Earlier this week, I attended an enjoyable lecture by former Ambassador Teresita Schaffer about India- US relations at Stanford University. Schaffer is currently the Director, South Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies and formerly held a long diplomatic career which included serving as U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka and as Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. In her role as Director, South Asia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, her regional expertise includes India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the rest of South Asia. She is the author of the book, India and the U.S. in the 21st Century – Reinventing Partnership.
The lecture was co-sponsored by the India Community Center, Bay Area, The Center for South Asia Stanford University, The Asia Foundation & World Affairs Council of Northern California.
Schaffer delivered a good speech, although at times carefully wording her responses to questions to stay within what I assume is US diplomatic messages on certain topics (although she is not currently a diplomat in the US government). But overall, a thoughtful and thought provoking discussion with a small, but engaged audience. Following are the points and comments during the lecture that I found to be the most compelling:
1. India and the US currently have primarily an evolving, bi-lateral relationship that has particularly grown since the Clinton years, that will be focused on 4 key issues:
- Economic foreign policy– focused on investment, not aid as it was a couple of decades ago. Trade with the US has become about 35% of India GDP.
- Energy– India imports 70% of its oil, mostly from the Middle East; exploring common ways to to reduce this reliance, look at alternative solutions, and negotiate on climate change policy.
- Security of the Indian Ocean– partly due to this high level of energy imports which is transported using the seas; security and naval presence in the waterways surrounding India is critically important to India.
- Global partnership since end of Cold War- since the end of the cold war, the US has emerged as India’s most important external friend, a relationship that India is looking to cultivate for larger global issues.
2. However, while the bi-lateral relationship between India and the US has strengthened, the two countries have not progressed to be effective partners on global strategic issues. The countries are building a strengthening tactical relationship; not so much of a strategic relationship. Four opportunities to jointly work on important global issues are:
International Finance Reform– the global financial meltdown has proved how the financial systems in the US are intertwined with the world’s financial exchanges – India and the US US are both motivated to affect these reforms through a better partnership.
Trade– Expand the trade dialogue from India-US to full regional and global policy.
Climate Change- With the arrival of the Obama administration, the US now has a government that is inclined to do something about climate change and will be open to compromise and negotiate.
Nuclear Proliferation- a big priority for Obama; India believes it should be part of the exempt NPT group. More dialogue will continue and opportunities to drive global positions on nuclear positions of countries like Iran will present themselves.
3. Key hurdles that the US and India have to overcome to be able to build a strategic partnership:
US– Burden of History– US is accustomed to partnering with militarily strong partners (stronger than India) and has considered countries with not as strong of a military to be a junior partner.
India’s Concept of Sovereign Autonomy– Given its history, the Indian government does not want it to look like the US or any country is driving its foreign policy.
Ability to create a Strategy—Shaffer suggests that India’s and the US government do have a harder time in building a strategy— it’s a massive effort to create a systemic strategy across all layers of government as well as the rest of the public and private sector. It’s easier to be tactical than strategic.
4. Finally, Shaffer suggests NRIs in the US can help explain aspects of American thinking and systems to the Indian government and people, who often assume they fully understand the American system, but may not fully comprehend all of the nuances which could result in misunderstandings and impediments to building a stronger strategic relationship between the two countries.