Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University, was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008. He is also an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
When this bitter, divisive presidential campaign mercifully comes to an end in November, the victor will face the Olympian task of restoring flagging public and congressional support for strong U.S. leadership in the world.
A truth once undisputed in American politics — that U.S. global primacy is beneficial for our country — is now under assault. Bernie Sanders’s narrow, pessimistic view of the United States’ great-power future has encouraged twin scourges of protectionism and isolationism on the left. Donald Trump’s fearful, fact-free campaign has been infinitely more damaging in stoking isolation and nativism on the right. Hillary Clinton alone has held up the banner that all post-World War II presidents have carried — one of U.S. engagement and global leadership.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the White House on June 7, Republicans and Democrats will have a chance for redemption by lending bipartisan support for such leadership — in the form of an ambitious strategic partnership with India and its 1.25 billion people.
This project, carefully engineered by the past three presidents, is arguably one of the most important U.S. foreign policy advances in decades. Bill Clinton broke the ice by suggesting the United States’ 21st-century global interests were in alignment with India’s. George W. Bush made the major push forward by negotiating a civil nuclear agreement between the two countries and persuading both parties in Congress to remove sanctions. Barack Obama became the first president to support India for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
This rare, long-term strategic initiative by three administrations in an increasingly fractious Washington is a testimony to what can be accomplished when Republicans and Democrats act in unison to serve the national interest.
When Modi and Obama meet in the Oval Office, the glue that will bind them together is their mutual concern about a newly assertive China in Asia. Both face the same dilemma. They have no choice but to engage China on trade, global economic stability and climate change given Beijing’s vast international weight and influence. At the same time, Washington and New Delhi understand the necessity of standing up to China’s bullying of Vietnam, the Philippines and other claimants to the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
This is one reason America’s emerging triangular military partnership with India and Japan is so important. While not designed to contain China in a conventional sense, growing air and sea cooperation among the three democracies can help to prevent a strengthening People’s Liberation Army from dominating the Asia-Pacific region in this century. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter has been particularly effective in laying the groundwork for a more integrated U.S. military future with India.
On a recent visit to New Delhi, I was struck by a change of attitude among senior Indians who have long debated how much they should strengthen ties to the United States given India’s traditional non-alignment. That debate is clearly shifting. Modi is seeking stronger strategic links to Obama and his successor. In fact, this “foreign policy prime minister,” as many call him, aims to transform India itself from the dominant country in South Asia to a true world power. That goal mirrors Obama and Bush’s calculation that a strong India is in our interest. Republican and Democratic leaders should continue to support it.
Our relationship with New Delhi is far from untroubled. The civil nuclear deal has still not been implemented due to unfair legislative barriers in New Delhi. Washington is wary of India’s rapidly warming ties to Iran, while New Delhi wants the United States to consult more actively on Afghanistan. The two governments remain uneasy partners on climate change. Modi’s much-heralded economic reforms have been fitful, at best. And we remain far apart on global trade due to India’s austere protectionism, which excluded it from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
Still, long-term trend lines are auspicious. India and the United States have the two youngest populations of all the great powers. By virtue of their solid democratic foundations, they may be best positioned for global influence far into this century. The next U.S. president and Congress should push joint efforts in cyber and homeland security, clean energy, the digital revolution and the emerging global strategic health campaign.
Trump has been wrong about many things in this campaign, most notably in insisting that the United States doesn’t win anymore. Our strengthening partnership with India is a striking success. It has been built by the internationalist center in both parties that can still unite them on important foreign policy issues. The next U.S. president will have the opportunity to work with Republicans and Democrats in writing the next chapter with India. She should take it.