As the US president, Barack Obama embarks on his second term, New Delhi is once again feeling the chill of a new administration in Washington. Sections of the Indian foreign policy making community are once again doing what they do best – crying hoarse over a possible change in the tone and tenor of US foreign policy. Obama has a new cabinet line-up with John Kerry nominated for the post of secretary of state, Chuck Hagel for the secretary of defense and John Bremmer as the head of the CIA. The US foreign policy is in a state of flux and some very significant changes are likely over the course of the next few years under the second Obama presidency. The most important issue in the short to medium term will be withdrawal of around 66,000 US troops from Afghanistan after more than a decade battling al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Like most nations around the world, New Delhi will also be impacted by the impending changes in the foreign policy priorities of Washington. But instead of debating the larger ramifications of these changes, the discussion in India today is reminiscent of the discussion in the country when Obama came to office for the first time in 2008. There were widespread concerns about Obama’s attitudes towards India after eight years of privileged position under George W Bush administration. George W Bush, deeply suspicious of communist China, was personally keen on building strong ties with India.
Hence, he was willing to sacrifice long-held US non-proliferation concerns to embrace nuclear India and acknowledge it as the primary actor in South Asia, dehyphenated from Pakistan. The Obama administration’s concerns in its initial months with protecting the nonproliferation regime, dealing with the immediate challenge of the growing Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and solving the unprecedented economic challenge led it to a very different set of priorities and an agenda in which India seemed to have a marginal role. The only context in which Obama mentioned India in his early months was related to the need to resolve Kashmir so as to find a way out of the west’s troubles in Afghanistan.
To many Indians, the new administration seemed intent on sidelining India. In a similar vein, discussion these days is centered around the appointment of John Kerry and his supposed ’tilt’ toward Pakistan. Kerry has been closely associated with Obama administration’s Pakistan policy.
It was he who helped broker the release of the CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, arrested on suspicion of murder and later persuaded Islamabad to return parts of US stealth helicopter that crashed during the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Kerry has already been termed by sections of the Indian media as a friend of Pakistan, implication being that he would be unfriendly towards India. Kerry’s strong support for strengthening the NPT and the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorizing a five-year $7.5 billion financial aid package to Pakistan have been viewed as examples of Kerry’s pro-Pakistan worldview.
Pakistan’s effusive praise for Kerry’s nomination may indeed underscore a sense in Islamabad and Rawalpindi that they have gained a sympathetic ear in the new US cabinet. It won’t be surprising if the recent adventurous behavior of Pakistan military at the Line of Control may have been inspired by this bravado.
But just as Pakistan will be fooling itself, if it believes that Kerry is going to be Pakistan’s friend, India is being unnecessarily defeatist if it thinks that Kerry’s nomination will be a disaster for India. Kerry is neither going to be pro-India nor pro-Pakistan, he will be pro-US. And if Obama had to change his foreign policy worldview vis-à-vis India soon after coming into office, Kerry will have no choice but to build on Obama’s first term and strengthen ties with India.
After all, it was Kerry who has described India-US ties as “without doubt one of the most significant partnerships in US foreign policy.” The US-India relationship has matured and reached a stage where changes in personnel will only have a limited impact on its trajectory. There is a growing perception that India is not yet ready for prime-time and that the political leadership in New Delhi remains perpetually preoccupied with domestic turmoil and lacks political will to claim India’s rightful place in the comity of nations.
It is for India to pursue strategic partnerships with like-minded nations and advance its interests. The world will only take India seriously when India starts taking itself seriously and starts behaving like a serious power. There is a larger problem that underlies this perpetual hyperventilation in India about the ostensible tilt in Washington.
It has become a regular feature of Indian diplomacy to press America toward securing its own regional security interests. The speed with which India has outsourced its regional foreign policy to Washington is astonishing.New Delhi is now reduced to pleading with Washington to tackle Pakistan and to rein in Pakistan army’s nefarious designs against India in Afghanistan, in Kashmir and elsewhere.
For all the breast beating in recent years about India emerging as a major global power, Indian strategic and political elites display an insecurity that defies explanation. A powerful, self-confident nation should be able to articulate a coherent vision about its priorities and national interests.
The brazen display of a lack of self-confidence by Indian elites in their nation’s abilities to leverage the international system to its advantage only weakens India.
A diffident India will continue to crave for the attention of Washington but will find it difficult to get. A confident India that charts its own course in world politics based on its national imperatives will force the world to sit up and take notice.