Voice from America

India-US: Will Modi and Obama Come Together?

03 Jun, 2014    ·   4488

Prof Amit Gupta says that for several reasons, the two countries will likely take some time to warm up to each other

Amit Gupta
Amit Gupta
Visiting Fellow
After denying Mr Narendra Modi a visa for nearly a decade the US saw the writing on the wall and started changing its tune just before the 2014 elections were held. Mr Modi is now officially welcome in the Washington but it will be a long time before the US-India relationship will reach the same levels it was at during the second term of George Walker Bush. 

Obama’s Compulsions
The US, once again, has had its focus shifted from China to a series of brush fires around the world - Syria and Ukraine being the most prominent. The Bush administration when it came to power named China as a strategic competitor but was forced to shift its attention to Afghanistan because of the September 11 attacks. These traditional battlegrounds have their constituents in Washington. The bottom line is that quite a few American strategic analysts are obsessed with the Middle East and would like to revive the Cold War even though President Obama quite correctly dismissed Russia as a regional power. Because brush fires have overridden grand strategy in Washington, the Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia and enhanced ties that go with it have been put on the backburner and, instead, the focus is on regions that both present unsolvable problems and provide little reward to the US. The Middle East, after its flirtation with the so-called Arab Spring, has swung back to soft authoritarianism, and Russia will never be in the US camp. Nor will challenging Russia, a much diminished power, bring the sort of global rewards that the Cold War did to the US’ position in world affairs. Now, challenging Russia does not lead to a rise in military budgets or in a national rejuvenation as happened with the race to the moon. But the Obama administration is likely to be caught up in putting out these brush fires till the end of its term.

Coupled with the shift from a strategic to a tactical focus is the fact that the three trends in the short to medium term are going to make US foreign policy take a less proactive role in world affairs.  First, the country is tired of wars and, therefore, there is a real dislike for foreign intervention. President Obama recognised this when he put the Syrian issue in the hands of Congress knowing fully well that the legislature was unlikely to authorise American troop commitments. Secondly, at a time when the American economy has yet to fully recover from the economic crisis of 2008, it is difficult to tell the American people to spend more on defense and external military commitments. Third, the bills of the Iraq and Afghan wars are now starting to pile up with the need for new equipment as well as taking care of tens of thousands of walking wounded.  Given these facts, the US is quite happy in pursuing a foreign policy where, as in Libya, it leads from behind unless its security interests are threatened (President Obama has argued that a terrorist attack remains the most direct threat to the US). President Obama’s domestic critics see all this as a sign of weakness but he has made a more careful exercise of American military power as a centerpiece of the last two and a half years of his presidency as stated in his speech at West Point on 28 May 2014. 

Along with this preoccupation with short term crises and the exhibition of caution in exercising military power is the fact that the Pivot to Asia has not been concretised in an economic plan of action for Asia.  Consequently, it is China that is making major economic inroads in the region as some of the US’ major allies - South Korea and Australia - now have China as their largest trading partner. The fact that the Trans Pacific Partnership - the Obama Administration’s economic centerpiece for Asia - does not include China or India means in fact that it will have a limited impact on the US role in Asia. 

All these trends should mean that the US takes the initiative to build a stronger relationship with Asia since as President Obama stated at West Point, “On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake -- when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us -- then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilise allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”  Instead, for several reasons, the two countries will likely take some time to warm up to each other.

US businesses ranging from the commercial to the defense sectors, for example, now suffer from a bad case of India fatigue. The last five years of the UPA government saw Indian decision-making move at a glacial pace and simple attempts to open up the economy were stymied by corruption charges and coalitional infighting. The Modi government, therefore, will have to recreate the kind of excitement that existed in business quarters about India in the early 2000s in order to generate renewed interest from Western and particularly US firms. Given the economic focus of the new Indian government, however, this is likely to happen sooner than later as witnessed by the move to allow 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the defense sector. 

A more difficult issue will be to see if India and the US can develop complementary world views especially on the issue of the rise of China and how to balance Beijing with a pivot to Asia. While New Delhi sees the value of a US that balances China in Asia it is not keen on being part of an anti-Chinese alliance as some in the US and Asia would want it to be. This is especially the case with Mr Modi who has made several trips to China and quite clearly recognises the role Beijing could play in the economic development of India. Moreover, as long as the word expeditionary is taboo in New Delhi it is doubtful that the Indian government will agree to participate in coalitional efforts with the US (unless of course it is under the aegis of the United Nations).

And there is the simple fact of personalities. Mr Modi, in his years as chief minister, spent time cultivating the nations of East Asia because he was not permitted to visit the West. He is likely to use that friendship to bring quick investment to India, something that the West will not be willing to do. Consequently, an India that finally adopts a true Look East policy and for a while at least adopts a wait and see approach with the US may be seen.

Having said that, such an approach cannot be maintained in the long run since India’s development will require technological inputs from the West and that means at some time either Mr Modi goes to Washington or Mr Obama comes to Delhi. It will happen but not any time soon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.