Indian Decade

India in an Election Year

Judging from two big foreign policy speeches last week, the U.S. doesn’t quite know how to handle India ties.

U.S. Vice President Biden and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio gave election year foreign policy addresses last week. As is the case with most foreign policy speeches, specific issues were ignored in favor of broader calls for “American leadership” and other platitudes signaling a positive future for the country’s role in international affairs.  Still, a closer read of both addresses did reveal some intriguing details about the way foreign policy is shaping up as an election year issue.

As could be expected, both speeches spoke of the U.S-China relationship, albeit in different ways. For Rubio, the relationship with China conjured images of the Cold War, and for him the U.S. approach should resemble the strategy used during the 20th century. Biden referred only to the compromises the administration had reached with China on Iran’s nuclear weapons.

Curiously, though, neither speech mentioned U.S policy toward India, nor how a future administration would approach or change the current U.S-India Strategic Dialogue. Rubio mentioned engaging with democratic governments in the Western Hemisphere, but neglected to mention how his party would continue working with the world’s largest democracy. Biden spoke of America’s work with emerging powers like “Russia, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa,” but he didn’t mention how the Obama administration’s current work with New Delhi fits into such relationships.

The two speeches taken together reflect the complacency the political class seems to have toward the U.S-India relationship. While the policy community is ramping up efforts to spur dialogue (e.g.: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming visit to India), campaigning politicians grumbling about the many bugaboos facing the United States seem so focused on China’s rise that they ignore the other billion people living across the Himalayas. If India’s recent stance towards Iran has taught us anything, it’s that a working relationship with New Delhi is a necessity for Washington.  

Additionally, for a state that is also factoring in the Pentagon’s long term strategic plans, both parties have been surprisingly mute in regards to foreign policy plans. This wasn’t always the case; as recently as the last election cycle, India was a significant component of the foreign policy goals of both parties. Candidate Barack Obama wrote in India Abroad in February 2008, and made several references to the need to have India involved in a strategic partnership for the 21st century. Republican candidate Sen. John McCain mentioned adding major rising powers including Brazil and India to the G-8 in a foreign policy address in March 2008, and also cited his record on the India Civil Nuclear deal as an example of how he would handle relations as president.

Certainly, while mention or otherwise in election year speeches doesn’t constitute a foreign policy commitment, the failure to mention the relationship at all is an indication that both parties are unsure of how to work with India in the current political environment. They assume that it will counter-balance China, all the while following U.S interests within the Asia-Pacific. But not only is this a naïve assumption, it’s downgrading the role India could possibly play. Even with political stagnation choking New Delhi’s foreign policy apparatus, India’s recent stances do indicate a possible change in the way it will approach its international relations. Campaigners need to realize that the United States will need to reach out to New Delhi and look for areas of common interest as part of a broader plan. The old assumption that democracy would automatically bind the two countries is mistaken.

Unfortunately, in an era when the American public is particularly wary over foreign affairs, it’s much easier to act tough towards a perceived enemy than speak of the highlights of an awkward friendship. How could either party mention a burgeoning and fruitful trading relationship when outsourced jobs are generally what spring to voters’ minds? 

There are a number of ways that both Democrats and Republicans could bring up the issue as part of a cohesive foreign policy agenda. Both parties need to start by emphasizing that the relationship has long moved past just being an economic one, and now includes issues like climate change, energy security and trade stability. Rubio especially detracted a lot from his overall point last week by neglecting to mention India’s role on hot button issues like Iran, or regional stability in South Asia. Biden, meanwhile, missed an opportunity to show off the administration’s multifaceted approach in trade, security and economic development, achievements that should be classified as successes by any measure.

The Carnegie Endowment’s George Perkovich wrote in October 2010 that, “[Bush’s] special treatment of India was unrealistic and therefore unsustainable.” The difference now is that America in an age of defense austerity will need to find ways to work with partners in different arenas. Ignoring India as a partner, especially on the campaign trail, is not the way to do that.

Kedar Pavgi is an international relations analyst and journalist based out of Washington D.C. He blogs on his site The Couch Economist and for the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow him on Twitter @KedarPavgi.