Biden, Modi Should Relate Well To Each Other: Nirupama Rao
A Joe Biden presidency will carry forward the positive trends in the India-U.S. relationship, said Nirupama Rao, former foreign secretary and former Indian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, China and the U.S.
A Biden presidency’s primary focus will be attending to the deep divisions and polarisation among American society, as evident in this election, and institution rebuilding. But “he will be a foreign policy president too because he has vast experience in the field of foreign policy,” said Rao in an interview with BloombergQuint on Nov. 5, as the ballots were being counted and the Democrat presidential nominee looked set to win.
...I believe he will carry forward the positive trends in this (India - U.S.) relationship as established over the last few years. So, in that sense, India should be in a good place and in a positive place. It all boils down, ultimately I think, to the U.S.-China relationship, that’s really where the action is going to be...Nirupama Rao, Former Foreign Secretary
Just like there is bipartisan support for the India-U.S. partnership, there is bipartisan agreement over United States’ adversarial view of China. Biden will be less transactional in his China policy and more supportive of multilateralism in general, according to Rao. “I think you will find the U.S. coming back into the fold as it were,” she said on issues like climate change.
As for his relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shared a close camaraderie with President Donald Trump, each seeking to boost the other’s reelection chances, Rao said the Biden - Modi “should relate well to each other”.
I accompanied him (Joe Biden) to India when he made a visit in the summer of 2013 and he is extremely convivial. He’s a people person. He loves interacting just as seasoned politicians are, and Mr. Modi is in the same category of persons who has a long experience in the field of politics. I believe that the two should relate well to each other.Nirupama Rao, Former Foreign Secretary
Watch the full interview with Ambassador Rao here...
At this point the Biden-Harris ticket is the closest to winning. Given the context and (polarised) environment in which this election has been fought, and this close contest - how different in your assessment would the United States be under a Biden presidency?
First of all, I suppose Biden’s ticket is slated to win. President Trump of course has mounted a legal opposition to the way the election and the electoral count has been going. To what extent that will succeed in a conservative dominated Supreme Court, one cannot say at this moment. But what it tells you is that America is a polarised country today, its society is deeply divided. Even if the Trump Campaign’s legal opposition doesn't succeed and Joe Biden becomes the president of the United States, this polarisation and this ‘Trumpism’ as somebody called it, this half of America being ‘Red’-associated with the Republican Party, that's not going to go away.
Secondly, the Senate, which everybody expected would result in a slight majority for the Democrats - that too (may) not happen. So, it's going to make the task of governance a little more difficult for Mr. Biden and in many ways, it will confirm the deep polarisation in the American society.
The third point is that President Biden's primary focus will be institution rebuilding, will be a focus on the Covid-19 situation, it will be a focus on industrial policy, on jobs, on setting things, as he says, right, making them more stable, dealing with the chaos of the Trump years. All this is what the Biden campaign has been saying.
Turning to the external front and the foreign policy front -- foreign policy of course always follows suit after domestic policy and the focus of Mr. Biden and the Biden administration will obviously be America as it exists inside America, dealing with the needs of the country as a result of all that we've seen in the last four years.
When he turns his mind to foreign policy and he will be a foreign policy president too because he has vast experience in the field of foreign policy, he was chair of the senate foreign relations committee and he spent long years in in the Senate, therefore, he’s very experienced and very knowledgeable when it comes to foreign policy issues.
When it comes to India, when it comes to Pakistan and when it comes to our region --he's travelled widely in our part of the world, he knows the leaders, he knows the issues and he knows the precepts and the direction of the U.S.-India relationship. As you know that relationship has thrived regardless of which administration is in power. So, in many ways, it's a bipartisan consensus that exists within the United States about the India-U.S. relationship. India is very favourably looked upon across the spectrum of public opinion also. It's seen as a democracy, which the U.S. shares many values with, respect for pluralism, respect for diversity and we have established a reputation for ourselves as a country that stands for a rule-based international order. That especially applies to the Indo-Pacific region, which is what we call this confluence of the region of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. So here again there is a lot of strategic convergence with the United States. Joe Biden recognises that and I believe he will carry forward the positive trends in this relationship as established over the last few years. So, in that sense, India should be in a good place and in a positive place.
It all boils down, ultimately I think, to the U.S.-China relationship, that's really where the action is going to be and that again is a field where in the United States, people are pretty united— in a very divided country they are pretty united about the need to do something with regard to China. That takes into account the fact that China has in a sense taken advantage of the United States over the last few decades. It's gained a lot from the relationship. It's given very little in return. And in fields like trade and technology, particularly, the U.S. has very legitimate concerns I believe about the way China has gone about appropriating and expropriating technology from the U.S. and building a comprehensive national strength on that basis. So that's really where the situation will be.
Also read: The U.S. In 2020: E Pluribus Multis
Can Biden Fix The Trump Years?
