December 22, 2009

UNDERSTANDING INDIA'S IMPORTANCE IS ABOVE HIS PAYGRADE:

US-India Relations Missing George W: Nearly a year after the Obama administration took office, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that US-India relations are drifting, lacking the focus, momentum and salience they had when George W Bush occupied the White House (David J Karl, 12/09/09, International Relations and Security Network)

Beyond the ceremony and camaraderie, however, the summit failed to live up to the high standard Obama suggested. Rather than give new impetus to relations, the meeting confirmed that U.S.-India affairs are gripped by inertia. The visit did produce a raft of agreements deepening ties in such diverse areas as economic cooperation, clean energy and climate, educational, and health linkages. To be sure, these are laudable endeavors and strengthen the societal bonds that give fuller texture and equipoise to the bilateral partnership than could be hoped to be achieved at the intergovernmental level alone.

But they are also relatively minor accomplishments, the type of things that could have been unveiled during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to India this past summer. The lack of landmark initiatives and attention-grabbing headlines is in stark contrast to Singh’s first state visit to Washington in July 2005, when he and Bush launched the path-breaking civilian nuclear agreement that instantly energized bilateral relations.

Unlike Bush, Obama appears reluctant to apply the requisite bureaucratic will or invest political capital in undertaking bold new bilateral projects. Although Secretary Clinton, a staunch India-phile, speaks of taking relations to a higher plane, the administration as a whole has not yet displayed much interest in continuing its predecessor’s high-profile engagement with New Delhi.

Indeed, the summit provided fresh evidence that U.S. policy toward India is now subordinate to other priorities. New Delhi had hoped that critical details relating to the implementation of the nuclear accord would be wrapped up by the time Singh arrived in Washington, particularly a spent-fuel reprocessing agreement. Were it still in office, the Bush administration would no doubt have already made greater progress on this front. But the Obama emphasis on containing nuclear proliferation has reportedly played a large role in delaying agreement.

In the final reckoning, major differences in strategic outlook between the Bush and Obama administrations account for the summit’s lackluster outcome. Bush saw New Delhi as a key player in the evolving geopolitical equation in Asia and was willing to make extraordinary efforts to assist in the development of Indian national power. To that end, he pushed the nuclear agreement through an often-intransigent U.S. bureaucracy. But with the Obama administration preferring to emphasize engagement with Beijing on global governance issues, New Delhi has lost its primacy of place in Washington’s strategic calculus.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2009 6:30 AM
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