|The strong U.S.-India relationship has deep support from both Republicans and Democrats.|
WITH THE U.S. 2008 presidential campaign in full swing, nearly 20 Republican and Democratic contenders (and possibly more to join soon) are already crisscrossing the country and outlining their policy positions and platforms. This frenzy of campaigning even seems early for most Americans, but for those abroad — in India and elsewhere — it is worth asking: how does this matter to us?
All American presidential elections are consequential, but the next one seems more so. For the first time in over 50 years, no incumbent President or Vice President is in the race, making this a truly open contest to be the first post-Bush, post-9/11 President. The next President — whether Republican or Democrat — will have an opportunity to assess the successes and failures of the Bush years, and then change course accordingly.
It is fair to expect that after 2009, the world will witness a major readjustment of American foreign policy across many issues.
Every new administration spends its first few years dealing with the difficult inheritance of its predecessor, and Mr. Bush's successor will have his or her hands full — from winding down the disastrous Iraq war to reversing the animosity toward the U.S. around the world. Most analysts concede that when it comes to America's place in the world, Mr. Bush's successor will face the most difficult circumstances in U.S. history. That's why it's so significant that one of the good news stories a new U.S. administration will inherit is a relationship with India that is stronger than ever before.
For this reason, the U.S.' relationship with India will not be a major issue in the 2008 campaign. So far, the subject has hardly been mentioned at all. But it's fair to ask: what would a change in administration, especially to a Democratic one, mean for India? There are some who believe that because of Democratic concerns about nuclear proliferation (the former U.S. Ambassador, Robert Blackwill, derides them as nonproliferation "ayatollahs") and trade issues, a Democratic victory in November 2008 would somehow be bad for India or set our relationship back.
There is always a temptation for a new President to make his mark by doing the opposite of his predecessor. George W. Bush did this with his "ABC" — anything but Clinton — attitude after he took office, and the next Democrat in the White House will have plenty of incentive to return the favour. But importantly, the U.S. relationship with India was an exception to this in 2001, and there are powerful reasons to expect the same in 2009.
Importantly, the strong U.S.-India relationship has deep support from both Republicans and Democrats. While many Bush officials like to herald their work as opening a new era in U.S.-India relations, most Democrats see the past seven years as a continuation of the course set by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. To be sure, steps such as the nuclear deal are historic breakthroughs, and these have strong support from most Democrats — especially the dominant presidential contenders. The fact is that the strong U.S.-India relationship is one of the great bipartisan achievements since the end of the Cold War. At a moment where American politics is so soured by partisanship, that's no small feat.
While trade issues remain a point of anxiety for many Democratic constituents and politicians — and the campaign might produce some heated rhetoric — there is broad recognition of how important the economic relationship with India is. The Democratic presidential contenders recognise that outsourcing is a fact of the global economy, and instead of talking about ending trade or building economic walls with India, they talk about ensuring that the government does more to help those who suffer most. In fact, one could argue that because of their credibility with labour unions and working Americans, Democrats are better positioned to put U.S,-India trade relations on a solid footing.
Democrats have also raised concerns about the deep problems of India's neighbour, Pakistan. The Bush administration has pursued unprecedented cooperation with Islamabad — showering Musharraf with $10 billion in aid since 2002 — in exchange for cooperation in fighting terrorism. Yet most Democrats believe such cooperation has been too episodic, and that the peace deals Islamabad recently signed with pro-Taliban elders in western Pakistan have amounted to a failed policy and a Musharraf retreat. Democrats are concerned over negative trend lines in Pakistan — the lack of democracy, rising anti-Americanism, and deep social tensions. And they are alarmed that the vast majority of U.S. assistance money to Pakistan's military is going to weapons that are more appropriate for confrontation with India than rooting out Al-Qaeda. A new administration would reassess this policy and look for ways to fix it.
But most important, Democratic presidential contenders (and those who would staff their administrations) realise that in a world where the U.S. has far fewer friends and seems more isolated than ever before, the U.S.-Indian partnership can be a foundation for greater American engagement in Asia and beyond.
They believe in working to give India the place of leadership it deserves as the world's largest democracy — whether by including it on the U.N. Security Council, or as a founding member of a new "Alliance of Democracies."
In short, no serious Democrat is talking about undoing the great work the past two Presidents have done to strengthen U.S.-Indian relations. If anything, they are planning for a more ambitious agenda. So as one of the most interesting American presidential elections unfolds, America's friends in India should watch with close interest — and with the confidence in our strong partnership.
(Derek Chollet is a senior fellow at The Center for a New American Security and served in the State Department during the Clinton Administration.)