Shadow Government

India and the next U.S. president

I just returned from my third trip to India in four years. Every time I am struck by its confidence facing an ever more integrated world. Retaining relatively high growth rates, India has been relatively unscathed by the financial crisis. India's confidence about its future comes from a number of factors, including the success of the India diaspora across the globe and its definitive break with failed Indian- style socialism in the early 1990s. They have signed on to a model of development that requires increasing openness and they see the U.S.as a key partner.

The United States and India have many shared interests and much of the credit goes to former President Bush for successfully "resetting" the India relationship. After visiting Brazil and Russia in the last three months for a project at my day job, I conclude that a new President will have a most willing partner in India and a most able partner in Russia.

I met with senior officials of the U.S. and Indian governments, leaders in the NGO sector, and think tank scholars who were all very openly pro US. It was refreshing after meeting with Brazilians and Russians with a laundry list of "issues" about the U.S. relationship. The U.S.-India relationship benefits from the best "atmospherics" of the three. One senior Indian official described the United States as the "greatest country in the world" without hyperbole or sarcasm.  These are people with whom we can do A LOT of business.

Some facts to think about as we look to the 2012 election:

  • India has consistently provided a top number of troops to the U.N. Peacekeeping Mission and continues to do so -- hundreds ahead of other donor countries.
  • The number quoted to me is 3 million "overseas Indians" in the U.S. The most prominent Indian American politicians are Republican -- Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley.
  • India is slated to become the 3rd largest economy in the world within the next few years.
  • With 1.1 billion people, it has something like 400 million very poor people. India has more poor people than all of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • At the same time, India has sought to increase its foreign aid to other countries and has a joint space exploration program with Russia and is a member of the G-20. About eight years ago, India kicked many smaller European donor countries out of the country because the transaction costs were too high in exchange for the money they were getting.
  • This past year, our trade with India hit nearly $50 billion, up from only $5 billion in 1990 -- a relatively small number compared to other U.S. trading partners. For example, U.S. trade with Canada totaled nearly $495 billion in 2009 while trade with China totaled $390 billion.
  • Indian officials see the world much like those in the United States with similar interests and concerns. The concerns about terrorism were ever present in my visit -- constant metal detector stops at hotels, metro stations, airports and government ministries -- a far cry from Brazil's splendid isolation and sense of safety.

The opportunities with India are immense and our assistance and other cooperation programs need to radically reposition our relatively small amounts of foreign aid away from social service delivery to a number of smaller catalytic activities that leverage Indian expertise, deepen the institutional relationships between the two countries, and export India expertise and innovation to third countries in line with Indian aspirations as a global player. USAID and the State Department have started to make some steps, but need to take much more aggressive steps over the next several years. It will be hard to justify an annual foreign aid program in India as it becomes wealthier, but there are a large number of opportunities to work together with India requiring small and shrinking amounts of foreign assistance over time.

A new Republican administration would do well to heed the following:

  • Science and technology. Much has been written about the Indian Institutes of Technology, one of which was funded and set up by the United States in the 1960s through USAID funding. There is a strong desire to link scientists and leverage India's lead in what is called "frugal innovation" (which means solving problems in poverty-based contexts, such as selling consumer goods in smaller/cheaper ways than traditionally imagined). The Obama administration, to its credit, is working this area with enthusiasm (I note as a good start the new innovation fund set up in December through USAID).
  • Agriculture. Norman Borlaug, one of America's least famous (in the U.S.) Nobel Peace Prize winners, is a revered figure in India because of the USAID-supported Green Revolution of the 1960s that dramatically increased agricultural productivity in South Asia and helped feed hundreds of millions of people. India still has agricultural challenges, but is ready and willing to engage with the U.S. in third countries on agriculture. We should take them up on this.
  • Democracy Promotion. India is the largest democracy. It is often described as having "too much democracy." At the same time, India is an ideal partner for any number of democracy promotion projects in third countries. We are only just beginning to identify opportunities here. In a future administration with a more outspoken Freedom Agenda, we should be looking to bring India and others in on a more strategic basis.
  • Economic Integration. India has massive energy and raw material consumption needs. India's needs are a part of the bigger South Asia equation including China, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere. Engaging India in the greater South Asia challenges is a U.S. priority, but continues to be stymied by the Indo-Pak dysfunctional relationship.
  • Free Trade. Taking the long view -- the United States is a long way away from a free trade agreement with India partially because of the closed nature of the economy. However, technical discussions have begun between the U.S. and India on a "Bilateral Investment Treaty," which is sort of a starter free trade agreement. The U.S. should watch if the British are able to establish a "free trade agreement on services" because the UK is the largest foreign player in services. If that takes hold, the U.S. could follow if we made it a focus over two presidential terms.
  • Overseas Indian Community. "OICs" are going to be the new Irish or Italians in U.S. domestic politics -- loved by all and very invested in their home country. The Obama administration has invested a lot in what they can offer in terms of expertise and appetite for investment and engagement, but much more could be done to help provide brokering, convening, training and seed capital. Small amounts of money will go a long way in India and will be recognized at home.

INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Is the White House trying to turn America into France?

On the campaign trail, Republican candidates such as Gov. Mitt Romney frequently criticize President Obama for moving America towards a "European-style entitlement society" with sclerotic social welfare programs and crushing debt burdens. Two recent decisions by the Obama administration raise the prospect that the White House might also be following the European ethos -- or at least the prevailing French model of "laicite" and aggressive secularism -- on religious liberty. With apologies to historic French America-philes such as Lafayette and de Tocqueville, this is not the direction our country should go.

Normally domestic policy developments like Obamacare insurance mandates and school employment disputes in Michigan wouldn't be of much relevance for a foreign policy forum like Shadow Government. But the administration's position on the recent Supreme Court case on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran School and Friday's Obamacare mandate eviscerating conscience provisions for religious institutions providing healthcare -- while appalling in their own right -- might also help explain a foreign policy puzzle that I have raised before -- why this administration has been so indifferent to the promotion of religious liberty abroad.

To briefly recap, on the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Obama Justice Department took the position that religious liberty does not protect the right of religious institutions to hire their own employees in accordance with the organization's faith commitments. And the Obama Health and Human Services Department mandated that religious institutions such as hospitals and schools need to fund and include sterilization, contraceptive, and abortifacient coverage in their health insurance plans regardless of any doctrinal convictions otherwise. Just how bad for religious liberty were these two positions that the White House took? So bad that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the White House on Hosanna-Tabor in a 9-0 smackdown (those votes included Obama appointees Justices Sotomayor and Kagan), and the normally understated US Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the HHS decision as "literally unconscionable" and "a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights."

The Obama Justice and Health and Human Services Departments -- with at least a green light if not a strong push from the White House -- embraced positions on religious liberty that can only be described as extreme. Religious believers may disagree among themselves on any number of theological, moral, and political issues, but they hold near unanimity on the imperative and importance of religious freedom -- in part precisely because religious freedom preserves the space for diversity and tolerance of differing opinions.

Why does this matter for foreign policy? Because it might help explain the Obama administration's otherwise baffling apathy on international religious freedom. I have lamented previously the administration's negligence on this issue, including the delay until over halfway through its first term to even put in place an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and the complete omission of religious freedom from the 2010 National Security Strategy. When seen alongside the administration's myopic positions on the two domestic policies mentioned above, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this White House sees religious liberty with indifference.

While in any given administration cabinet agencies will have a degree of autonomy, on major issues like Supreme Court briefs and implementation of presidential initiatives, the agencies act only with the direction and blessing of the White House. In other words, these policies can't be dismissed as the benighted positions of mid-level bureaucrats. They reflect canonical dictates from the White House magisterium. And on foreign policy they send a clear signal to every last State Department bureau and country desk that religious freedom is not a policy priority.

To be fair, this does not mean that the administration is hostile to all aspects of religious liberty. The Obama White House of course opposes the imprisonment, torture, and execution of religious believers in oppressive countries, and has helpfully intervened on some high profile cases such as the Afghan citizen Said Musa and Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani.

Part of the White House's problem stems from what appears to be a desiccated reduction of religious freedom to mere freedom of belief or freedom of worship. This is not merely an academic distinction. Religious freedom includes freedom of worship and belief, but also much more, and most fundamentally it protects the rights of religious believers to practice their faith in all of its imperatives. This means the right of the Dalai Lama to urge greater freedom for Tibetans, or Muslim reformers in Syria to call for an end of the Assad regime, or Christians in Egypt to demand greater political representation. Or American Lutheran schools to hire their own teachers, and American Catholic hospitals to determine what kind of services they will fund and provide. None of these cases are about "freedom of worship"; all are about religious freedom.

Religious freedom is not a partisan issue. Numerous Congressional Democrats have shown dedication and leadership in this area. And these recent moves by the White House are all the more disappointing considering the great efforts that the 2008 Obama campaign invested in outreach to religious voters, and the rhetorical priority given to religious freedom in President Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. Perhaps this might be a question to add to the long list that Fareed Zakaria somehow forgot to ask President Obama in his recent interview: were your campaign's religious outreach and your 2009 Cairo speech just empty talk?

Ironically, the Obama administration's efforts to diminish religious freedom come just as new scholarship and strategic thinking are demonstrating the connections between religious freedom and foreign policy equities such as peace, security, and stability. For example, Knox Thames describes in a recent essay in Small Wars Journal how religious liberty can strengthen counterinsurgency efforts, and Brian Grim and Roger Finke's new book finds a robust connection between religious freedom and reductions in political violence. My colleagues at the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center explore a number of these issues in depth, exemplified by Timothy Samuel Shah's forthcoming book.

Finally, there is the public diplomacy angle. At least part of the reason behind the persistently low opinions of the United States in Muslim-majority countries stem from the worry by many Muslims that America stands for a secularism that is intolerant of religious faith and values. Unfortunately the Obama administration's recent policies will only reinforce this perception.

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