Re-engaging Washington

By Dhruva Jaishankar

America looks distracted. Why Delhi should take the lead.


Has the United States forgotten about grand strategy? All indications point, for the moment, to US grand strategy being on the backburner. However you slice it, President Barack Obama's preoccupations, the secretary of state's travel schedule and the Republican rhetoric suggest that Washington has only two real policy priorities today.


The first is jobs. The US economy may be recovering, but decreasing unemployment from the current 7.4 per cent to pre-crisis levels of 4.5-5 per cent is at the core of Obama's political agenda. Strategic matters — defence partnerships, nuclear commerce, and international trade and economic agreements — have been subordinated to job creation. India is bearing the brunt, whether on intellectual property rights, market access, migration, nuclear liability or defence sales, and New Delhi is now a prime target of criticism not just from the White House, but from narrowly focused department bureaucracies and the US Congress.


The second US priority is counter-terrorism (CT), as exemplified by the recent closure of US missions from Pakistan to Mauritania, and the administration's response to revelations about its surveillance activities. Military operations in Afghanistan are now seen primarily through a CT lens. Barring an attack on American targets or interests, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan is deemed acceptable, regardless of the consequences for regional stability or Indian sensitivities.


India must appreciate that these are the current realities of US engagement, however distasteful. But rather than contributing to bureaucratic gridlock, these ought to provide India with leverage. Few other countries offer the US the ability to alleviate both its near-term economic and security concerns. India remains among the largest potential destinations for US exports and investment, and shares US desires to disrupt terrorist activities post-2014.


But it is important to acknowledge that Washington's obsessive focus on unemployment and terrorism is also temporary. The present circumstances have been brought about by a combination of economic realities, political and military constraints, and personnel, all of which are ephemeral. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gets set for his valedictory visit to the US next month, he ought to be focused on overriding short-term differences while keeping the long-term picture in mind.


What does that long-term picture look like? If the past 60 years are anything to go by, it is one in which the US bounces back stronger. Book publishers and television talk shows may still be peddling stories of inexorable American decline, but the US has rebounded from much more adverse circumstances in the past. It has unique demographic advantages among developed states, which, when coupled with its institutions, entrepreneurship and natural resources, offer it a remarkable ability to preserve its leadership position in global affairs. Under the right circumstances, that could play to India's advantage.


In 2005, when India was a nuclear pariah led by a loose coalition and had an economy 40 per cent of its current size, the US took a gamble on its future. It did not seek immediate returns, but calculated that a more robust India was both inevitable and served American interests. That, in turn, led to a conscious decision to facilitate India's rise. That calculation overrode the objections and doubts of naysayers within the US government and across the international community.


India now has an opportunity to reciprocate. Amid its own economic difficulties and political uncertainty, it faces a choice. It can continue drawing red lines in various on-going bilateral negotiations with Washington, playing for time while hoping for more favourable terms down the road. But if it believes that an American resurgence is likely and beneficial to Indian interests, it cannot afford to be bogged down in bureaucratic tu-tu-main-main.


The writer is a fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC.


Indian Express