Sometimes there is no substitute for the personal touch. Almost everybody who attended the George W Bush session at yesterday’s Hindustan Times Leadership Summit was astonished by how different the real Bush seemed from his media image. He was warm, witty, self-deprecating and willing to engage with the audience and me on a variety of sensitive issues. Had he screwed up the post-invasion planning in Iraq? Had a lack of regulation under his administration contributed to the economic crisis? Did his policies lead to a radicalisation of Muslims all over the world?
But while many of us were impressed by Bush’s openness, I was also struck by some of the things he said about the India-US relationship.
You don’t have to be Manmohan Singh to recognise that Bush has been more pro-India than any US President in recent memory. Judging by his session at yesterday’s summit, he is impressed by the vibrancy of our democracy, our commitment to secularism and our success as a knowledge power. His time in office reflected his admiration for India. He worked to bring democratic India closer to the US as a counter to the America’s relationships with other less democratic Asian allies.
Given that he likes India and that he was speaking frankly, it was interesting to hear Bush’s views on the Washington-New Delhi relationship. His blunt realism came as a refreshing contrast to much of the airy-fairy stuff we hear from American stooges in politics and the media.
First of all, he dispelled much of the needless euphoria about our allegedly impending elevation to Permanent Member status at the Security Council. For many years now, we have been fed the line that if we suck up to the US on strategic issues, on climate change, etc. America will push to make India a Permanent Member.
Bush explained the position clearly. The whole issue of UN reform, he said, was complicated. If the UN did include more members along with the Big Five in the Security Council then there was no doubt that India had a claim to a seat on the table. But, he added, so did Japan. And Brazil. And many other countries. By his reckoning, the Big Five could not become the Big Six. It would have to be the Big Ten at the very least.
Could the Security Council function with ten Permanent Members? Would they all have veto powers? If so, wouldn’t this turn decision-making into an unwieldy and almost impossible process?
The big question during his time at the White House, he recalled, was whether it would be possible to reform the Security Council at all given the problems that more Permanent Members would create for its structure. As far as he knew, America had still not made up its mind on this issue.
As for India’s membership, he suggested, this was an issue that could be only taken up much later after the question of expansion of the Council had been resolved. And because no resolution seemed imminent, he did not think it was going to happen in the foreseeable future.
That’s worth keeping in mind. The next time somebody tells us that we need to keep the US in good humour because American goodwill will get us a seat at the Security Council, be very sceptical. Even Bush doesn’t think it’s going to happen.
I asked Bush whether he agreed that Pakistan had conned America into parting with billions of dollars for the so-called war on terror. Not only had Pakistan not been a genuine ally, I said, it had also used the money to finance terror groups which attacked India.
My sense was that Bush was sympathetic to the Indian position but he was also categorical that America’s interests required it to support Pakistan as long as there was a war in Afghanistan. No matter how many times India was attacked, the US could not afford to jettison Pakistan as an ally.
He was as brutally realistic about China. His position was that the US had a relationship with China. India had to develop its own relationship. And as for China’s position in the world, we had to learn to live with it.
More worrying was the underlying tenor of his remarks. He seemed to believe that America, under Barack Obama, would move against outsourcing, would cut back on visas to Indians, and would favour a more protectionist approach to trade. This had not been his policy, he said. And he opposed stricter immigration barriers against Indians as well as protectionism. But his attitude suggested that we would have to steel ourselves for a change in American policy.
Many of us left the Bush session yesterday thinking long and hard about what he had said. There is no doubt that he has been a good friend to India and perhaps it is because he is our friend that he was candid about the constraints under which American foreign policy is formulated. Even a president with special affection for India can do only so much to change US policy which will always be determined by America’s strategic interests.
Bush’s pragmatism should serve as a counter to the foolish optimism preached by cheerleaders for America in our country. Of course, India must have good relations with the United States. We are the world’s two largest democracies after all. And we have wasted many years in pointless hostility. But we must never forget that all great nations base their foreign policies not on the enthusiasms of individual leaders or on some notion of friendship. They base them on their own interests. And nothing will ever change that.
It’s a lesson that New Delhi would do well to remember. If India is ever to become a great power, then our policies should not be based on a desire for American approval or the promise of illusory goodies (such as a permanent seat at the Security Council, for instance).
They must be based on a realistic appraisal of India’s own interests in the 21st century.