A Tight Embrace
| Pres. Barack Obama’s state visit to India in November 2010 bookends a 50-year historical chapter in the six U.S. presidential visits to India that began with Pres. Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. Signaling a transformation in the relationship from that of benefactor-beneficiary to one of peers, Pres. Obama said in a rousing speech to the joint session of the Indian Parliament: “It is my firm belief that the relationship between the United States and India — bound by our shared interests and our shared values — will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. This is the partnership I’ve come here to build. This is the vision that our nations can realize together.”|
He exhorted Indians to recognize what even after a decade of super-charged economic growth eludes them: “India is not simply emerging; India has emerged.” In symbolic recognition of that reality — and it was symbolic — Obama sprung a dramatic surprise, one that Indians most craved, but which was so tightly hidden until his speech to the Indian Parliament that it uncorked wild jubilation — U.S. support for Indian aspirations for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, “I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”
First Lady Michelle Obama’s dance moves with Indian children may have tantalized and endeared, but Obama’s endorsement of India’s demand for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council had virtually every Indian whooping, no matter that it was a mostly empty commitment — a good applause line. Not only do the other five current permanent members have to agree on expanding the Council (and support from China for India’s bid is a long shot by any measure), so must a majority of the U.N. General Assembly, where any reform of its aging international architecture is bound to run up against competing regional demands. At the very least, any prospect of India securing a permanent Security Council seat is years, even decades, away — if it is ever realized.
Indeed, it is unclear just how far the United States itself is prepared to go. At a briefing for U.S. journalists in New Delhi, hours before Pres. Obama’s speech to the Indian Parliament, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes were noticeably vague on how many other countries the U.S. would support for permanent membership and whether it envisages giving them veto powers, which the current five permanent members enjoy. Said Rhodes: “We’re not getting into the — right now, what we’re doing today, is, again, expressing our support for a permanent membership within a reformed Security Council. But the details of that, again, has to take place and has to be hashed out through the process in New York.”
The elusiveness of the permanent Security Council seat notwithstanding, the elevation of the U.S.-Indian partnership during the Obama visit jumpstarts a new chapter for India on the global stage. Undersecretary Burns exulted, “I think in many respects this visit is about cementing one of the most important bilateral partnerships that the United States has in the world today.”
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah captured the immediate practical implications of the dramatic shift in the relationship: “Our development relationship has already evolved and will continue to evolve tremendously from a traditional partnership where a donor provides resources and technical expertise to really a peer-to-peer partnership where we explore real technical cooperations and look for those opportunities where Indian innovators and scientists and entrepreneurs can create solutions that apply all around the world….. So the first thing is this shift to real technical cooperation and instead of thinking of it as a traditional development partnership, looking at how we can work together to solve global problems.”
On the security side, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said: “One of the criticisms in the past of this has been that the United States sometimes regarded India more as a target than a partner in nonproliferation, and I think that the steps the President announced in the course of this visit show definitively that we now see India as a partner in the global nonproliferation space.”
Among the benefits for India during the visit was a loosening in restrictions on dual-use technologies and support for India’s membership in multilateral nuclear regimes.
The evolving U.S.-Indian partnership is driven by converging global realities. The economic ascendancy of India and China is occurring just as the United States is entering what is likely to be a prolonged period of economic decline. The global economic crisis has accelerated the diffusion of global power away from the U.S.-European axis to the emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, Russia, etc. In the immediate term, China has emerged as the most powerful economic driver and because it, unlike India, harbors global and regional power ambitions, it poses the greatest challenge to the existing order dominated by the United States.
Pres. Obama’s embrace of an “indispensable” and “truly global partnership” with India, for all his platitudes about Mahatma Gandhi, Indian democracy and its free market economy, is driven by the crass political imperative of checking China’s global ascendancy, especially diluting its growing clout in Asia. That impetus drives what Burns identified as “Our deep strategic interest in India’s rise” and Pres. Obama’s Indian calculus. As he told the U.S.-India Business Council: “We don’t simply welcome your rise as a nation and people, we ardently support it. We want to invest in it.”
U.S. investment in India’s rising global stature comes at a price, of course, and Pres. Obama candidly outlined the United States expectations in return, couched again in the lofty rhetoric that “with increased power comes increased responsibility.” The United States wants a more activist and supportive Indian role in international affairs, something the country has traditionally eschewed. Specifically, the United States wants Indian support in implementing U.N. sanctions against Iran, promoting nuclear non-proliferation and condemning human rights abuses in Mynamar, for example.
As a rising power, India may have no option but to become a more active and decisive player in world affairs. But it is not likely to want to walk quite in lockstep with the United States, however tightly Prime Minister Singh wrapped his arms around Obama’s waist at their joint press conference.