Renewed Optimism and Drive For U.S.-India Ties

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Dr. Anish Goel served on the White House National Security Council from June 2008 to January 2011, during which he advised the President and National Security Advisor as Senior Director for South Asia.
Dr. Anish Goel served on the White House National Security Council from June 2008 to January 2011, during which he advised the President and National Security Advisor as Senior Director for South Asia.

A Conversation with Former NSC Senior Director Anish Goel on U.S.-India Relations


WASHINGTON – Dr. Anish Goel served on the White House National Security Council from June 2008 to January 2011, during which he advised the President and National Security Advisor as Senior Director for South Asia. After nine years serving in the U.S. government, he works today as Director of Geopolitical Affairs for Boeing Commercial Airplanes based out of Seattle, where he leads geopolitical analysis, identifying emerging threats and opportunities, and their potential impact to Boeing’s commercial aviation business. He is also a senior South Asia Fellow with the New America Foundation. Goel spoke with The SAIS Observer via phone to discuss U.S.-India relations in light of Prime Minister Modi’s recent five-day visit to the United States. The views expressed here are solely his own.

After a highly anticipated visit to the U.S., Modi had a celebrity time in New York meeting the Indian diaspora and captains of American industry, followed by meetings with President Obama and high-level government officials. In short, what did this trip accomplish?

There were three main accomplishments from this visit. The first was an introduction for Prime Minister Modi to the Indian diaspora here in the United States. Modi had not been to the U.S. in at least a decade, probably more, and it was his first time obviously as prime minister. So it was a way for him to connect with the Indian diaspora, and his speech at Madison Square Garden was a big step forward in that regard.

The second big accomplishment was signaling that India is open for business for U.S. foreign investment. Right now this is more symbolic than substantive because there are a lot of policy issues that the Indian government needs to work through to really attract foreign investment. But by making industry such a strong focus of his visit, he was indicating that he wants to reopen the gates to American businesses coming and setting up shop in India.

And the third accomplishment – which was probably one of the primary objectives of the trip – was to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship with the United States. There has been a lot of grumbling over the past three or four years that the relationship had cooled in its intensity and that neither side was committed to one another. This was a chance for both sides to say ‘Yes, this relationship is important, and we want to move forward.’

Economics seems to be a vital part of the U.S.-India relationship. Two efforts in this realm include the U.S.-Indian Infrastructure Platform and the U.S.-India CEO Forum, the core of which is to foster trade and investment between the two democracies. Does this emphasis, though, overshadow other social and human rights issues in India (e.g., poverty, treatment of women, sanitation, communal violence)?

I’m going to say yes and no. The reason I say yes is because the American media tends to focus on the economic issues in the bilateral relationship more than it does the social and human rights issues. If you were to read the papers during Modi’s visit and immediately afterward, there is a strong focus on economics and foreign investment, his meetings with the CEOs, and things of that nature.

But the reason I say no is because those other issues, particularly under the new prime minister, have been getting a great deal of attention. Prime Minister Modi has made [these issues] a priority of his administration. [For example], he talked about the treatment of women in his speech on Independence Day back in August. He [also] just recently came out with a “Clean India” campaign, so he is addressing sanitation. He hasn’t shied away from talking about poverty [and] he hasn’t shied away from talking about the rapes that are so common in India. So the prime minister is attuned to these issues, and in terms of focus from the government, they are not being overshadowed.

“Do you think India’s vetoing of the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement presents a stumbling block for the bilateral relationship to move forward, at least in the short-term?”

“Stumbling block” may be a bit of an understatement. India’s veto of the WTO deal is a huge issue between the United States and India because achieving consensus on that trade agreement was a high priority for the United States. To have every other country on board, and then have India veto it, really left a sour feeling among a large number of trade officials in the United States.

So that is something they definitely have to work through and move beyond. But at the same time, it is not going to be a stumbling block to the overall U.S.-India relationship. It definitely affects trade negotiations and it affects bilateral trade interaction, but the relationship is about so much more than just trade. You saw that during prime minister’s visit. Neither side is going to let that issue halt the relationship as a whole. So the overall relationship will move forward, but the trade part, yes, they need to work on this.

