Shadow Government

Can the U.S. Embrace India, Welcome Modi, and Reject Religious Persecution?

This Friday, the world's largest democracy will announce its election results. India's slow motion balloting has been taking place over several weeks, in an exercise that is both a marvel of logistics and a compelling display of self-government in a stunningly diverse society. Most indications are that, after the votes are counted and the coalition negotiations wrapped up, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will emerge as India's next prime minister.

Modi's likely win also poses a challenge for American foreign policy. As Jim Mann, an author in residence at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, India "will probably elect as its next prime minister a politician who for nearly a decade has been prohibited from setting foot on U.S. soil." This stems from the 2005 decision by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deny Modi a visa to visit the United States because of his role in the massacre of over 1,000 -- and possibly over 2,000 -- Muslims in Gujarat state in 2002. In her decision Rice concurred with the recommendation of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom and invoked section 604 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) which provides for visa denials of any foreign officials responsible for "particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

I have a personal perspective on this, having served as one of the Congressional staff authors of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, and then several years later having worked for Secretary Rice at the State Department. It is an interesting experience in governance and civics, to say the least, to participate in the writing of a bill at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and then later participate in the implementation of it at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue (or in this case the Foggy Bottom annex). At the time of drafting the bill in 1998, we could hardly have imagined that the only time the visa ban provision would be invoked would be against a chief minister of a state government in India. Suffice it to say that while working on State's Policy Planning Staff in 2005, I supported the decision to ban Modi. I thought at the time, and still think, it was a fair and important step to take in response to some egregious acts of religious intolerance, of which the Gujarat massacres were the most visible and heinous. The visa ban also undercut the canard that the United States only advocates for persecuted Christians and helped demonstrate that American support for international religious freedom applies to all faiths, including solidarity with Muslims.

Visa bans have emerged in recent years as a favored tool of American foreign policy. The passage of the Magnitsky Act and now the Obama Administration and European Union's blacklisting of certain Russian officials in the midst of the Ukraine crisis are current examples. At its best, a visa ban provides a calibrated and targeted way to advance a particular policy priority while minimizing collateral diplomatic damage. Other times a visa ban can be less effective, either as a poor alternative for more creative and robust policies or an empty symbolic gesture. To be most effective, visa bans should be one part of a comprehensive strategy, rather than a substitute for one.

In the case of India, I agree with Mann and many others that it is time to lift the visa ban on Modi. The reasons are several. Foremost is that India is one of the most important strategic relationships the United States has. After the stagnation and drift in U.S.-India ties of the last few years (for which the Singh Government and the Obama administration both bear responsibility), Modi's likely election presents an opportunity for a fresh start in the relationship, especially if he follows through on his promised economic reforms and shares American concerns about responding to China's regional assertiveness. Modi may not be the leader we want for India, but he will likely be the leader we get. Additionally, on the issue of religious toleration itself, the visa ban has outlived its effectiveness. Twelve years after the Gujarat massacres, there is little evidence that Modi's continued blacklisting will do much to protect religious freedom in India.

But lifting the visa ban alone would be insufficient. The Obama administration should couple this with a series of other specific measures that show America's willingness to work with Modi does not diminish our concern for religious freedom. While Modi has moderated some of his rhetoric, regrettably he seems to still embrace some of the more intolerant and toxic strains of Hindu nationalism. Many of India's Muslims and Christians in particular fear that a Modi government could bring them increased discrimination and even persecution. The Obama administration should start communicating to India now its support for religious toleration, and should start developing specific policy initiatives to support religious freedom in India.

Unfortunately this is an administration that, notwithstanding a couple of speeches by President Obama and chief of staff Denis McDonough, has done regrettably little to promote religious liberty abroad. A good start would be heeding the calls of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) and many others to appoint a new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. This position has been unfilled since October, and has stood vacant for over half of the Obama administration's entire tenure in office. If religious freedom doesn't even have its chief advocate inside the State Department, it won't have any priority in American foreign policy.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Putin, Ukraine, and Time Inconsistency

There is a misguided debate swirling around Ukraine's gradual descent into civil war. It concerns the ability of the West to inflict economic pain upon Vladimir Putin's Russia. Given the unwillingness of the NATO countries to use armed force in Ukraine and the superiority of Russia's official and unofficial troops, the potency of Western economic sanctions might seem to be the full measure of Ukraine's defense.

In support of sanctions' efficacy, the International Monetary Fund last week issued warnings about the looming damage to Russia's economy. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the IMF's top official in Russia

...said it was difficult to assess the economic implications of these sanctions but together with geopolitical risks they are clearly killing private, state and foreign investment in Russia. He said that Russia is already in recession...

