President Obama’s trip to India was strategically important, symbolically resonant and deftly executed. But it coincided with a snowstorm in some Northeastern states, so it struggled to get airtime and ink in the United States. In India, on the other hand, newspapers devoted pages to the visit every day, and television coverage was wall-to-wall. It even got the attention of the Chinese government, which denounced the new friendship.
Obama’s trip highlights an opportunity and a problem. Foreign policy consists of two elements — negative and positive. Negative foreign policy is about preventing bad things from happening — confronting dangers and dealing with bad guys. It’s the stuff that makes the front page and the evening broadcast. It is important but is really only one aspect of securing America’s future — protecting it from the downside.
Positive foreign policy is focused on the upside. It’s about building new relationships, expanding markets and opportunities, strengthening alliances and values. Positive foreign policy secures the foundations of the liberal world order in which we live. The Truman administration contained the Soviet threat, but it also built up the community of free nations through the Bretton Woods system and other such institutions.
Obama’s India trip was a perfect example of positive foreign policy. The United States has been forging new ties to India since the Clinton administration, with a policy that has been strategic and bipartisan. Obama’s decision to attend India’s Republic Day — celebrating its constitution — marked a tipping point.
India has gone from being a country, 30 years ago, that was reflexively anti-American to one that is increasingly pro-American. Indian society has long been attracted to America, but in recent years, the Indian government has been moving away from its encrusted ideology of “nonalignment” to something far more practical. Its energetic new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has pushed his government in an unambiguously pro-American direction.
Bringing India closer to the United States could have broad benefits for Washington and the world. With more than 1.2 billion people, India is likely to become the next global goliath. And while it will probably never grow as fast as China, because of its size even 7 percent growth over the next two decades — quite attainable for India — would give it a loud voice in the world’s councils of power.
India is the most significant example of the benefits of positive foreign policy, but there are other important ones as well. Indonesia is Asia’s next-most populous democracy — with the world’s largest Muslim population. Here, too, America is deepening a relationship with a country that was once suspicious of Washington but is now far more welcoming of it — particularly of this president.
The most remarkable opportunity presents itself in Mexico. Thirty years ago, Mexico was defined by its anti-Americanism. Politicians routinely blamed the U.S. government and CIA for everything from riots and disorder to bad weather. And it wasn’t just the regime — the public shared in the suspicion of Yankee imperialists.
Today Mexico is a different country. Its economy is inextricably linked to its neighbor to the north, its politicians regard America as their natural partner, and the culture has become Americanized in many respects. Despite the demeaning way in which so many U.S. politicians speak about Mexican immigration, Mexico’s diplomats and politicians know that their country’s interests are tightly aligned with Washington’s, so they take the high road.
The upsides of success are significant. If the United States can partner with India and Indonesia (in addition to its alliance with Japan), it is far more likely that Asia — and the world — will be characterized by free trade, multilateralism and rules-based systems. Stronger relations with Indonesia could have an impact on the broader debate about reform in the Muslim world. And a deeper set of ties between the United States, Mexico and Canada could create a North American economic and political union of sorts that would be more interconnected, vibrant and powerful than any regional bloc in the world.
But all of this takes time and effort. Pushing these countries to reform is hard work. Showing up remains vital, especially in Asia. (Obama has had to cancel two trips to Indonesia.) The constant drumbeat to deal with the crisis du jour — somehow Washington must now rescue and stabilize Yemen — fails to recognize “opportunity costs.” Every day spent on one more band of thugs in the Middle East is a day that cannot be spent on India or Mexico.
The world presents the United States with remarkable opportunities. Asia, Latin America and Africa are all moving in the right direction. But these trends are not automatic or self-sustaining. They require Washington to be engaged and assertive — and also need a political and media climate in which the urgent does not always trump the important.