(The Diplomat over the next few weeks will be featuring the U.S. Presidential Election and what effect it may have on the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific region. Our hope is to provide a broad array of opinions and ideas from both sides of the political spectrum. Note: All opinions published are those of the author and not the views of this publication.)
As the 2012 presidential election draws near, it is clear that American voters will face a stark choice on issues ranging from a woman’s right to choose to the future of America’s social safety net. Differences over foreign policy, in particular, have recently taken on renewed significance. In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama outlined his administration’s impressive foreign policy record, while pointedly calling out Governor Mitt Romney and Congressman Paul Ryan as “new” to the field. His critique resonated powerfully with ordinary Americans, who are more confident about President Obama’s ability to handle international crises than his inexperienced challengers.
Realizing that their woeful lack of foreign policy credentials could prove a real Achilles’ heel, Romney and Ryan have politicized the tragic attack against American diplomats in Libya in a distasteful attempt to undermine President Obama’s global statesmanship. Such ploys are diversionary tactics and should fool no one. The Obama administration has proven its mettle time and again in a series of major foreign policy wins, including the elimination of Osama bin Laden, decimation of Al Qaeda’s leadership, withdrawal from Iraq, and winding down of the war in Afghanistan.
Building on these successes, President Obama has stepped boldly into the 21st century by advancing a forward-looking strategy of “Asian rebalancing” that capitalizes on new opportunities and recognizes emerging challenges – unlike his Republican opponent, who remains hopelessly mired in the distant Cold War past. As we enter what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called America’s “Pacific Century,” the Obama administration has taken far-sighted measures to permanently station U.S. Marines on Australia’s northern coast, redeploy American naval power with a predominantly Pacific posture, and explore new deep-water harbors in countries like Vietnam.
Partly anchoring this reorientation has been an expansion of the United States’ strategic partnership with India. Since taking office, President Obama has made significant strides in deepening ties with the world’s largest democracy, holding his first state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Singh, visiting the country himself, sending countless members of his Cabinet to India, and declaring American support for a permanent Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council. Obama’s “India policy” reflects a principled approach rooted in liberal values, for both democracies share deeply held commitments to universal franchise, secular government, and the rule of law. Equally important, it demonstrates the Obama administration’s recognition that India’s strategic interests are converging America’s.
President Obama’s success in strengthening the U.S.-India partnership partially rests upon deepening commercial ties. Under his leadership, these have never been stronger: bilateral trade and investment is expected to surpass $100 billion for the first time this year. Particularly important from a strategic standpoint is the fact that American defense sales to India, one of the world’s fastest growing defense markets, are growing rapidly. Building on this foundation, the Obama administration has expanded cooperation with New Delhi on a range of issues vital to U.S. national security. In June 2010, President Obama launched an annual U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue for both countries’ senior leaders to engage directly on topics ranging from counterterrorism cooperation and nuclear nonproliferation to cybersecurity and climate change. These high-level talks are more than just a symbolic milestone: they underscore the substantive depth of the two nations’ expanding security partnership, reflected, for instance, in the fact that the United States and India jointly participated in 56 separate military exercises across all services last year, which was more than India held with any other country during that time.
In West Asia, the Obama administration has partnered with India to promote regional stability and combat terrorism engendered by religious fundamentalism. As the last U.S. troops prepare to pull out of Afghanistan, American policymakers realize that India could act as a stabilizing influence in the war-torn country. New Delhi’s record on development assistance in Afghanistan over the past decade is solid, and its willingness to commit additional capital and know-how is promising. In recent months, Obama administration officials have been working more closely than ever before with their Indian counterparts to train Afghan security forces, civil servants, engineers, and others to bolster the Afghans’ capacity on-the-ground and increase the prospects for a lasting peace.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, an increasingly assertive China presents both Washington and New Delhi with arguably their most complex bilateral relationship. The two democracies’ dynamics with Beijing share important parallels: most notably, each seeks to deepen economic ties with China while managing an uncertain security future. In response to China’s expanding presence in the Indian Ocean, development of its first aircraft carrier, acquisition of several new nuclear-powered attack submarines, and commercial port construction in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, the Obama administration has increased maritime cooperation with the fast-growing Indian Navy to safeguard this naval “crossroads” of the global economy.
The Obama administration’s steps to deepen America’s partnership with New Delhi represent a major success for U.S. foreign policy. Halfway around the world, India is situated in a region crucial to the United States. Both liberal democracies face common challenges across Asia – from combating fundamentalist violence in the west to preventing authoritarian power plays in the east. And with Washington facing impending defense budget cuts, struggling allies in Europe, and an increasingly unreliable partner in Pakistan, India could become a “linchpin” of America’s strategic reorientation toward Asia.
President Obama’s engagement with India rests on the twin pillars of common values and converging interests. His foresighted bridge building has advanced democracy, boosted our economy, and left America stronger. Governor Romney, meanwhile, has hardly mentioned India, reflecting a deeper failure to formulate a strategic vision for U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century – yet another sign that he is dangerously out-of-touch with present day realities. Voters would do well to remember this when they go to the polls in November, for U.S. national security hangs in the balance.
Manik Suri is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Advanced Study of India, a Truman Security Fellow, and a J.D. Candidate at Harvard Law School. He has held positions at global investment firm D. E. Shaw & Company and the White House National Economic Council.