If you read some of the leading news agency articles on President Obama’s recent official visit to India, you might be forgiven for thinking that the point of it all was to model Michelle Obama’s latest wardrobe choices, or to celebrate a ‘bromance’ between the U.S. president and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After all, given such biting analytical headlines as CNN’s “‘Namaste, Obama!’ Postcards from the Presidential India Trip,” and The Washington Post’s “How Modi Dressed Better than Michelle, and other Highlights of Obama’s India Trip,” how could you not come away enlightened?
Jumping on the ridiculous headline bandwagon with this piece, which argues that the United States would be smart to court an alliance with India as part of an overall reassessment of American grand strategy for the 21st century, this author cannot help but hope that the above ludicrous banner might snag a few errant clicks from those looking for (further) evidence of the current U.S. president’s illegitimacy. And no, President Obama is not a Hindu, but since you are here….
The ostensible reason for the president’s (second) trip to India was to attend the latter’s Republic Day celebration, which commemorates India’s adoption of its constitution. Obama was also visiting India to demonstrate U.S. commitment to a strategic friendship centered on fostering economic ties and democratic ideals, and to work through various hang-ups within the implementation of the nuclear deal struck during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Why does this matter? Was this just another official visit by the U.S. president to a relatively unimportant Asian nation, with ho hum bits of rather meaningless pageantry thrown in? Hardly.
The United States and India, according to the Declaration of Friendship released as part of the president’s visit, are “committed to a long-term partnership for prosperity and peace,” and to cooperation in a number of significant areas, including security, counterterrorism, and economic-commercial concerns. There appears to be an understanding on the part of both sides that America and India need each other.
The reasons for this are numerous, but the following are the most significant, in this author’s opinion, from the point of view of the United States.
First, India is the largest democracy in the world, and located in the one of the world’s most geopolitically significant regions. India straddles an area proximal to China, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia, and is a strategic rival to China and Pakistan. India has been a long-time friend of Russia, though it remained “non-aligned” during the Cold War, and today, though the two nations remain close, according to a December 2014 Brookings analysis, their relationship has become more “transactional” than it once was, lacking some of its past sentimentalism.
All of the above should paint a picture of strategic opportunity for the astute American national security strategist. From these disparate strategic dots, one begins to discern a potentially altered picture of South Asia, geopolitically speaking, in which America and India work together to balance China, cooperate to contain Pakistani instability and state-supported jihadism, and possibly, even counter Russian aggression in Central Asia.
Granted, it is hard to imagine India becoming completely antagonistic to Russian interests. However, over time, should Russia remain aggressive toward its neighbors and a threat to the stability of the region, India might be coerced away from the Russo-Indian alliance, and firmly into an exclusively U.S.-Indian one. It is enough to remind one of Israel’s move towards a full American embrace, away from the USSR, over the course of the decades after World War II.
Secondly, India also faces the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in much the same manner as America does. India has suffered devastating terrorist attacks at the hands of Pakistan-based terror elements, and of all of the countries in the world, should be a supporter of the United States in our global effort against militant and expansionist Islamist groups. America will require this type of support for the foreseeable future, as the scourge of radical Islam does not appear to be in abeyance; pursuing an alliance with India that would also cover such concerns seems prudent.
Finally, the third pillar of justification for seeking a closer alliance with India is a more abstract one, centered on the need to recognize the world’s emerging powers, in the post post-war era. The balance of power is indeed inevitably changing—albeit slowly. The United States should not be caught flat-footed when it comes to positioning itself in the emerging geo-strategic environment, and would do well to ‘prepare the battle space’ prior to some unforeseen externally imposed re-ordering of the global system (in other words, before another global conflict leads to a complete change in the world order).
In order to avoid geopolitical atrophy and to prevent the U.S. grand strategic vision from blurring in the throes of advanced age, America needs a rethink when it comes to our way forward in national security. Our national interests demand constant reassessment and reaffirmation, without undue reliance on stale assessments and world views. Working toward a strong alliance with India is the type of strategic maneuver that will serve America well in the 21st century and beyond. Thus, we Americans ought to applaud the Obama administration’s efforts to solidify this relationship.