“India’s weak IPR regime remains a concern for Big Pharma and the U.S. came close to downgrading India to a ‘priority foreign country’. What needs to be done to resolve a difficult issue like this?

I will admit I have not followed the IPR issue closely. But my understanding is that India’s IPR regime – the way it currently is formulated – offers very little protection to foreign firms wanting to and conduct research in the country, or to conduct joint research in partnership with domestic research entities.

What India needs to do on a broad basis is update its IPR regime so that these companies have protection of their intellectual property [and] so they have the confidence that when they invent something, when they develop technology in country, they will be able to reap the benefits of those novel technologies. That is what Big Pharma and the other U.S. firms are looking for – the protection they need to justify investment in India.

From June 2008 to January 2011, you served on the U.S. National Security Council where you advised the President and National Security Advisor on policy towards South Asia. What was our policy then, and how has it changed, if at all (with a new prime minister)?

I served both before and after transition with a change in government when President Obama came into office, so this applies to both administrations that I observed. The policy then was [around] wanting to build a strong strategic partnership with the Indian government. This was a big priority for the Bush administration. And they went to great lengths to implement it. [One example] was the civil-nuclear deal that was lauded as a game-changing initiative that propelled the bilateral relationship forward.

When it came into office, the Obama administration wanted to build on that. They wanted to ensure that they took the relationship that the Bush administration left, continued to build on it, and continued to work with the Indian government as much as they could. Now that policy from 2011 up until now was tested a bit because there was some stagnation on both sides. There was some frustration in terms of the pace of working on different initiatives and other things, and the way it manifested itself was a perceived cool-down or downgrading of priority – particularly as India went through its election season earlier this year.

But with the new prime minister, a lot of people see a new opportunity. And the policies that were in place when I was in the NSC are now starting to be reinvigorated and refocused, and people are now starting to look towards India again with a renewed optimism and drive to really move the relationship forward. So it’s a continuation of the previous policies and a logical extension with optimism for the new prime minister. I think a good illustration of this renewed optimism was the fact that Modi and Obama had a working dinner at the White House. That is not something generally afforded to visiting leaders. So the fact that the president was willing to spend that much time with the prime minister is indicative of the policy and the way the administration wants the relationship to grow.

In a recent article you wrote for Foreign Policy, you said India was effectively skirting the Ukrainian issue (to avoid a ruffle with Russia that might jeopardize trade flows, defense cooperation and ties in many multilateral fora)? And yet following his election, he has been active and agile in international diplomacy with trips to Bhutan, Nepal, China, Japan, and recently the U.S. What does this silence on the Ukrainian issue say about Modi’s foreign policy?

It’s very confusing to me (laughter) because he has shown himself to be so agile on the international stage – being able to solicit investments from a number of different countries [and] upgrade ties with so many of them. So the silence on the Ukrainian issue says to me a number of things.

One is that he does not want to get on the wrong side of Russia because of all the ties that you just mentioned. The second is that the Indian government – and Prime Minister Modi in continuing longstanding Indian policy – does not want to get involved in what India might consider to be territorial or internal issues of other countries because of possible implications for issues that are going on within India now. And the third thing is that Modi’s foreign policy is primarily around economic development and economic growth. All the places that he visited outside the region – China, Japan, [and] the United States – these are all places he went to upgrade the economic relationship, to get investments, and to beef up FDI and trade.

And the Ukrainian issue really offers nothing in the way of economic growth, [rather] only a risk and downside maybe from Modi’s perspective. So to me it says that his foreign policy is going to be very pragmatically focused on Indian economic interests.

How does Pakistan fit into the triangular equation of South Asia policy for the U.S. – given the strained relationship between India and Pakistan, and the competing interests of security?

That’s a very complicated situation obviously. Calling the relationship between India and Pakistan strained is again quite an understatement. But it’s a balance the United States has to play because honestly since 9/11, the United States has wanted to have strong, positive relationships with both countries. They no longer view it as a zero-sum game, which was the case throughout the Cold War. So the U.S. approach towards India and Pakistan has fundamentally shifted to wanting to have a partnership with each country.

Now that’s a little difficult to achieve because of the very issues that you mentioned. And what that means is not that if you want to have an alliance with India, you have to necessarily consider Pakistan an enemy or vice versa. It means that the United States needs to think about the region holistically, that it cannot create policies and initiatives for one country or the other in a vacuum. It has to think about the effects that its policies will have on another country.