...The fund now predicts that Russian economic growth could be 1% in 2015. Previously, the IMF had forecast Russia's gross domestic product to grow by 2.3% next year, which is still well below the annual oil-fuelled growth of 6% registered between 2000 and the global financial crisis in 2008.

While 1 percent growth would be a step back from better years, it is not exactly a disaster. It is the growth rate the IMF forecasted last month for France in 2014.

Sanctions skeptics, such as Anatole Kaletsky, ask, "Why did the U.S. and European sanctions against Russia (last) week trigger a rebound in the ruble and the Moscow stock market?" He argues that measures to date have been ineffectual. Further, the sanctions approach transforms an immoral act into an economic transaction with a finite price. Even if the West managed to impose more damaging measures, "For Russia, a weaker ruble and an economic recession are clearly a price worth paying for recapturing Crimea."

The problem with this whole debate is that the fear inspired by a weapon depends on both the damage that weapon might wreak and on the perceived likelihood that the weapon will be used. We can stipulate that a concerted effort by the G7 countries to inflict economic pain on their erstwhile G8 partner could take a serious toll. This would certainly involve moving beyond the more targeted sanctions that have been applied to date and on to measures that would affect broader swaths of the Russian economy.

Assuming the West has the capability, will it deploy the weapon? There are at least two serious obstacles. The one that has received the most attention is the coordination problem between the United States and Europe. Serious sanctions would hurt Europe and its industries significantly more than they would hurt the United States, given closer economic ties between the European Union and Russia. The Financial Times reports that German "business leaders, worried about the potential loss of Russian gas supplies and export markets, make no bones about opposing sanctions..." The upshot was that a meeting between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel led to warnings of broader sanctions if the May 25 elections in Ukraine were impeded.

The timing was an interesting contrast with that set out by Ukraine's interim prime minister, who on May 1 said Ukraine was facing its "most dangerous 10 days." He feared that "the secessionists will put on a bigger show of strength on May 9, the commemoration of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany. On May 11, pro-Russian separatists who have seized government buildings in about a dozen cities in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, plan to hold a referendum on independence and later unification with Russia." Other defense analysts have argued that Russia's "window of opportunity" -- based on troop readiness -- runs until mid-May.

The timing bears all the features of the sort of strategic game analyzed by Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott (in Nobel Prize-winning work). They described situations of "time inconsistency," in which one side will make promises about actions it will take later (say, end-May). When later actually arrives, however, those actions are no longer optimal (hence the "inconsistency"). Kydland and Prescott were talking about things like capital taxation promises intended to lure investors, but the idea applies equally well to sanctions intended to deter Russian aggression.

This second, time-consistency obstacle may explain Russian behavior. Putin's reasoning might be as follows: Even if sanctions would be devastating to the Russian economy, they will never be imposed. If he manages to create enough turmoil in eastern Ukraine so that the May 25 elections appear "absurd" or are pre-empted by a vote on autonomy from Ukraine, then the world will look very different. With eastern Ukraine lost to Kiev, Putin could then begin a series of international dialogues in which the parties could agree to go no further and could step back from painful sanctions that neither side really wants.

Why would he believe this? It describes recent history pretty well. After Russia's war with Georgia in 2008, a short period of frosty relations ensued. But within months, the United States pressed for a "reset." After all, what good dwelling on bygones? Then, after the invasion of Crimea this year, there was fairly widespread acceptance among analysts that it was unlikely sanctions could dislodge the Russians from their new acquisitions. Discussions of sanctions turned instead to future red lines (as opposed to the old ones from the Budapest Memorandums of 1994, guaranteeing Ukraine's territorial integrity).

Each time, when the moment arrived to take harsh measures, those actions were deemed futile and new warnings were issued about the future. The economists Kydland and Prescott diagnosed this sort of problem and warned that astute players would disregard the empty warnings. The laureates did offer a fix, as it happens: The party that can never follow through would like to pre-commit. That is one interpretation for legislation introduced last week by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The proposal would remove some elements of presidential discretion and pre-commit to a stiff sanctions response, based on Russian actions. There are problems with such an approach -- it will not be tailored to the needs of the moment, nor will it allow for easy coordination with allies. But it would restore credibility in a way that could alleviate the time inconsistency problem.

In the present circumstance, the worst possible outcome would be one in which the West actually is committed this time, but fails to signal that effectively to Russia. Avoiding that miscommunication equilibrium should be a major goal of U.S. and European policy. Given recent history, Western credibility now matters far more than questions of how many points could be knocked off Russian GDP by full-spectrum economic sanctions.