The U.S., under President Trump, was considered by many to have become inward looking. Its participation in multilateral international organisations to its view of trade treaties - all of that changed dramatically. Do you see any reversals under a Biden presidency?
Yes, I think one hallmark of the Trump presidency or of the Trump era was that he didn't play by any rules. Secondly, he was very transactional. Thirdly, he was very impulse driven. You look at his policy with regard to North Korea - the so-called love letters to Kim Jong-Un. When you look at the China policy, which again was quite impulse-driven although taking advantage of the domestic unease within the United States with China. You look at the way he exited the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) with Iran, of course there were issues concerning the nuclear deal with Iran, but he's destroyed that (agreement) completely.
(President Trump) did develop new linkages between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. That again was with very much a domestic audience in mind. I think he literally threw the Palestinians under the bus also, when he concluded that agreement.
So, all this is what Mr. Biden is inheriting.
Will there be less transactional-ism? I believe Mr. Biden and the team that they put together, will respect institutions, will respect the overarching interests of strategic convergence.
The fact is that like for a country like India there are these democratic values that bring the United States and India together and therefore should really define this relationship and that too much transactional-ism can be a bad thing. Of course, in trade there will always be discussions about gaining advantage. I remember even in the Obama years there were there were issues or concerns on the trade front but we've dealt with them I believe in a well-considered manner and without letting these differences overcome the common ground that existed between our two countries - as countries with a very substantive and indispensable partnership as they called it.
Today we call this relationship a comprehensive, strategic and global partnership. I don't believe that definition will go away even with a Biden administration taking the seat in the White House. But there will be little adjustments, there will be a little more accommodation.
I'm sure he will pay attention to rebuilding as it were the State Department which has been quite decimated in these Trump years. So, in that respect for institutions, adding more experts to come in, having less ideology, less transactional-ism that certainly will help.
As you pointed out, President Trump played more to a domestic audience. Are the years of America being the superpower intervening in important issues across the world over? One of the things we've noticed even in the Covid crisis is that it's been a crisis without a global leader. Will that change under a President Biden?
Well yes, it is. It's just not going to be a post 9/11 world when America had decided to intervene. You had the disastrous Iraq involvement, Afghanistan has become a forever war- for 18 years unrest has continued there. Mr. Trump has announced that there will be a withdrawal of all-American troops from Afghanistan. I don't believe Mr. Biden will reverse that. In some sense foreign policy also has to be sensitive to the mood within the country, and how the people feel about it.
I think there will be more often inclination to involve allies, to involve like-minded countries. So, he will pay attention to the relationship with the allies. Of course, America has always been asking its allies in Europe or in Northeast Asia- Japan and South Korea - to contribute more to the support of the Alliance relationship. That's not a demand that only Mr. Trump made. It's a request or a interest or an ask that the Americans have been making for a long time, but Mr. Trump I think articulated it in a way that was more adversarial - your friends became turned off let's say by that relationship or by that attitude. So, Mr. Biden I think would seek to make some accommodation and he will look at mending those relationships, definitely.
America in the Trump years, the impression that gained ground was that America was in decline, that it was retrenching. It was no longer the globe’s hyperpower as it had been since 1945. Because even during the Cold War, it was the dominant power even if the Soviet Union and the U.S. were arraigned against each other. So, when Mr. Biden says he will make America great again, he is not echoing the Trump campaign or slogan. I think what he means to say is that America is in a sense meant to be that exceptional country.
If you are witnessing the end of American exceptionalism, as many people are saying, as a result of the Trump years, I think Mr. Biden with his foreign policy experience and his international exposure, will try and address that concern -- that American exceptionalism is on the wane. Because the very idea of America is built on the idea of American exceptionalism.
So I think he will try to do it in a way that he will mend relations on the multilateral front. For instance, because America, again when it comes to global government, when it comes to cooperation among nations, it in many ways lead the way. If you look at the Atlantic Charter that was articulated during the World War and the ideas of freedom, of human rights and of a rules-based order. All that comes from that period and has sustained the global order all these years. Now, if you have a China that is on the rise and that is seeking to put its own ideological cast in defining what a world order should be, there will be every need, if you have to build resistance against that, for some of these values to be reaffirmed, these values that have sustained the global order and have sustained multilateral institutions, that have promoted climate change and sustainable development.
All that I believe he will seek to address and to signal to the world that America does believe in multilateralism and particularly in climate change which is a crisis that all of us together on the planet have will have to address.
I think you will find the U.S. coming back into the fold as it were.
The China Factor
It's interesting you say that because every position that the U.S. has vacated over the last five or six years, China has, successfully or otherwise, attempted to fill, including on climate action. I understand that the America-China relationship will be adversarial irrespective of who takes the White House, but you think it might be a softer relationship, or at least China would perceive it to be that way, if it were to be a President Biden? And, if that is to be the case then what are the implications for India, given our very tenuous border situation right now?
