The American relationship with the republic of India is heading in the wrong direction. Given recent history, where strong and positive U.S.-Indo relations were in full bloom, this is especially disconcerting. President George W. Bush’s administration, long maligned as arrogantly unilateralist, solidified a close bilateral partnership — friendship, even — with the rising South Asian power. Bush saw India as a natural ally: the world’s largest multiethnic democracy, looking at its place in the world at the turn of this century through much the same prism our own ancestors looked through in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Harvard historian Sugata Bose observed, the strengthening of ties between India and the United States “may turn out to be the most significant foreign policy achievement of the Bush administration.”
Under President Barack Obama, however, those ties are in moderate though steady and not insignificant decline. Since Obama’s inauguration, our relationship with India has begun to erode. To its credit, the Obama administration authorized a $2.1 billion arms sale with New Delhi last year. But there is more — there should be more — to the American-Indian friendship than signing off on a Boeing contract with the Indian defense ministry.
For instance, trends in trade are worrisome. Whereas in 2008 the United States exported $17.6 billion worth of goods to India, by 2009 that figure had dropped by more than $1 billion. Some of this is due to the recession, but consider: from 2001 through 2008, imports from India to the United States had gone up by $2 or $3 billion annually, culminating in $24 and $25.7 billion worth of goods imported in 2007 and 2008. That figure plummeted by $4.6 billion in 2009. During Bush’s tenure, protectionist economic policies were done away with. Outsourcing, that dirty word, was embraced. The United States became India’s largest investment partner; foreign direct investment in petroleum exploration, infrastructure, mining, telecommunications, and other good things accounted for much of all investment into India.
The free trade policies agreed upon by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh liberated markets and destroyed barriers in agriculture, textiles, iron, steel, coffee, tea, information technology, pharmaceuticals, and more — and as a consequence, helped develop the rise of India’s first genuine middle class in history. According to the National Council for Applied Economic Research, there are approximately 220 million “aspiring” Indians — a “consumer class” — living in households earning between $2,000 and $4,400 per year, who can now afford to buy niceties and luxuries. Some estimates have India’s middle class even larger. This was not the case fifteen or even ten years ago.
And when a caveat in this relationship deemed less beneficial to the United States arose, President Bush still kept things in long-term perspective so as not to denigrate our newfound camaraderie with India. When American food prices skyrocketed in 2008, Bush attributed it to India’s progress and implored Americans to place developments into a broader context: “Their middle class is larger than our entire population,” Bush said. “And when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food. And so demand is high and that causes the price to go up.”
Today, President Obama sounds markedly different about India. He has employed populist oratory, criticizing “a tax code that says you should pay lower taxes if you create a job in Bangalore, India, than if you create one in Buffalo, New York.” Such language has increased anxieties in New Delhi. “We are already witnessing signs of protectionism in the world’s biggest economy,” the Indian external affairs minister was quoted as saying, proclaiming that “we will need to argue against this trend at the international [forums].” Just one month into Obama’s presidency, India was prepared to present its grievances with the new administration’s protectionist policies to the World Trade Organization.
The Obama-Reid-Pelosi trio eagerly canceled the highly successful H-1B visa program, which was designed to encourage U.S. companies to hire Indian IT services (as well as tens of thousands of Indian engineers at a time of talent shortages). Congress barred U.S. corporations with bailout dollars from hiring foreign workers. This sparked largely overlooked outrage across India’s polity. “This is just irrational protectionism. … It makes no economic sense at all,” said the deputy chairman of India’s Planning Commission. Opposition leaders called for boycotts of U.S. companies. “If these policies hurt Indians abroad,” said heavyweight politician Praveen Togadia, “then we have to take steps to hurt American companies in India.” In just a few short weeks, during the Bush-to-Obama transition, U.S.-Indo relations had gone from having never been better to tense and laced with rhetorical rancor.
For those of us who view India as an invaluable future ally, these are disturbing developments. Not unsurprisingly, as trade between the two countries deteriorates, so too do other arenas. Our current disregard of India is risking nothing short of causing “great damage … to the foundations underlying the geostrategic partnership” itself, in the words of National Interest columnist J. Peter Pham. When President Obama seemed to blame India over the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, India’s national security advisor promptly said Obama was “barking up the wrong tree.”
Additionally, Secretary of State Clinton skipped a visit to New Delhi during her maiden voyage to South Asia, stoking concerns that the new administration was putting India on the back burner (opting instead to prioritize relations with an ascendant China). As former U.S. ambassador to India Robert D. Blackwill phrased it, “China today appears … to be on a substantially higher plane in U.S. diplomacy than India, which seems to have been downgraded in the administration’s calculations.” Validating this view, India was not mentioned even once in the Obama administration’s official foreign policy agenda. The world’s largest democracy, more than one billion people — ignored.
This antagonism towards New Delhi is not merely an Obama phenomenon; the American left itself has expressed its unease with a powerful India for quite some time. It was in 1998, after all, when President Bill Clinton imposed sanctions on India for conducting underground nuclear tests — treating an ally and proud democracy as if it were a rogue enemy and brutal tyranny. President Bush, on the other hand, lifted those sanctions in 2001 and signed a historic civilian nuclear agreement with India in 2006, whereby the U.S. would share nuclear reactors and fuel with Prime Minister Singh’s government.
Why is there such a disparity of views on India between conservatives and liberals in these states united? Not all members of the left, of course, hold a hostile opinion of India (Christopher Hitchens comes to mind). But by and large, the American left seems to consider India the “biggest pain in Asia,” in the words of Barbara Crossette, a writer at Foreign Policy. Crossette criticizes India for not adhering to international accords which infringe upon a democracy’s sovereign right to control its nuclear destiny, as well as climate change treaties which would destroy India’s growth — some of the very reasons American conservatives respect India. The left is wary of India for the same reasons it remains wary of Israel: both democracies are fiercely nationalistic and unapologetically defend themselves against the “downtrodden” “other,” i.e., Islamic lunatics.
The American left simply prefers to play hardball with allies than with adversaries. Recall President Carter’s handling of Iran: the allied shah was condemned as an autocrat; the enemy Khomeini, a “holy man.” For Carter, our anticommunist allies were violators of human rights first, second, and third; the Soviets, murderers of tens of millions, were benign enough for Carter to proclaim Americans had an “inordinate fear of communism.”
Contemporaneously, the left’s is a world where dictatorial Venezuela is to be apologized for, democratic Colombia economically punished; where the fascists and racists and bus-bombers in Palestine are “misunderstood” and the democrats in Israel are Nazi brownshirts incarnate. Anti-American terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon are euphemized as “guerrillas,” whereas pro-American militiamen are castigated as “warlords” — and on and on it goes.
Embroiling the Indians in such amoral nonsense would threaten not only our present rapport with India, but also what could potentially become the most significant American alliance with another country this century — an alliance rooted in a commonality of values, genuine companionship and affection for one another, and solidarity against the totalitarian evils of the world. The United States should welcome India’s rise. We’re largely the reason it’s occurring.