Realities of the Obama Visit


Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Obama visit to India in this November attracted world wide attention, with analysts pouring appreciations or criticisms or both on the visit. The visit surrounded by grand phrases like ‘natural partners’ could enchant much of the Indian public, and particularly when during the speech at Indian parliament on 8 November 2010 Obama urged Pakistan to dismantle terrorist centers within its borders, supported India’s candidature for the permanent membership of the security council and dropped the Kashmir word in the speeches and deliberations, the symbolism in the bilateral relations could reach its apogee,  though these pronouncements will remain mere words till their fruitful realization in ground reality.

While speaking at the joint session of the Indian parliament Obama said that with ‘more power comes more responsibility.’ He particularly emphasized on the three issues during the speech: prosperity, by emphasizing economic cooperation; security, by developing joint strategies in Asian landscape; and democracy, to promote democracies around the world. Elaborating these issues further bring into picture the complexities that the relations are not going to sail smooth despite the US giving some concessions such as lifting of sanctions against Indian entities, or talks about comprehensive economic partnership agreement. The emphasis on cooperation in the areas of ‘defence and civil space’, and also emphasis on lifting sanctions on Indian organizations without specifications lead to doubts as how to far the cooperation will be comprehensive and full fledged.

When Obama said that “the U.S. and India can partner in Asia and for global security,” the issue arises what concrete shape that partnership will take. There is an argument that the US is interested to promote partnership with India as a strategy to ‘contain’ or ‘pre-contain’ China. While last year, there were lot of debates about the possible G-2, a kind of global condominium comprising the US and China, which later vanished into bubbles due to inherent differences over aspirations and policies, the argument is that the current US policy may be towards building a kind of arc of democracies to balance China. Post-India, Obama’s trip to democratic countries like Indonesia, South Korea and Japan may kindle or rather accentuates fears of competition in the Asian landscape, or at least will be viewed so from Chinese point of view.

Regarding India’s aspirations for a permanent membership in the Security Council, Obama stated clearly that India should be a permanent member of the reformed Security Council. The Chinese government, while Obama is in tour, stated that China will help in consultation on such issues without committing India its support. Russia has been a traditional partner of India in supporting its UNSC candidature. But, the fact remains that without Chinese support India can not be a member of the UNSC. Besides the Security Council, India’s entry into the other international bodies like NSG and MTCR will also likely face similar problems. Democratic structures of both the countries may be a common factor in Indo-US relations, but cannot provide enough leverage unless both establish enough trust to build the relations. For example, in the defence relations the US is unwilling to provide India dual use technology and is interested to have caveats which provide edge to US companies, thereby making the relations contentious.

Both the countries share different viewpoints on diverse issues including Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan and economic reforms. Obama’s reply, in answer to a question at St. Xavier’s college in Mumbai on 7 November, that Pakistan is an enormous country with strategic importance may be a just statement, but while coming to the issue of tackling Taliban, or establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan, there will be enough difficulties while players involved in the region have different agendas. Obama said that the US will not leave Pakistan, and it will have enduring relationship with Afghan people, may surprise the powers interested in the early exit of the US and NATO forces.

Hence, the issues confronting bilateral and multilateral relations post-Obama visit is not going to be that smooth. The recent G-20 summit at Seoul though has endorsed multi-year action plan on development and confirmed the six percent shifts of IMF quota to emerging economies, the disagreements over currencies still persist. Many countries did not take well the US Federal Reserve’s recent plan to infuse about some $600 billion; as such policies may boost protectionism. Though the Seoul action plan emphasized on ‘comprehensive, cooperative and country-specific policy actions to move closer to our shared objective,’ the differences among the major players will determine much of the global economic order in the coming days.

From an overall perspective, and also from the perspective of India-US relations, the Obama visit may look like positive, but the calculations behind the strategies will definitely pull or push the relations. The bilateral relations are not purely determined by the immediate concerns of both the countries, rather these include in their ambit long term goals and objectives. The US may immediately look towards India for salvaging its economy, creating jobs for its unemployed youth, as immediate goals, while keeping in track the goals of containing Al Qaeda and securing Afghanistan, the Indian objective will be centred on its immediate neighbours like Pakistan and China, and towards procuring defence equipments.

While speaking at the Indian parliament, Obama invoked the name of great Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, and credited his success as a leader to him. He also invoked the name of Martin Luther King, who was inspired by Gandhi, and had an influence on Obama. Contrast this to Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech, when he said peace and non-violence are good principles but are difficult to practice in international politics. This paradox, or which one may say dilemma, characterizes most of the international relations. Hence, the Indo-US relations and all the optimism about the bilateral relations must have to pass through this hard crust of realism, which governs the national policies in shaping the global order.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Nov 2010.

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