As I said the adversarial content of the relationship with China will not dissipate in the U.S.-China relationship. But I don't think a Secretary of State under the Biden administration is going to say that we have an axe to grind with the Chinese Communist Party.
I mean they don’t talk about the People’s Republic of China or the government or sovereign government of China anymore. They just talk about the Chinese Communist Party. Short of saying they want regime change in China, they are saying everything. Now that doesn’t really make for sustainable diplomacy. That is a road to confrontation and conflict and trying to hurt other countries together behind the United States in order to take on China. Now that cannot be the route.
For instance, India physically has a land border with China. We have a problem and a unresolved boundary problem with China that has flared up in the last five six months. We have close confrontation along the line of actual control. We need to diffuse that situation without giving away our land or giving away our territory. So, it's quite a challenge that we face. The U.S. has said they will support us again in this struggle against China. What exactly that support translates into, we really cannot say because ultimately these battles are to be fought on our own. But maybe it will be in terms of intelligence support, maybe it will be in terms of military equipment and improving our capacity to take on the Chinese. Maybe it could all amount to the defence and security relationship and the agreements that we signed like BECA last week when Secretary Pompeo was there. That cements the relationship with the United States no doubt, and we should take strength from that.
Because now with the crisis that we're facing with China there is very little questioning I think within the public space in India on whether we should draw so close to the United States or whether it's in our interest to be close to the Americans. I think those questions have become much more moderated and much less heard today. People understand that in this very new world that we're faced with, with the rise of a very powerful assertive China, we have to make adjustments also in our relationships with other countries in order to build that external balancing that we need against China. So, that will continue from our side and I believe the Biden administration also will be responsive to our needs in that context.
I'm trying to sort of square a muscular President Trump with a softer President Biden but a non-interventionist President Trump with a more interventionist President Biden - and trying to understand if that gives us any advantage whatsoever in our current standoff with China? Is there a short answer in life to that at all?
I think the primary advantage lies in the strength of the India-U.S. relationship and the stability that you see there and the resilience. Every relationship, if it has to be a long-term relationship, if it has to be a relationship that matters and makes a difference, it has to have resilience. I think what the achievement in our foreign policy over the last decade and a half, together with the interest and the involvement of the United States, has been to demonstrate that we have built this resilience in the relationship. That sends signals to China too. The Chinese are constantly commenting on anything we do with the United States. They're insecure about it obviously and they are uncomfortable about it. I think that puts the Americans and us in a good place as Chinese discomfort grows.
Prime Minister Modi has worked with President Obama. He has had a very special rapport with President Trump. ‘Howdy Modi’ is probably the best way to describe the camaraderie in that relationship. How do you see Prime Minister Modi taking to President Biden? It won't be the same camaraderie that he shared with President Trump, will it?
Why not? I know I've seen the camaraderie that President Obama and Prime Minister Modi shared. Of course you mentioned ‘Howdy Modi’. I have seen Vice President Biden, I have interacted with him when I was Ambassador.
I accompanied him to India when he made a visit in the summer of 2013 and he is extremely convivial. He’s a people person. He loves interacting just as seasoned politicians are, and Mr. Modi is in the same category of persons who has a long experience in the field of politics. I believe that the two should relate well to each other.
It will take a little time obviously to build up the camaraderie like with any relationship but I'm sure that that is not going to be an obstacle. The person to person relationship will flourish. I'm sure about it.
Kamala Harris as Vice President is a very interesting angle right, to the India relationship? She's forthright, very clear in the way she views many situations. She's made comments earlier on Kashmir, human rights... How do you see that play into the mix?
When you assume positions of responsibility as the head of government or head of state, it's very different. You cannot just draft the situation that was obtained when X or Y was out of power. A public figure commenting on issues and certain topics of concern to them, once they assume as positions of responsibility within the executive of a country and within the government of a country, I think it's natural that they will take into account all the interests and the fundamental security and strategic concern concerns that define the outlook to India.
I'm sure that, it's not a simple case of “I said this, two years ago and I'm going to say the same thing today”. There is a lot of responsibility and you have to weigh your attitudes much more carefully. As I said, the strategic convergence with India is not going to go away.
The other thing I'd like to say is that between friends, it's not that we will always agree with everything that the other person says. I mean it happens to human relationships. You can’t agree with everything your friend says or does but at the same time the friendship is maintained. It flourishes because you understand the importance of this relationship and why you need to nurture it and why you need to sustain it. I think that will be the approach of the Biden administration.
If there is the occasional expression of some concern or the other, we should be able to address those concerns to them, be able to take them on. It shouldn't just be a cause for alienation in the relationship unless it goes beyond the point and it's difficult to control that. I don't believe you will see that kind of a situation. I think there will be a healthy dialogue between the two countries as mature grown-ups, and we should take strength from that.