Obama Finds Common Ground in India

For decades, U.S. policymakers have berated foreign leaders to get in line behind U.S. desires from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to President George W. Bush but sometimes a lighter touch proves more effective as President Obama learned in India, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

President Barack Obama and his team scored an early success in the President’s visit to India that didn’t really require any effort on their part. The first 45 minutes of the President’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was devoted to discussing China, with the U.S. side pleased to find Modi sharing their own concerns about implications of China’s rise for the strategic situation in the region.

Not only were the U.S. and Indian assessments about China congruent; Modi took the initiative in suggesting revival of an informal security network that included the United States, India, Australia, and Japan.

President Obama greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India as he and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at Air Force Station Palam in New Delhi, India, Jan. 25, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India as he and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at Air Force Station Palam in New Delhi, India, Jan. 25, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Modi’s posture on this subject was much different from what has characterized India’s overall strategic posture for most of its history since independence. Throughout the Cold War a major element of Indian diplomacy was what bore the label of neutralism, and later was more often called nonalignment.

Neutralism did not sit well at all with U.S. policymakers, some of whom, most notably Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, sharply criticized it. In 1956, Dulles stated, “These neutral governments do not seem to realize that the Communist intentions are so diabolical and so hostile to their freedom and independence.” He said that neutralist countries “would eventually succumb unless they could develop a crusading spirit against the evil forces of Communism.” Dulles especially angered the Indians by referring to their variety of neutralism as “immoral.”

Dulles may have been more unrestrained than most in the language he applied to this topic, but he was reflecting a strong and recurring American outlook that has been applied as well to other situations in international politics. That outlook is one of seeing the world divided fairly clearly between good guys and bad guys, of becoming impatient with those who do not see it the same way, and of using U.S. initiative to get the laggards to take their proper place in the good-vs.-bad lineup. That outlook manifested itself years after the Cold War when President George W. Bush told everyone else in the world that they were either with us or with the terrorists.

Two basic problems have limited the effectiveness of this habitual American approach. One is that many people and governments do not see the global lineup the same way, and they have good reasons not to.

International conflict is just not that simple, and cannot be reduced to such orderly lines. The other reason is that most people and governments do not like being prodded by the United States into standing in particular spots in the lineup as the United States defines it. They would rather reach their own conclusions and make their own decisions in acting on those conclusions. Certainly this last consideration has been for many years a major factor in shaping Indian policies.

A different and better approach for the United States would be more often to let the natural rhythm of the balance of power work. This would be understood by serious realists, for whom balancing in international politics is a core concept.

There is something of a hidden hand at work, akin to how such a hand works economically in free markets. The hidden hand does not write the same script each time, and political scientists have explored the conditions under which balancing rather than bandwagoning is most likely, and vice versa. But if something a would-be hegemon is doing worries us, it probably is worrying others as well.

And thus expansion of Chinese power, including into India’s own ocean, naturally makes Modi worry, without our having to tell him that he should be worried, and makes him willing to do something about it. The favorable result at the New Delhi meeting demonstrates how a balancing approach that relies on others’ own interests and conclusions usually will be more successful than lecturing people, pushing and prodding them into our preferred position, or casting moral aspersions on them.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

2 comments for “Obama Finds Common Ground in India

  1. Vivek Jain
    February 2, 2015 at 14:40

    Mr. Pillar doesn’t tell his readers that Modi represents the interests of Capital, of big business, of India’s 1% (or more accurately, the topmost fractions of the top 1%), of the right wing. Mr. Pillar doesn’t tell his readers that “Brand Modi”, like “Brand Obama”, masks a dangerous right wing agenda that threatens the lives of the 99%.

    Mr. Pillar quotes John Foster Dulles but doesn’t explain the Dulles brothers’ ties to multinational corporations or their founding role in the CFR (the most powerful ruling class think tank). Pillar doesn’t admit that the anti-communist rhetoric and posturing of US officials obscured what was really happening: US state power and violence was being used to advance the interests of commerce, of big business, of western investors, to plunder resources and exploit labor, to flood markets with American products, to wage war on Labor, to coerce the South to become dependent on and integrated into the western-dominated system. Dulles, like Obama and the imperial ruling class, was a mafioso. The purported threat of communism in reality was the threat of defiance, of non-cooperation with, of independence from the western system. This is why the US has carried out so many coups, why Washington has supported fascists and tyrants, why the US and UK continue to attack country after country and especially left or progressive or reformist governments, leaders, and movements. Modi may try to bring India into an alliance with the Five Eyes or other states subordinate to the evil US-UK axis, but all people of South Asia must understand that alliance with Japan (where the re-emergence of militarism has been noted) or Washington only compromises the safety and security of the 99%. This right wing power bloc is the enemy of the NAM and the Global South. South Asians must not let the Indian government get drawn into the orbit of the war mongering Evil Empire or its pivot/encirclement of China, or permit India to become a lieutenant (“partner”) to the aggression of Western capital.

    See: Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers
    Also: Laurence Shoup’s new book on the CFR: “Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014”

    Capitalists, Technocrats and Fanatics: The Ascent of a New Power Bloc

    The revival of Japanese militarism

    India and Japan proclaim “special strategic, global partnership”

    Encircling China: origins of ‘Asia Pivot’

  2. Zachary Smith
    January 28, 2015 at 15:00

    Mr. Pillar has quite a few words here, but to me they distill down to about nothing. The exception might be the term “China”. IMO Barack Hussein Obama was trying to enlist India in the continuing effort to encircle China. Build up the Indians, and hopefully they’ll represent an increasing nuclear threat to China from the South.

    And that word “nuclear” wasn’t in the essay at all. One wonders why. India has long thumbed it’s nose at the rest of the world with the big nuclear buildup. Contrast India with Iran. India has many nuclear weapons and hasn’t joined the Proliferation Treaty. Iran has no nukes and is a Treaty member. Guess which one gets a happy visit from the US president and which one is sanctioned and constantly threatened with attack.

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