2+2 must address concerns cropped up in India-U.S. ties: Bill Burns

Washington’s unease over India’s ties with Russia and Iran must not be underestimated, says former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

Updated - September 05, 2018 08:37 pm IST

Published - September 05, 2018 08:35 pm IST

 William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, gestures during an interview with The Hindu in New Delhi on September 4, 2018

William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, gestures during an interview with The Hindu in New Delhi on September 4, 2018

As the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State from 2011-2014, Ambassador William (Bill) Burns, who is now president of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was a key American official during the Iran nuclear deal, and has conducted several tricky negotiations with India. In an interview to The Hindu , he says the 2+2 must address concerns that have cropped up in the India-U.S. relationship during the Trump administration.

Despite the growth in India-U.S. relations over the past years, there are some signs of a drift as well: on trade, ties with Russia and Iran. What are your expectations from the 2+2 dialogue in this scenario?

Over the last 15-20 years, India and the U.S. have shared a steadily strengthening partnership. I take some pride in contributing to that. Against that backdrop, it is natural that each transition in administration will be accompanied by some worries in New Delhi about whether the new administration will be as committed to the relationship. President Obama faced the same worries, but he took the relationship forward. In the past year and a half we have seen some concerns about the predictability of the Trump administration, but to be fair, it has come out with a strong conceptual statement on committing to the Indo-Pacific strategy.

I think the 2+2, despite the delays will be an opportunity to refocus both countries on the broad convergences. It is an opportunity to take the partnership further, whether on the defence side where hopefully some progress will be seen with the U.S. decision to ease restrictions on technology transfer, and on the Indian side on the enabling agreements (COMCASA and BECA). What really marks this moment in the world is that India and the U.S. have a real stake in each other’s success. So it is a strategic bet, not a transactional one. Obviously on the S-400 deal, the U.S. administration must take into account the depth of concerns in Washington with Putin’s Russia, given its interference in our elections and actions in Ukraine, but also our relationship with India.

How much should India hope for a waiver on the S-400 deal or future defence purchases?

I honestly don’t know. I would not underestimate the depth of concern in Washington right now about dealing with Russia, which cut across party lines. On the other hand, India does have a legacy of defence relationship with Russia, and we must consider that.

Put plainly, the U.S. is essentially telling India where it can spend its money. Could this become a serious wedge between the two countries?

I hope that it doesn’t because there is a lot at stake in the India-U.S. relationship and we have solved a lot of problems in the past years that have been quite thorny.

How important is the personal ties between the leaders?

The personal factor is always important. I think President Trump has tended to overemphasise the personal over the institution in a lot of bilateral relationships around the world and some dismissive of our closest allies like leaders in Canada and Germany and at the same time taken a softer attitude towards adversaries like Putin or Kim Jong Un. That has built certain unpredictability in our relationships. For all I can see the relationship between PM Modi and President Trump is a healthy one, but there is a risk involved in over personalising ties. His personal world view is also different and in some way instead of enlightened self-interest, he puts more value on “self” than “interests”.

Given that, how significant is it that PM Modi and President Trump haven’t met in nearly a year, and haven’t even spoken on the telephone in six months?

I really believe, as President Obama said, that ours is one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century and given that significance it is important that our leaders meet as frequently as they can and develop not only a personal rapport but demonstrate a commitment to the partnership that the bureaucracies and citizens can see.

Turning to Iran. Can the U.S. recreate the kind of pressure today it did in the last round of sanctions?

I am sceptical of that. I think the President’s decision to abandon the JCPOA was unfortunate. The last time around it was our commitment to make diplomacy work as well as our decision to keep pressure on Iran that persuaded some reluctant partners including India and other big players like China to take the difficult step to reduce intake of Iranian oil. Because they saw we were committed to diplomacy. I fear in this administration there is the absence of that second part. Which I think will make it harder, especially with the Chinese.

How likely is the Trump administration that includes many hardliners on Iran to give India the same waiver for developing the Chabahar port that the Obama administration did?

As before, I don’t know. But you can’t underestimate the depth of conviction that senior members of this administration have on maximizing pressure on the Iranian government. They are basing this on the assumption that the grip of the regime on the people and the Iranian economy is so fragile that if you push hard enough, you will succeed. So this is not aimed at a better deal, but at capitulation or implosion. I think it is a mistake to downplay the resilience of the Iranian people despite the fragility of the economy, or underestimate the ability of the Supreme leader or regime to use that pressure to strengthen their position at least in the short term. So I am not sure about Chabahar, but the conviction in this administration against Iran is very strong.

On Pakistan, Mr. Trump has taken tougher measures than previous administrations: cutting aid, and pursuing the FATF grey-listing. Would you say it is more effective than past U.S. governments?

Well certainly they have delivered a tough message to Pakistan on terror backed up by some actions, as you described. Secretary Pompeo’s meeting in Islamabad is important, and I hope it results in Pakistan taking that message seriously, but it is too soon to judge that. Conceptually the South Asia policy is a sensible step, and the 2+2 will assess the success of the strategy, as it will also look at the significant challenge from China and the Indo-Pacific policy.

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