So said the President of the United States this week in an address to a joint session of the Rajya Sahba and Lok Sahba.
It is about time.
I have criticized the Obama Administration in the past for episodes of diplomatic ineptitude and cultural insensitivity. President Obama’s stay in India does not qualify for either dishonor. To the contrary, the President’s trip has (so far) been the most successful of his Presidency. Not a moment was amiss; from the provident decision to stay at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel to Mr. Obama’s rousing “Jai Hind!”, the entire trip was masterfully designed to reinforce the President’s message: The United States of America and the Republic of India stand together.
Admittedly, the trip was more symbol than substance. The hundreds of businessmen who accompanied the President’s entourage did not need his permission to make deals with their Indian associates. A hostile congress may pick a fight over promised export quotas and tariff reductions. American well-wishes are not enough to land India a spot in the Nuclear Suppliers Group or a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. And of course, the United States government is still funneling millions of dollars into the hands of India’s greatest enemy.
The mismatch between the U.S.-Indian alliance found in the oratory of the visiting President and the actual state of their strategic relationship is a matter of concern for several Indian commentators. I am also troubled by this mismatch. If the ties between the United States and India are to strengthen and grow, the issues of contention must be openly addressed by the Americans. I do not envy the statesmen who will receive that call. These trouble spots, however, belong to the future. No matter their seriousness they do not diminish what was accomplished by the President on this trip. Mr. Obama’s stay was laden with symbol after symbol, one piece of overblown oratory after another – but this was one of the rare moments in global affairs where symbols become substance.
The context in which the President made his trip to India should be remembered. For the last few months a serious debate over the administration’s Asia policy has divided the White House’s foreign affairs team. From the time Mr. Obama ascended to office to the late summer of this year his administration has consistently taken an accommodating stance where U.S. and Chinese interests diverge. “Responsible Stakeholder” was the buzz term behind the policy, for it was hoped that easing China into the current international regime without conflict or dispute would give Chinese statesmen a stake in the stability of the current world order. Recent provocations on the part of the Chinese have cast a shadow on this policy’s worth. The President’s trip should be seen as the end result of the many debates that made the Obama Administration’s new Asia policy.
The President spent more time in India than he has any country since becoming President. In contrast to his trip to China last year, Mr. Obama was accompanied by his wife (who by all accounts has absolutely charmed the Indians) and an entourage of hundreds of businessmen. If the President wished to make clear that India is the new cornerstone of the United States’ Asia policy, there were few better ways to do so.
This is the significance of President Obama’s stay in India. America’s commitment to India has no deep historical or cultural roots; much of our policy is anemic to Indian interests. Many Indians doubt the strength of the U.S.-Indian relationship. It is my hope they will do so no more. America has finally chosen.
Michelle and Barrack Obama. Delivered at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. 7 November 2010. (Printed 8 Nov 2010 in The Hindu.)
Barrack Obama. Delivered at the Parliament House, New Delhi. 8 November 2010.
(Printed 8 Nov 2010 in The Hindu.)
The Times of India. 8 November 2010.
White House: Office of the Press Secretary. 8 November 2010.