Sign Up

George Bush and the Benefits of an Uncomplicated Worldview

In what way has President Bush’s diplomacy with India been a success — regardless of what his critics say?

March 29, 2006

In what way has President Bush's diplomacy with India been a success — regardless of what his critics say?

Good leaders do two things. They seize new opportunities. They also remove barriers to lost ones. Long after Iraq is forgotten, George W. Bush is likely to be remembered for one of his presidency's defining moments — an endorsement of India as a "global power" and locomotive of the world economy.

This was in evidence during Mr. Bush's visit in early March 2006 to conclude an agreement which effectively acknowledges India as a nuclear weapons state.

In this respect, Mr. Bush has embraced the legacy of two predecessors, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The former opened the doors to China, fatally undermining any illusions in the already-decrepit Soviet leadership about a global front against the West.

It was then left to President Reagan to complete the job. Both Nixon and Reagan had detractors, whose criticism was passionate — and dated. Mr. Nixon was accused of selling out Taiwan, while Mr. Reagan was seen by his critics as confrontational and reckless.

As the curtains fell on the Cold War, and China went on to redefine the world manufacturing economy, it is clear that more than anyone else, Nixon and Reagan set the stage for the end of the 20th century and the shape in which the 21st has emerged.

Now, as the United States lays the foundations for a reinvigorated relationship with India, it may be useful to compare Presidents Reagan and Bush on the one hand, and Bill Clinton on the other. Like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush is considered, often unkindly, to be an 'uncomplicated' person. In reality, however, this has been the strength of both presidents.

For all his shortcomings, presumed or proven, Mr. Bush shares Mr. Reagan’s ability to cut through the complex clutter of vested interests and Beltway pundits — and see the shape of things as they are, not how they are imagined to be. His approach to India attests to this fact.

President Bill Clinton famously stated in May 1998 that India could have become a great country — had it not conducted nuclear tests. He was later forced to eat his words as he embarked enthusiastically on a high-profile Indian tour two years late — and then saw his wife found and co-Chair the U.S. Senate's India Caucus.

Unlike Mr. Clinton, George W. Bush may not have been able to recall the name of India's then-Prime Minister during his first electoral campaign. However, he did not need complex analysis to understand that India, home to over one billion Indians, was becoming increasingly engaged with the world.

It was in much the same vein that he spelled out a home truth to Pakistan — that it was a different country, with different needs, from those of India.

Indeed, very few doubt that India will play a leading global role in the decades ahead. In spite of taking up a sliver of China's foreign investment, it has already raced into the ranks of the world's fastest growing economies and become an overseas investor in its own right, increasingly in the heart of the West.

As Indian knowledge corporations complement their manufacturing counterparts in China in a top-to-bottom shake-out of the global economy, what is required is a broadening and deepening of the relationship with India, as Mr. Bush has sought to do.

Many of his critics, however, seem stuck in a time warp. Some have sought to symbolize the India-U.S. relationship via call centers — rather than one where India has become deeply immersed in the marrow of the U.S. high-technology machine.

Today, the India-based R&D labs of U.S. corporations file more patents than Bell Labs, while General Electric — an emblem of corporate America — employs a larger number of researchers in India than it does anywhere else. Call center revenues, in fact, account for less than one-tenth of India's software exports.

Meanwhile, those ostensibly concerned with the impact of the India-U.S. agreement on efforts to rein in the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran and North Korea are also off target.

First, comparing the Indian nuclear program — with its 22 reactors and its cutting-edge fast-breeder and thorium fuel technology — to two clandestine spin-offs from the Pakistan-based bazaar of Dr. A.Q. Khan is misleading.

Second, India has always been at the forefront of opposition to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it never signed, unlike North Korea and Iran. Overlooked, too, is the fact that India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, and may have done so earlier — thereby slotting irrevocably into the insider club of 'recognized' nuclear powers within the NPT.

Ironically, one critic of the India-U.S. agreement, the Carnegie Endowment’s George Perkovich, endorses exactly this view. India’s May 1998 nuclear tests, says the dust jacket of his book 'India's Nuclear Bomb', followed "decades" of restraint, "a control that no other nation with similar capacities had displayed.”

More important than these glimpses into the past is another key difference between India and Iran. The Indian economy is seven times larger than Iran's and growing almost twice as fast . Over the next two decades, India's oil consumption is likely to go up from 120 million tons to more than 400 million tons, with demand for coal rising to over 1.5 billion tons.

Already importing nearly as much crude from Saudi Arabia as China, India's hunger for energy will impact oil markets, Western consumers and the global climate more dramatically in the years ahead.

Such a scenario requires the aggressive encouragement of alternatives such as renewables and nuclear power (including India's leadership in fast-breeder technology). And that is exactly what the India-U.S. agreement seeks to do.

Critics of the deal also include those worried about a clash of civilizations and the alleged example it sets for Islamic people — who see the Americans turning a blind eye to 'Hindu' India's nuclear ambitions, while clamping down on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Some of these concerns should have been put to rest after President Bush's handshake with India's Muslim President Abdul Kalam, who is also the architect of the Indian nuclear (and missile) program.

As Indian warships escort U.S. vessels in the Straits of Malacca and the Indian and U.S. militaries conduct intensive short-notice exercises, there is no doubt a growing geopolitical dimension in the relationship between the two countries.

From tackling piracy to terror, India’s fast-growing blue-water naval capabilities will be the only means to prevent U.S. military overstretch in the turbulent regions of the Persian Gulf and the sea lanes of Asia. Evidently those areas are increasingly critical to world trade.

U.S.-India relations are one of the key relationships which will define the 21st century — whether others like it or not. In effect, the strongest lesson from President Bush's March 2006 visit is that India needs the United States — and the United States needs India. This was made amply clear by both sides, and is the essence of good friendship.

More on this topic