Hillary Clinton’s visit kicks off the India policy of the administration of Barack Obama. The United States Secretary of State has not arrived with a bushel of ready-to-sign agreements or offered a big ticket boost for bilateral relations. She has preferred to focus on specific global and regional challenges. Then she has asked India to engage with the US, in a process that could last years, to find synergies of thought and capability that would allow the two to address these problems. Hence the strengthened dialogues on climate change, terrorism and a new one on nuclear non-proliferation. This is the India-US V 3.0 that the Obama administration espouses: exploring how far India is prepared to sign up for long-term strategic solutions even when they have short-term domestic costs. The stuff, in other words, of what great powers are made of.
Many in India will urge caution. It remains a nation- in-the-making, with vast pools of poverty and a rickety governance structure. New Delhi rules a sixth of mankind and, with some justice, can conclude that providing for the welfare of so many people is a sufficient contribution to global well-being. However, many of the greatest threats that India faces are ones that go well beyond its borders. These vary from the disruptive, like terrorism, to the existential like Himalayan glacier melt. Even with all its purely domestic headaches, India cannot afford to remain in splendid isolation and leave global problems to the rest of the world.
India playing a role in larger-than-life global problems is not merely a matter of ambition or morality. It is also about hard-nosed preservation of national interest. Multilateral solutions to global problems almost inevitably lead to international rules. Countries that are not part of the rule-making process will, unsurprisingly, find the rules will discriminate against them. This will be particularly important in coming years as the climate change debate begins to curb energy options or as a new world nuclear order starts to be defined. Ms Clinton, in effect, has invited India to partner the US as the world begins what may be the largest rewriting of the law of nations since the end of the Cold War. India cannot afford to ignore this offer, as well as those by other nations, if it wishes to preserve and define its own interests.