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Working with President Obama

Cherian Samuel is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 04, 2009

    The importance of personality in a Presidency is underscored by the vast number of scholarly articles on the subject in general, and by the array of biographies and memoirs that have come in the wake of every Presidency. In the seventies, the political scientist James Barber even classified people who ascended to the presidency into four types: "active-positive" (high self-esteem, flexible, goal-oriented), "active-negative" (compulsive, power-seeking), "passive-positive" (genial and agreeable but easily wounded) and "passive-negative" (dutiful, withdrawing from political fights). His contention was that experiences in “the personal past foreshadowed the presidential future.” This is to an extent being borne out in the contours of the Obama Presidency.

    In the case of India-US ties too, personality mismatch has often contributed to prickly relations. Prime Minister Nehru made a three week visit to the United States in 1949 but though his public appearances were well-attended, the meetings between him and American officials went very badly. Secretary of State Dean Acheson described him as “one of the most difficult persons I’ve had to deal with” while the Prime Minister is said to have found both President Truman and Acheson condescending in their attitudes. Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, described Nehru as a “a personality of unusual contradictions.” The darkest decade of India-US relations, the seventies, was presided over by Richard Nixon, who, according to recently released documentation had a visceral dislike towards Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, referring to her as a witch and to Indians as a “slippery treacherous people." The difficulty of working with a country that was neither friend nor foe, in American eyes, led to the faux pas in the course of President Jimmy Carter’s visit to India in 1978, when he was caught on open mike telling his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that “after we return, we must write a letter, very cold and blunt” to Prime Minister Morarji Desai. This was in the context of Desai refusing to open Indian nuclear facilities to international inspection.

    Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, and as both Indian and American democracies have matured and inter-linkages become more complex and multi-layered and multi-faceted, the importance of personalities in the relationship has diminished. Nonetheless, the motivations and vision that make up the psyche of President Obama need more than passing analysis, not only because of his unique history of which he is only too well aware, but also because he has shown through his words and actions since attaining office that he is determined to be the very anti-thesis of President Bush. This has been most evident in his foreign policy initiatives and in the way that he has gone about re-calibrating the relations between the United States and the major powers. While this might be difficult to stomach for a country that has got used to the heady highs of the Bush era, a change in style also affords the opportunity to make the relationship one of substance. In this regard, the visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to meet with Obama afforded both leaders an opportunity to gain a better understanding of each other. Even though no ‘Putin moments’ were forthcoming,1 there was every indication that the two leaders had been able to forge a working relationship based on mutual trust and respect. In this regard, the relationship could now be said to have transitioned from a declaratory phase to a consolidation phase almost four years to the day after then Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran declared in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations that “the strategic partnership had moved beyond its declaratory phase.” Though the Strategic Partnership of 2005 signalled a new era in bilateral ties, the civil nuclear deal had overshadowed other aspects of the Partnership in areas such as agriculture and science and technology. This had resulted in many laudable initiatives such as the establishment of a $100 million project for agricultural co-operation, and $30 million project for co-operation in science and technology not going beyond the declaratory phase. Many of those initiatives are now being re-invigorated by common consent of the two governments. However, even in this consolidation phase, there is much more that can be done by way of collaboration than is available in the laundry list of areas of co-operation that was put out at the end of the summit, namely global security and counter-terrorism, education and development, co-operation in health, economic trade and agriculture, and green partnerships. A similar laundry list will no doubt make an appearance at the end of Obama’s visit to India next year, but the problem with laundry lists is that they give an appearance of progress even in its absence.

    A significant attribute of Obama’s personality is that he is pragmatic, visible in both positive and negative actions such as continuing to keep Guantanamo Bay open even after making a campaign promise to close it down within the year, to a variety of other actions in the foreign policy domain ranging from Iran to Afghanistan. A second attribute is that he thinks long term (something in common with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), evident in his efforts to successfully use the perception of an America in decline to forge a working relationship with China and to get Beijing to shoulder its share of the burden in keeping with its self-proclaimed status of a world power and a responsible stakeholder. Thirdly, Obama is a President who actually understands the transformative capacity of technology, starting with his use of the Internet to capture the Presidential sweepstakes, to using it to combat climate change and making government more transparent. Fourth, he is truly a multi-cultural President, having been exposed to a variety of cultures and experiences during his formative years. Finally, Obama is of an academic bent of mind, again something that he shares with Manmohan Singh, and which has apparently led to his relying on the Prime Minister’s advice in his efforts to combat the financial crisis.

    Keeping all this in mind, an initiative worthy of the name of the two leaders would be in the realm of the innovation economy where there is ample scope for co-operation. While basic agreements that would spur co-operation such as in the Doha Round of Multilateral trade negotiations or even in bilateral Free Trade Agreement will take a long time coming, a certain degree of innovative thinking by the two leaderships could find ways around these obstacles. As a report brought out jointly by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in June 2009 noted, India and the United States could work on crafting a bilateral free trade mechanism focused on the advanced technology sectors. Another recommendation was with regard to a proposal, advanced by Obama during his presidential campaign, to create a “fast track” mechanism allowing foreign students with advanced technical degrees from US universities to receive an employment-based visa. Strands of such subliminal thinking are visible in the message that Obama conveyed to the Indian people on the occasion of India’s Republic Day when he called on Indians and Americans to work together to "offer benefit to all the world's citizens as our scientists solve environmental challenges together, our doctors discover new medicines, our engineers advance our societies, [and] our entrepreneurs generate prosperity…" In a similar vein, Manmohan Singh, while speaking before an audience of Indian Americans on the last day of his US visit, spoke of how “modern technology and flexible policies” have opened possibilities to work seamlessly around the world. Long term thinking is necessary to ensure that the gains of the Singh-Obama Knowledge Initiative are successfully channelled into a Singh-Obama Innovation Economy Co-operation Initiative.

    Coming back to Barber’s analysis of the Presidential character, while Obama’s actions so far cast him in the mould of Thomas Jefferson (whose “clear and open vision of what the country could be with a profound political sense, expressed in his famous phrase, ‘Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle’” put him squarely in the active-positive category), it will take perseverance and vision to ensure that he does not slip into the mould of the passive-positive, exemplified by James Madison (he who “suffered from irresolution and tried to compromise his way out” all too often).2 Thus, what will make a difference is thinking for the long-term and having a vision.

    • 1. In reference to President Bush’s statement after his first meeting with President Putin. Bush said: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul."
    • 2. James David Barber, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House (Prentice-Hall, 1985), p.11.

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