manner in smaller South Asian countries, much to the discomfiture of New Delhi, which lacks the resources to take on Beijing. Unwittingly, though not entirely unwillingly, India is playing a role in American geopolitical calculations in Asia. In other words, there is a convergence of interests though New Delhi shies away from exploring where that leads.
At the end of the day, U.S.-India ties will rest on a community of shared interests, rather than shared values. That is where they will get their principal sustenance, but that is where we could find the biggest problems when their interests diverge, say, in the matter of the U.S. pivot to Pakistan as a prelude to its withdrawal from Afghanistan or in the matter of Iran.
In this larger scheme of things, Prime Minister Singh’s visit, his sixth bilateral summit with the U.S. leader in nine years in office, will not be of great significance because the circumstances of what go into a successful summit do not exist. That has to do with the paralysis of governance in New Delhi, but equally the distemper that afflicts Washington.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)