If either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins, there is unlikely to be any significant change in America's India policy post 2013. Given the scale of economic problems facing the US, India is not going to be a very high priority for some time but there is little likelihood of a downgrade in India's importance, says Harsh V Pant.
Just a month back it had seemed as if US President Barack Obama would have a smooth sailing for a second term at the White House. He was leading in the polls, the Democrats had succeeded in painting his opponent, Mitt Romney, as a gaffe-prone bumbler out of touch with ordinary Americans and the economy was showing signs of recovery. And then something rather unexpected happened.
The first presidential debate was to be a turning point. Obama, widely considered a great orator, failed to connect with the people. His passive performance proved disastrous as Romney came out all guns blazing and changed the course of the election campaign. Romney emerged as a smart, confident politician who was able to provide credible answers and the contrast with President Obama was categorical. Those who were tuning into the election campaign for the first time seriously had no difficulty in envisioning a Romney presidency.
Since then it has been all downhill for Barack Obama. He has lost his lead in opinion polls and the race has tightened to a point where panic has set in the Democratic Party. The second presidential debate last week did not much help Obama as it was widely seen as a draw between the two candidates.
It was in this context that the final debate on foreign policy held earlier this week assumed great significance. It was the last chance for Obama to mark a contrast with his opponent at a national level. It was also an opportunity to showcase his major successes in the realm of foreign policy such as the killing of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. For Romney it was important to underline his credentials as a potential commander-in-chief. And for the rest of the world, the debate was keenly awaited to figure out how a Romney presidency would be different from an Obama one.
But the debate turned out to be a non-debate. It turned out that there was a lot of common ground between the two candidates and the actual differences were relatively minor. The main charge that Obama hurled against his opponent was that Romney lacked any vision to lead the nation. His Republican challenger tried to underline that Obama's foreign policy has been timid and ineffective at a time of growing turmoil around the world.
And interestingly though the focus of the third debate was ostensibly on foreign policy, the two candidates tried to repeatedly bring the discussion back to domestic policy issues with an eye on the American electorate. Though the topics discussed during the debate ranged from the war in Afghanistan and the rise of China to the uprisings in the Middle East, the most vociferous differences came out on the issue of Iran and Israel. Romney charged that Obama's policies have moved Tehran 'four years closer' to its goal of having a nuclear weapons capability and now, argued Romney "there are some 10,000 centrifuges spinning uranium, preparing to create a nuclear threat to the United States and for the world." He tried to reach out to the Jewish voters by arguing that Obama's 'apology tour' of Muslim countries during his first year in office led to a signalling of American weakness. Obama responded by underlining his commitment to the security of Israel. "If Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel," declared Obama.
Other areas of dispute between the two sides were how best to help Syrian rebels topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as civil war gathers momentum threatening the entire region, pursuing the Middle East peace process and confronting China over its trade policies. The two candidates were on the same page on Pakistan with both viewing a nuclear armed failing Pakistan with dread. On the whole Romney did not offer a significantly different view of the US in world affairs. Foreign policy traditionally offers an advantage for incumbent Presidents, so Romney's strategy was to distinguish himself from Obama by turning the debate on foreign policy into one about domestic issues.
At a broader level, what the foreign policy debate revealed is that foreign policies of major powers have a trajectory of their own which are not really affected by the exigencies of domestic politics. One has to just look at Obama's pronouncements as a candidate and his foreign policy four years later. At the beginning of his term, New Delhi had concerns about Obama's rhetoric about the non-proliferation regime, his pro-China tilt, and his suggestions that the success of US endeavours in Afghanistan depended on greater American activism with regard to Kashmir.
Yet the US-India relationship under Obama gained momentum and the initiatives of the George W Bush administration vis-a-vis India continued. In fact, Obama went further than any US President declaring American support for India's candidacy as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Engagement with India was pursued with a new vigour with Washington asking India for a more robust role in East and Southeast Asia. Most significantly on Afghanistan, Washington now views India as part of the solution at a time when the source of real problem is widely considered to be in Pakistan.
Mitt Romney's position on India-related issues also remains positive and his foreign policy advisors view India's role in the emerging global and regional balance of power as favourable to Indian interests. As a consequence, there is unlikely to be any significant change in America's India policy post 2013. Given the scale of economic problems facing the US, India is not going to be a very high priority for some time but there is little likelihood of a downgrade in India's importance.
Given this reality, there is something very unseemly about Indian media's outcry that India was not mentioned during the debate. The very fact that it was not mentioned shows that US-India ties have become so mature that there is hardly any need to publicly talk about the differences. India as an increasingly important player in world politics should have the confidence to deal with the US as an equal and not take umbrage at non issues.
The focus of the election campaign in the US will now shift to battleground states where the two candidates will slug it out for the next few days till November 6. The election remains a cliff-hanger but there is nothing for India to worry about.