Camelot or estrangement: U.S.-India relations in Obama era

By Harold A. Gould   |   Monday, 31 August 2009, 10:19 Hrs
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Virginia: Hillary Clinton, America's Secretary of State in the Obama administration, made her pilgrimage to India (July 17-21) for the purpose of determining the nature of the relationship which the world's two largest democracies will pursue with each other now that the George W. Bush administration has run its course.

There is a touch of almost romantic irony in the fact that for the first time in U.S. history the country's foreign policy has been conducted in sequence and across successive administrations by women secretaries of state.

This is an especially poignant fact with respect to U.S.-India relations because Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, during her tenure as secretary of state (June 26, 2005, to Jan 20, 2009) is credited with being a leading proponent of the Bush administration's late-blooming determination to forge a strategic relationship between the U.S. and India, while Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as first lady during the Clinton administration in the 1990s, helped create the favourable atmosphere that paved the way for her husband's epoch-making "de-linking" of U.S. policy towards India and Pakistan.

The Bush policy towards South Asia was a striking manifestation of a growing diminution of the influence of the neo-conservative faction which had dominated American foreign policy throughout the president's first term, and had wrought the disastrous Iraq war, burgeoning budget deficits in order to fund it, diminished American international prestige, and mounting controversy over the propagation of state-sponsored torture such as water-boarding and so-called 'rendition' (transporting prisoners to countries that condone torture).

One of the first symptoms of the political disarray which heralded this diminution in neo-con influence on president Bush was the resignation of General Colin Powell that created the vacancy in the State Department which Condoleezza Rice could then occupy. Rice had been head of the National Security Council, enjoyed a special insider relationship with the president, and was known to be an advocate of a more flexible, less ideologically strident approach to foreign policy, including rapprochement with India.

Rice, in fact, regarded democratic India as an especially fertile venue for demonstrating her determination to significantly alter the tone and objectives of American diplomacy throughout the world.

Her status as secretary of state with the power, prestige and flexibility to uninhibitedly shape the Bush administration's foreign policy was materially enhanced by the departure of then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and then deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, from the Pentagon, and perhaps even more crucially, by a gradual estrangement between Bush and the supreme proponent of neo-con doctrine, then vice president Dick Cheney.

Originally designated by the neo-con establishment as 'keeper' of a politically inexperienced George W. Bush, Cheney had originally been the undisputed power behind the throne who called the political shots. But with the passage of time, Bush gained confidence, 'grew into the job', as it were, and with new, more stable advisers, like Ms Rice, and Robert Gates as secretary of defence, in the face of mounting failure of key neo-con policies, both at home and abroad, grew more independent. As a recent Washington Post article stated: "In the second term, (Cheney) felt Bush was moving away from him." And this was true.

It will be the task of history to determine whether this trend was the inevitable result of Bush's 'on-the job maturation', or the by-product of increased intercession by the father, former president George Herbert Walker Bush, and his more senior, politically mature associates like General Brent Scowcroft and James A. Baker.

Cheney's emerging successor, as far as influencing foreign policy is concerned, was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Her goal was to bring American foreign policy back into the mainstream of international diplomacy, and within the ambit of this altered conception of the use of American power, latitude for a formalised strategic relationship with India.

Thanks to her initiative and the diplomatic skills of her principal assistant, then under secretary of state for political affairs Nicholas J. Burns, the Non-Proliferation Enhancement Act was signed Oct 10, 2008.

One of the least appreciated aspects of the process which led to this momentously important rapprochement between the world's two largest democracies was the outcome of the remarkable two-and-a-half-year dialogue between Strobe Talbott, the Clinton administration's deputy secretary of state, and Jaswant Singh, then India's external affairs minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

As is well known, the two diplomats met 14 times between June 1998 and September 2000. The outcome of this dialogue unquestionably created the foundation for the strategic agreement that ultimately was achieved by the Bush administration through Condoleezza Rice and Nicholas Burns, and whatever might follow under the aegis of Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.

But contrary to the conventional assumptions about why the Talbott-Singh dialogue achieved what it did (that there was a profound meeting of minds and sentiments between the two men), the actual reason was because India had neither signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nor ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Had it been otherwise, Talbott by his own admission, in his book ("Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and The Bomb"), concedes that the U.S. probably would not have been able to achieve any treaty arrangement which allowed India to retain a nuclear weapons capability on the terms it sought for itself. This is because the non-proliferation constraints inherent in these treaties, combined with the influence of the non-proliferation lobby in the United States, would have prevented it.

Quite apart from the technical issues, Talbott admits that had the NPT and CTBT been in effect under U.S. and international law, he himself would have insisted on an agreement between the two countries dependent on India's conformity to the letter of the treaties' non-proliferation strictures. He was not in his heart personally favourably disposed towards India achieving the special status it sought and obtained through some sort of agreement.

In the actual circumstances, therefore, Talbott bowed to a kind of ad hoc pragmatism, partially at least because: "Jaswant Singh achieved more of his objectives than I achieved of mine." It was, in other words, because Jaswant Singh proved to be a highly, skilled and ethical negotiator who convinced Talbott that any agreement that could be had would have to be based on allowing India to retain her weapons capability and re-processing rights, and trusting that India would be a morally responsible nuclear state despite the misgivings of the orthodox non-proliferation community.

So now Hillary Clinton and President Obama are the legatees of this somewhat arcane process which led to the US-Indian Strategic Agreement which entitles India to remain a respectable nuclear power in the eyes of the international community, buttressed with an array of special ties to America. Secretary Clinton and India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna issued a joint statement in which they "agreed to strengthen the existing bilateral relationships and mechanisms for cooperation..."

What remains questionable is how harmoniously this relationship will endure when the differences in perspective between the new administration and its predecessor surface on the critical issues of non-proliferation and global climate change. In the words of Strobe Talbott: "Mr. Obama... is committed to ratifying the CTBT, strengthening the NPT, and pursuing other treaties to prevent the spread of dangerous material and technology."

Should this happen, the zone of ambiguity which benefitted the Talbott-Singh dialogue will disappear, which will pave the way for the re-entry of the non-proliferation hardliners back into the fray, and lead to U.S.-Indian relations, including the strategic agreement, relapsing back into 'estrangement'.

Since Obama also favours replacement of the Kyoto protocol with "a treaty-based climate-control regime including India, China and other emerging powers", this could become another area of stress and tension down the road.

Should this happen, it remains to be seen if the now substantial Indian-American community would become a new variable in mediating and ameliorating differences between the two countries.

But whatever happens, it must be realised that the last 20 years of Camelot might be facing some serious challenges.

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