Since Modi came to power two years ago, the U.S.-India relationship has improved dramatically. In his speech, Modi not surprisingly extolled the countries’ common values, comparing Mahatma Gandhi to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (“He called Congress a ‘temple of democracy’ and [said] that by inviting him to speak, ‘you have honored the world’s largest democracy.’ “) Receiving multiple standing ovations, he praised the growing strategic relationship between the countries, which seek to check China’s influence and combat terrorism, and their robust economic relationship.
As Eliot Cohen, a former State Department official, told Right Turn, “The U.S.- India relationship is one of the most important in the next couple of decades.” He continued, “There’s some historical baggage to it, but the world’s two largest democracies have a lot in common, including a large and flourishing Indian-American community, lots of back and forth in the educational and hi-tech realms, and above all, some basic common values.”
There is bipartisan agreement on that score. Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), praised the speech. President Obama was effusive as well after a meeting with Modi. He said, “As the world’s two largest democracies and countries with strong bonds between our peoples, our businesses, our scientific and educational communities, it’s natural that the United States and India have deepened and broadened our partnership across a whole range of issues.” Obama reiterated that “India and the United States have a shared vision of peace, of democracy, of countries resolving conflicts diplomatically rather than through war.”
The improved U.S.-India relationship has been bipartisan. “India and the United States are natural allies in large part because we are the world’s largest democracies. The turnaround in relations began under President George W. Bush and it has continued under Obama,” Bush’s deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams tells me. “In fact it has even speeded up recently because India and many of its neighbors face Chinese militarism directly and want the help of the United States. They aren’t getting it from Obama, but we can hope they will get it in the next administration.” He cautions, “If India were a dictatorship it would likely be a lot closer to China, but Indians want closer relations with the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and other free nations.”
Perhaps if they reflect on the U.S.-India relationship, both left-wing Democrats and isolationist Republicans will reassess their contempt for the “freedom agenda” and “democracy promotion.” In the faux “realism” of the right and left, we are supposed to be hard-headed, unconcerned with a country’s internal matters and indifferent to its values. Donald Trump, in fact, goes even further; he seems to prefer strongmen such as Vladimir Putin, the Chinese regime that repressed the Tiananmen Square uprising and even North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who had his uncle murdered to secure power. This is folly, a dangerous and immoral bet on the world’s worst actors.
India is a prime example of why a truly realistic foreign policy should care very much about the internal dynamics and values of other countries. “Democracies are better allies. Elected leaders have a legitimacy and a mandate,” explains Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Non-elected rulers lack both. We want to deal with officials who are accountable to their citizens, not rulers who oppress their subjects.” Those that abuse human rights, repress religious and ethnic minorities and deny civil liberties to their own people tend to use external aggression to secure their power. Agreements with such regimes are problematic insofar as nontransparent, unfree countries make deals hard to monitor and enforce.
Trump understands none of this. His own disdain for democratic values — including dissent, the rule of law and a free press — are an embarrassment that would erode respect for the United States and undermine efforts of countries such as India that make the effort to reform and respect civil liberties.
Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as secretary of state, would from time to time speak passionately about human rights and democratic values, but her boss’s actions rarely matched her pretty words. It will be interesting to see how seriously she takes support for democracies and what policies she puts forth to bolster allies and hold tin-pot dictators to account. Will, for example, she demand improvement in human rights from Cuba? Will she enforce new sanctions against Iran for human rights abuses? Is she going to pressure Egypt to clean up its act and respect basic civil rights? Let’s hope in this arena she follows more closely the lead of President Bush than President Obama.