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CONTINUING TIES

- A long-term view of India’s engagement with the US

Americans and Indians who have anything at all to do with improving cooperation between their countries in the next presidential term in Washington are well advised to mount a bicycle, now that a rambunctious election campaign is over in the United States of America.

The advice that they should not only mount a bicycle but also keep peddling tirelessly if the bilateral partnership is to remain meaningful comes from William Burns, America’s deputy secretary of state. Fresh from an Asian trip to Japan, South Korea, China and Myanmar, which he concluded in New Delhi, Burns said, back in Washington by way of assessing the present state of Indo-US ties, that these relations are “a little like riding a bike. Either you keep peddling ahead, or you tend to fall over”.

Burns held one of the most sensitive jobs in the US foreign policy establishment as ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush, and is credited with protecting Washington’s relations with Moscow from the damage that Bush-era super-hawks like the vice-president, Dick Cheney, wanted to inflict. Burns was also responsible for what has come to be known as the US-Russia “reset” in relations. While he worked behind closed doors and away from the spotlight when Bush was president, he has since been emboldened to come out in public about his rationale in dealings with Moscow once the threats of policy evisceration by the neo-conservatives passed. Burns has not attempted to brush under the carpet what he described at a Congressional hearing as “real differences” between Washington and Moscow. But he pushed for the reset with Moscow because “a deeper economic relationship represents one of our greatest opportunities to work to build trust and pursue common interests with Russia”.

The US state department describes the role of a deputy secretary as the “alter ego to the Secretary of State”. In 2011, the Democrats had no hesitation in giving this position to Burns although he held key jobs in the previous Republican administration. Nor did the Republicans hesitate to rely heavily on him earlier right from 2001 although he had been special assistant to two Democratic secretaries of state: Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright in Bill Clinton’s administration.

Burns is only the second career diplomat in US history to be made deputy secretary of state while still in service. It is necessary to dwell on Burns at some length in the present context because he is being talked about in the Washington grapevine as one of the choices for the next US secretary of state. If that does not happen, he will still have a major role in shaping America’s foreign policy in the next four years, but that precise role will depend on who, in fact, becomes the secretary of state.

His analogy about the bicycle and the need for constant peddling in the context of Indo-US relations is noteworthy not only because it is apt, but also because Burns is expected to have a role in putting that analogy into action in the next presidential term. Burns also said on returning from his most recent travel to India that “much is possible as we deepen strategic cooperation and strengthen our economic and people-to-people ties”. More important, he cautioned that “we have to tend carefully to our partnership. Further progress is neither automatic nor pre-ordained”.

His assessment is remarkable because it is devoid of the hype that has been a bane of the bilateral partnership for some time. Unlike many other similarly placed individuals on both sides, Burns does not — realistically — hold out the promise that the sky is the limit in engagement between Washington and New Delhi. He is more modest: “I remain an optimist about what is possible for Indians and Americans. The truth is that there has never been a moment when India and America mattered more to one another.”

The big challenge in Indo-US relations in the next presidency is likely to be Afghanistan. As American forces complete their pullout from Kabul in 2014, it is imperative for the White House that the US military leaves behind an Afghanistan that has at least the appearance of not being a failed state that it was when Bush ordered the toppling of the Taliban regime in the wake of September 11.

Normalcy and stability are too much to expect of conditions in Kabul even 11 years after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization embarked on nation-building in Afghanistan. But the citizenry in Western countries that have lost men and women to the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban would be extremely dissatisfied if they were to discover that the clock is being turned back to 2001 by obscurantist militia after the NATO pullout.

This, once again, revives the prospect that Washington will have to humour Islamabad in order for it to save face on Afghanistan. Pakistan will no doubt deliver relative peace in Afghanistan for the Americans by reining in proxies of the Inter-Services Intelligence, but the army general headquarters in Rawalpindi will demand a price for that favour. Therefore, despite what was said on the presidential campaign trail and the clear distaste for Pakistan that was expressed during the presidential and vice-presidential debates last month, the White House will have no option but to placate Pakistan on the latter’s terms in the foreseeable future.

What form or shape this policy will take will become clearer only as the American forces begin their final pullout. In all likelihood, the Americans will have to agree to Pakistan’s terms for reconciliation in Kabul that gives the Taliban a role there. This is the reality of Afghanistan that India will have to factor into its dealings with the US, especially with a steady rise in New Delhi’s economic involvement in Kabul in sectors such as mining.

The second foreign policy challenge in Indo-US relations during the next four-year term of the White House relates to the Arab Spring. Far from going the way reform in West Asia was visualized when protests initially swept away Arab dictators, the movement for change in the region has decidedly become a cause for concern over its course. India has a new minister for external affairs who is expected to adopt a more hands-on approach to developments surrounding the Arab Spring and New Delhi’s own interests in the region. Salman Khurshid — like the vice-president M.H. Ansari — has an interest in West Asia that is intellectual as well as born out of dealings with the region in previous incarnations.

In any case, India could not have persisted with its current contradictions in policies towards a changing Arab world. These are contradictions that could cast a shadow on Indo-US engagement as well because Washington’s policies, by the nature of US interests in the Arab world, can only continue to be erratic and confused. The good thing is that global issues do not dominate Indo-US engagement unlike in the Sino-US strategic and economic dialogue. With India, although the major annual bilateral exchange is billed as a “strategic dialogue”, it has a very high bilateral content. That is a mixed blessing, but also a promising asset that has the potential to add substance to cooperation at all levels.

India has taken a long-term view of its engagement of the US and has consistently sought to broaden its dialogue with every successive administration in Washington. The expectation is that by broadening the dialogue greater convergence will gradually emerge between the two sides. That policy is expected to continue with the next administration and will hopefully bring dividends with patience and perseverance — by ensuring, as Burns put it, that those on the bicycle of engagement will go on peddling and not fall off the bicycle.