Obama’s India Problem Or India’s Obama Problem?


Recently, Evan Feigenbaum, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article titled Obama’s India Problem. Mr. Feigenbaum’s article does a reasonable job in outlining the many areas of disagreement between the Obama Administration and India. He admits that he, like many others, believes that the US-India relationship is drifting.  

This week, Mr. G. Parthasarathy, India’s Ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2000, wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled Does Mr. Obama Care About India?  Mr. Parthasarathy goes farther than Feigenbaum and details why the US-India relationship has soured. He points out that President Obama did not take questions from reporters after his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Blair House in Washington. a clear sign of a failed meeting.

The heralded US-India Strategic Partnership was established by President Bush. A major achievement of the Bush Administration was to change the focus of America away from Europe towards the emerging centers of power in the world like China, India & Brazil. Within these three, Mr. Bush focused on India as the ideal partner for America for the 21st century. We discussed the various aspects of the US-India relationship in our October 2008 article President Bush and India – His Vision, His Accomplishments and His Legacy .

                                              (source – Wall Street Journal)

President Obama’s frame of reference is diametrically opposite to that of President Bush. We believe President Obama is determined to reverse the transfer of wealth of the past 8 years from USA & Europe to Emerging markets in general and to China & India in particular. His primary weapon in this battle will be trade protectionism. We also believe that President Obama is committed to bringing a number of smaller, strategic countries in to a coalition against the newly emergent BRIC bloc. Another of President Obama’s major objective is to make America policy friendly to Muslim nations.

The Obama Administration seems to have anointed Turkey as its favorite country in the Middle East. Turkey has excellent Muslim credentials and claims to be the successor of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, Turkey could serve as a regional counterweight to Russia. In Asia, President Obama seems intent on building a US-centric coalition between Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam & Australia as a potential counterweight to China.   

But Russia & China present formidable challenges to America. As a major energy exporter and the only country that can destroy America, Russia needs to be handled delicately. China is the second most important economy in the world and the Obama Administration has to exercise some caution when putting pressure on China.

In contrast, India is mainly a story of the future, a case of tomorrow’s potential. India is a growing economy but its relative importance to America as a trading partner is still small. India is simply not a global or even a dominant regional power today. So the Obama Administration can virtually ignore India without any short term impact on the Obama agenda. The Obama Administration is focussed on today and India is simply not a major factor in today’s American calculus.

Besides not being useful, India’s strategic needs present a direct and stark challenge to the Obama agenda in almost every way possible. There are three major issues that have the potential to rupture the fabric of US-India relationship.

Nuclear Weapons

A major objective of President Obama is to restrain the growth of nuclear weapons in the world. An overwhelming strategic need of India is to build a world class nuclear weapons capability with land & sea based ballistic missiles, thermonuclear weapons, anti-satellite weapons as well as ballistic missile defenses. India needs this buildup to create a credible second strike capability against China and to defend its vast region that stretches from the straits of Hormuz to the Malacca Straits. India virtually ignored its strategic needs for the past couple of decades and now needs to accelerate its catch up process. 

President Bush understood this reality and resolutely supported it. It was President Bush who made sure that the 45 nation Nuclear Supply group unanimously approved the exception for India. India refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. President Bush supported this stand.

President Obama disapproves of the nuclear exception for India. His administration seems determined to put pressure on India to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Witness the ham handed exclusion of India from the Non-Aligned Nations meeting organized by Vice President Biden. The Times of India quoted Mr. Biden as saying India was not invited because it had not signed the NPT.

India’s imperative to catch up with China in nuclear weapons capability is in direct conflict with President Obama’s non-proliferation goals.


This is the most immediate and most emotional of the disputes between the Obama Administration and India. As Mr. Feigenbaum writes
“it would be difficult to overstate just how skeptical many in India’s strategic elite are of the administration’s approach. In New Delhi, Pakistan’s role as a central go-between in efforts to promote reconciliation with elements of the Taliban is widely seen as a fool’s errand. Many believe the administration’s effort will fail. And they believe–deeply–that India will be left holding the bag once U.S. forces begin to withdraw in 2011.”

The outrage of the Indian establishment has been described by Ambassador Parthasarathy in his WSJ article. But, we understand the short term reasoning of the Obama Administration. Their plan to build a America-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia-Turkey axis to control post-America Afghanistan seems sensible on paper. The Pakistani Army is the MIP (Most Important Player) in Af-Pak and the presence of Saudi Arabia & Turkey complete the pro-Muslim coalition so avidly sought by the Obama Administration. We also understand that India is virtually “useless” because it does not have a land border with Afghanistan.

This short term reasoning has been American policy since President Reagan. The fact that it has failed miserably for the past 30 years does not seem to matter to the Obama Administration. 

America’s Positioning of India

American policy since 1947 has been to lump India & Pakistan together. This was difficult for India during the past several decades. It is intolerable today. Today, India looks at China as its main strategic competitor and adversary. President George W. Bush was the only American President to recognize and accept this reality. 

President Obama has gone back to the traditional American posture of discussing India always in reference to Pakistan. His administration is doing so publicly to send a globally visible message to India & Pakistan. The Times of India quoted Secretary Hillary Clinton as saying “India, Pakistan have upset balance of nuclear deterrence”. President Obama made a similar comment about the nuclear race in South Asia. This type of comment was standard issue during the Clinton Administration and was despised even then. Today, we believe, it provokes a vitriolic reaction from the Indian establishment. 

In our opinion, the differences between the Obama Administration and India are not minor. We do not believe that President Obama has a personal dislike of India like President Nixon. But the reality is that strategic imperatives of India and the Obama agenda are fundamentally in direct conflict. This is why Obama has an “India problem” and India has an “Obama problem”. No amount of photo-ops or imagery can obscure this reality. 

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