And I would argue that Afghanistan is also a strong factor in U.S. policy in South Asia. There are many competing interests, and the United States has to balance them by examining the region as a whole. They can’t keep the countries separated in terms of one foreign policy for this country and one foreign policy for that country. They have to consider what’s best for the entire region in that regard.

In 2005, the U.S. government denied then Chief Minister of Gujarat Modi a visa to the United States under a religious freedom law – of course referring to Modi’s alleged complicity in the Gujarat riots in 2002 in which hundreds of Muslims were killed. Yet since his ascent to the premiership, the U.S. government has been favorable towards him. What explains the change of tone?

There are a couple of different things. One is the pragmatism. Beyond economics, the United States simply cannot be seen as barring the sitting prime minister of a country like India from coming to the country. This is after all a popularly elected leader of the world’s largest democracy. So there is pragmatism in the fact that you simply cannot have a strained relationship with someone like that.

Another reason for the change in tone is that 2002 is a long time ago now. Since then, there have been no indications that Modi has continued to foment religious strife, failed to protect Muslims, or things of that nature. Since the riots in Gujarat, there have not been any reports of follow-on allegations against Modi, so that’s a big factor.

Another factor is that Modi was cleared by the federal courts in India late last year – and cleared of any wrongdoing. One can argue whether or not the courts are fair or what went into the decision, but at the end of the day, India is a democracy. They have rule of law. And the allegations were brought in a court of law, and he was declared to bear no responsibility. These are all factors that led to the United States saying that we have to put this behind us. India is an important country. We want to work with it. The prime minister, yes, he used to be barred entry in the United States, but the situation has changed, and we need to move forward.

The Gujarat riots issue seems to be following Modi, even to the U.S., where recently the U.S. Federal Court of the Southern District of New York filed a summons for his alleged complicity. India’s Supreme Court has cleared him of any wrongdoing, but his critics continuing criticizing. Will this affect Modi?

Honestly, it’s hard to foretell. But as long as he remains clear of any new or additional allegations, it will likely fade out over time. I did read that a federal court tried to file a summons against him when he was in New York, but sitting prime ministers and heads of governments generally have immunity from U.S. court prosecution. I imagine that is what happened here.

This will not affect Modi all that much because Modi at his heart, in his core, is a pragmatic guy. And I think he realizes there is nothing to be gained from responding to these allegations or engaging with U.S. critics about them, so he will continue to ignore it. He will continue to do his job. He will continue to focus on economic growth. Honestly, this issue will likely fade away with enough time.

Despite the controversy of Gujarat, Modi is turning over new leaves as prime minister – many from his inaugural speech at the Red Fort in August. There he condemned violence against women, promised banking access to the poor, and criticized the country’s open defecation epidemic – some of which are considered taboo topics to broach at that level. If you are a woman, are poor, or are without a bathroom, things are looking up for you? Do you think this rhetoric will translate into real change in India?

That is an interesting question. Honestly it’s hard to predict what will actually happen, and what will occur on the ground. What I can say is that this is the first time a sitting prime minister has talked about these things. As you said, these are topics that were taboo to even broach before. And the fact that these are getting high-level attention makes me more confident that there will be some real change in India. It’s comforting just to know that the leaders are not ignoring these issues.

And if Modi continues to talk about them, people will start to take notice and things will start to change. But even if real change does happen, it is not going to be within the next three months. It is a long-term effort. In his Clean India Campaign, Modi mentioned 2020 as the goal for cleaning up sanitation. So these are long-term efforts. It is encouraging that the leadership is taking a look at what the real social problems are in India, starting to talk about them, and having a vision for how they want things to come out in the end. That’s an important part of getting real change to happen.

In a few words, what can we expect of the U.S.-Indian relationship going forward?

It will continue as a multi-faceted, broad-based relationship that is moving forward on many fronts. We can expect the United States and India to continue to work together not only for the benefit of the two countries themselves, but for the benefit of other countries in the region. India is a strong player in Afghanistan with U.S. coordination [and] U.S. support. The United States looks to India for support as well as on other countries in the region. And we are going to see that the U.S.-India relationship represents two countries supporting each other and working together to make the world a better place.

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