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Why Modi’s Victory Means a New Chance for the U.S. to Make Good on the Asia Pivot

Why Modi’s Victory Means a New Chance for the U.S. to Make Good on the Asia Pivot

President Barack Obama’s cramped vision for U.S. foreign policy resulted in the concept of a pivot to Asia. The term was introduced when the president’s first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said that the United States was at a pivot point as troops were being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. In an article for Foreign Policy, "America’s Pacific Century," she called for "a sustained commitment to what I have called ‘forward-deployed’ diplomacy" in Asia. The term was soon replaced in common parlance, however, by "rebalancing," but both phrases spoke to this administration’s defensive approach to foreign policy.

The approach is particularly inappropriate in Asia given the United States’ historical alliance commitments: From its birth, the United States has been a naval power, and the geographic expansion of the American republic to the Pacific Ocean in the 19th Century made it a two-ocean naval power. Any president assuming office therefore has a historic mandate and responsibility to conduct U.S. foreign policy with attention to our friends and neighbors on the opposite sides of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Yet the idea that we somehow needed to pivot to Asia — implying that U.S. responsibilities in Europe and the Middle East could be set aside while our attention turned elsewhere — betrayed confusion in the White House rather than leadership.

The concerns that drove the administration to enunciate the pivot are not subject to dispute. As Clinton said almost three years ago, Asia "has become a key driver of global politics," "boasts almost half the world’s population," and "includes many of the key engines of the global economy." Though Clinton’s argument was in many ways a strong one, the action that followed unfortunately did not match the rhetoric.

The disconnection has created doubts in the region about U.S. will, with China evidently drawing the same conclusion as other bullies have in the past. We now see China reversing Mao’s once-honored dictum not to seek hegemony, aggressively and unilaterally altering of the status quo in the South China Sea. This behavior should reinforce the Obama administration’s commitment to Asia, whether couched in terms of a "rebalancing" or in terms consistent with America’s historic role as a Pacific power. 

India has arguably been the least appreciated and attended to element of Obama’s foreign policy in Asia. The president started off on a good foot by inviting then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a state visit in November of 2009 but little developed subsequently. A certain amount of the decline can be attributed to India’s attention to its domestic concerns, but by and large the Obama administration looked at India through the prism of Pakistan’s historic grievances, rather then in the context of a broader global strategy. It is not too late to correct that as we now have a new prime minister, Narendra Modi, in New Delhi, whose commitment to democracy, economic openness, and free market competition do not diverge from his predecessor’s while they parallel basic U.S. interests. They also happen to place India in opposition to the Chinese state-centered command system, which has enriched the few at the top but denied political voice to the many at the bottom. It will not be easy for the United States to take advantage of this change in India, but as part of making good on the pivot — making good on the United States’ historic commitments and responsibilities across the globe — the effort must be made.

The challenge of renewing the U.S.-India relationship, which drew enormous momentum from President Bill Clinton’s wildly popular visit in 2000 and was expanded under President George W. Bush, is two-sided. It is not just for the United States to approach India but also for India to approach the United States. Although Modi is understandably aggrieved at having his visa revoked some years ago by U.S. authorities, if he lets that past insult stand in the way of an expanded economy, it will not serve his administration well. India’s recent modest growth can be aided by a reinvigorated relationship with the United States, not by splendid isolation.

The challenge for the Washington is adjusting to Modi’s past as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when violence targeting Muslims broke out on his watch. Thousands died and human rights activists pointed their finger at Modi behind the scenes. Modi reached out during his just-completed campaign and has pledged to be a prime minister for all Indians — code words for representing Muslims every bit as much as Hindus. The fact that Modi grew up within and draws inspiration from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) need not alarm Washington’s decision makers for at least two reasons. First, we worked closely with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who also was influenced by RSS thinking, and second, because the extreme versions of the RSS ideology represent a set of nationalist and cultural views that grew out of opposition to British colonialism in the early part of the 20th century. They continue to animate some Indian thinking but do not prohibit engagement on a wide range of common U.S.-India interests.

To paraphrase the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. The arrival of Modi as prime minister of India provides an opportunity to identify what road we want to take in Asia. Expanding relations with India under Modi may be difficult, but there is little in foreign policy that comes easy. Narendra Modi is the new prime minister in New Delhi and China is busy seeking hegemony. The United States and India share concerns about Chinese assertiveness. What first steps can we take, therefore, to promote U.S.-India relations under the new administration in New Delhi?

Three actions could go a long way toward rebalancing our relations with India. First, we need to name an ambassador who captures India’s and America’s imagination. Ambassador Nancy Powell has left New Delhi, leaving Obama a chance to make a splash. This is the right time to signal the importance of India to U.S. foreign and strategic policy by naming a new ambassador with close ties to Obama.

Second, Obama should consider inviting Modi for a state visit, putting him on the same plateau as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. This may be too big a step now, given the high human rights quotient in the current U.S. foreign policy team, namely Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who impressed candidate Obama with their strong human rights concerns and have worked their way to the senior most levels of his foreign policy team. Welcoming Modi to Washington may therefore be a bridge too far for them to cross. But in October at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Modi will likely step onto the international diplomatic stage and renew India’s position as a global leader. At a minimum, the White House should begin to plan now for how to connect constructively and positively with the new Indian prime minister.

Third, Obama should propose a multinational diplomatic effort with Afghanistan’s new president (once the second round of voting is completed), Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Modi to lay the groundwork for a hands-off policy in the new Afghanistan. As I noted in my last post, civil war in Afghanistan after U.S. and ISAF troops withdraw is a real threat that may be averted if political and economic opportunities are available for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially India and Pakistan. No one will be served well by renewed conflict – this is a chance to ensure that peace follows Afghanistan’s decades of war. 

As Clinton said in her Foreign Policy article, Asia is a key driver of g
lobal politics. India is one of the key states in Asia, now with a new prime minister ready to push hard for Indian development and global leadership. Obama should seize the opportunity to work with Modi toward the same goal.