Many commentators, both in the US and India, do not believe that President Barack Obama’s victory and his second-term foreign policy will lead to any surprises to US-India relations. They see more of the same. They should be proven wrong.
Yes, the last four years have been a period of consolidation in India-US relations. They saw incremental improvements that built on the historic transformation of India-US ties over the previous decade. But the next four years hold the potential for major breakthroughs in trade, security, Asian regional cooperation and joint efforts to address global issues, especially climate change and food security.
The conditions for new departures in India-US relations are promising. Indian and US foreign policy interests and outlooks have continued to converge and form the basis for new levels of interaction. Leadership, early attention and persistence will be needed on both sides to achieve far-reaching goals.
On the US side, Obama’s re-election will empower him to pursue more ambitious foreign policy tasks. Even though his popular vote margin was narrow, he enjoys a virtual mandate, having come out on the right side of demographic changes that will continue to reshape the US electorate. And in his second term he will be concerned about his presidential legacy rather than re-election, so he will be freed from some domestic political constraints.
The alignment of Obama’s first-term foreign policy with the preferences of the majority of Americans also augurs well for initiatives the administration may take in the second term. According to the 2012 Chicago Council Survey released in September, most Americans are war-weary and war-wary, and want national attention and resources to be focused on economic renewal at home. While they remain supportive of US international engagement, even leadership, they prefer a more selective and less costly foreign policy, of the kind the Obama administration has pursued since 2009.
Against this background, Obama’s second-term foreign policy will have five overriding objectives: renewing economic growth at home and globally, preventing the Iranian nuclear programme from further destabilising the Middle East, stabilising Afghanistan post-2014, strengthening US presence and the regional balance of power in Asia, restarting global efforts to deal with the threats of climate change and food insecurity.
The India-US relationship will be central to four of the five tasks on the Obama agenda. The highest priority for both nations is more rapid and inclusive economic growth at home, and they can help each other achieve this goal by expanding market access and the flows of trade and investment in both directions. Even though total bilateral India-US trade has expanded rapidly, by 55 per cent from 2005 to 2011, it is still well short of its potential. US trade with India in 2011 accounted for only 2 per cent of US trade with the world. China has replaced the US as India’s largest trading partner. US direct investment in India in 2010 was less than 1 per cent of total US outbound FDI.
The most ambitious and effective step Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could take would be to set the two countries on the path to negotiation of a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA). There are political and bureaucratic obstacles on both sides. But there is also precedent. India is already in FTA negotiations with the ASEAN, Japan and Canada. Obama is committed to completing the trans-Pacific partnership.
A bilateral FTA would be a new “big idea” that could re-energise the entire relationship, much as the civilian nuclear agreement did in the Bush administration. It would require the two governments to set the goals and terms of negotiation in the next year, before India enters its own national election season. Obama and Manmohan Singh could launch the effort during an unprecedented second visit to India by a sitting US president in 2013, which would signify the importance they attach to the task.
Bringing stability to Afghanistan after the withdrawal of most of the International Security Assistance Force in late 2014 is of great importance to both Indian and US interests. Indian support for the American role in Afghanistan, a remarkable fact, given India’s long resistance to any Western military presence in South Asia, and the growing closeness of consultations between the two governments on the way forward after 2014 are among the few clearly positive elements in the complex and shifting regional situation. India has played a very constructive role in assisting the development of Afghan infrastructure and government services under very difficult conditions. Continuing consultation and cooperation with India will be essential to US and other international efforts to get some measure of success from this protracted conflict.
Obama’s departure, only 11 days after the election, for a four-day trip to Southeast Asia, which will also see the first visit by a US president to Myanmar, demonstrates his administration’s continuing commitment to reinforcing the US’s role in the world’s most economically dynamic region. For the last 15 years India too has pivoted to Asia with its “Look East” policy and dramatic changes in its relations with China, ASEAN, Japan and, most recently, Australia. So it only stands to reason that the India-US strategic partnership should increasingly be focused on the two nations working together to help ensure a prosperous, progressive and peaceful evolution of the Asian region.
Finally, it is time for the US and India to re-engage with each other on the subjects of climate change and global food security. International efforts in 2009-2010 to address climate change fell foul of economic preoccupations soon after the financial crisis and the failure of the US cap-and-trade legislation. But in the past two years, both India and the US have experienced as well as observed elsewhere in the world extreme weather events that have had catastrophic economic and social impacts.
These events have perhaps re-opened the minds of leaders around the world to considering the causes of extreme weather and its effects on food security, economic growth and social cohesion. India and the US are better positioned than any other pair of developed and developing nations to get the international conversation going again.
This agenda for India-US relations is very demanding, and it will require early and sustained attention over the next four years and beyond. But it could transform what Obama described as one of the defining partnerships of our era.
The writer is president of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs