The New India-US Foreign Policy: Dual Audiences and Track II Diplomacy

The New India-US Foreign Policy: Dual Audiences and Track II Diplomacy
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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Can India use existing foreign policy channels, including behind-the-scenes Track II diplomacy, to stabilize and enhance Indo-U.S. relations?

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U.S. foreign policy with India is becoming dualistic, in that the preferences of foreign policy elites in the Trump administration do not necessarily align with sections of his domestic supporters. Regardless of the longevity of the present administration, such a domestic audience will continue to affect U.S. politics.

President Trump’s “transactional” foreign policy orientation centers on bilateral agreements over concrete issues like trade, immigration, and defense. It seeks to supplant the post-war multilateral “values based” foreign policy that aimed to uphold liberal democracy and capitalism. In the transactional approach, relations between U.S. and other countries are contingent on simultaneous bargains across different issue areas, wherein each country’s gains and losses in one area could be offset by those in other areas. However, as observers note, the U.S. has historically practiced “transactional” policies under the guise of shared “values.” In terms of recent Indo-U.S. relations alone, U.S. sources indicate that the U.S. facilitation of exports of dual-use technology to India from 2003 was perhaps offset by India’s 2005 switching from a product to process based patent system in accordance with the U.S. sponsored Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

The “transactional” approach dovetails with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “pragmatic” approach, which intends to replace the politically Non-Aligned and economically Third World foreign trade policy with one centered on real-politick and strategic trade. The critical aspect of the pragmatic approach being a relentless focus on enhancing India’s economy and security by aligning with multiple powers, most importantly Russia and U.S., and leveraging these relationships to benefit India on particular issues, like defense procurements and foreign direct investment. India’s leveraging of foreign relations to bolster its economic and defense capabilities is especially important because, as experts note, India’s smaller economy, resultant smaller budget allocations to defense, and an underperforming domestic defense industry undermines its capacity to stop China’s bid to dominate Asia.

Yet again, such an approach harks back to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s foreign policy from the 1970s. Best articulated in her own words on Nov. 9, 1971, at Columbia University, about India’s decision to fight the Bangladesh War with Pakistan, the next month: “We want help, we want support, we welcome sympathy. But basically in the world every individual ultimately is alone and every nation is ultimately alone. And India is prepared to fight alone for what it thinks worth fighting for”. In this vein, a senior Indian policy-maker remarked that Indo-U.S. give-and-take will primarily focus on protections of Intellectual Property Rights, import tariffs, provision of H1-B visas to Indians working in the IT sector, cooperation on anti-terrorism strategies, and sales of defense equipment to India.

However, the overlapping approaches do not account for the domestic audiences in India and the U.S., who will determine Prime Minister Modi and President Trump’s re-election. Public opinion research suggests, although Indian voters are generally apathetic to foreign policy issues and hold positive views of U.S. society, Indian elites are more divided on U.S. influence and the public holds negative views of the U.S. government. A 2015 Pew Research survey reaffirmed public apathy, but also showed that Indian elites and the public have an overwhelmingly positive image of the U.S. and are satisfied with Prime Minister Modi’s handling of Indo-U.S. relations, despite reservations about President Obama’s policies. The same survey shows that Indians also positively view Japan and Russia, have negative opinions about China and Pakistan, and are unsure about Prime Minister Modi’s handling of both Indo-Russian and Sino-Indian relations.

Until recently Indian’s positive perceptions of the U.S. were reciprocated by the American public. Analysis of the Pew Survey of 2015 indicates that U.S. public opinion favors India more than China and there is bi-partisan support for a greater Indian role in world affairs. However, recent post-electoral violent attacks on Indians reveal that some Americans view Indians more negatively either because they cannot discern them from “racially similar” minority groups or because they are afraid of Indians taking desirable jobs. Furthermore, there is a growing perception that the Trump administration is insufficiently addressing such attacks, and senior members and allied news media organizations are allegedly abetting them to address the economic and racial insecurities of their voting base.

In essence, what the U.S. and India face is becoming a two-level game, wherein domestic coalitions affect foreign policy agreements (second image) and such agreements are leveraged to create domestic coalitions (second image reversed). Thus implying the continued necessity of Track II diplomacy. In its original formulation, Track II diplomacy was supposed to exist as a parallel to Track I diplomacy between official foreign policy and security elites; but due to its secondary importance, Track II diplomacy was free to explore avenues of conflict resolution in an altruistic fashion. Consequently, providing novel solutions that cannot be broached by Track I avenues because of their implicit concerns with the threat or actual use of force.

A country’s capacity to undertake such Track II Diplomacy is contingent upon the strength of its strategic community, that is, a milieu of current and former bureaucrats, military officers, and business leaders knowledgeable in their areas of specialization and willing to discuss and intellectually collaborate with their counterparts from foreign countries. In this, India has an inbuilt advantage because it has increasingly relied on Track II diplomacy, rather than summit level contacts, to achieve foreign trade and security policy goals. However, although the United States has a large strategic community, the administrative uncertainties introduced by the Trump administration may undermine it because sections of the community are unwilling or unable to collaborate with the administration. Furthermore, a reliance on personal ties centered on summit level meetings between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi of India, akin to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, could marginalize Track II diplomacy.

Despite these current obstacles, various organizations in the U.S. and India, such as the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic Council, the Vivekananda International Foundation, and the Observer Research Foundation have conducted conferences on issues ranging from defense cooperation to enhancing trade between India, U.S., and third parties. Such organizations should therefore be able to focus on understanding how international trade and immigration affects the domestic audiences in the U.S. and India. In order to balance globalization and what Prof. Samuel Huntington termed “societal security,” the sustenance of “existing patterns of language, culture, association, religion and national identity”.

Editor: Edward White