What the US shutdown means for India

India needs to think the unthinkable, namely, the era of American dominance on the world stage is ending. Source: Official White House. Photo by Pete Souza

India needs to think the unthinkable, namely, the era of American dominance on the world stage is ending. Source: Official White House. Photo by Pete Souza

The harmony in the international system depends on the accord between the leading actors such as US, Russia and China and the rising powers, which includes India.

The shutdown of the United States Government is beginning to play out in the international arena. The cancellation of President Barack Obama’s Asian tour to attend the annual summit of the Asia and Pacific deepens the skepticism of the regional states regarding the efficacy of the US’ rebalancing strategy in Asia. Put simply, the “pivot” to Asia is becoming unsustainable in terms of both the financial burden it carries as well as the Obama administration’s own order of priorities.

Again, the dysfunctional nature of the US political system makes the Obama administration’s agenda to push for a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement much harder. Meanwhile, the cancellation of Obama’s tour has taken a toll on the efforts to steamroll a peace process in Syria. The Kremlin was looking forward to a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Obama on the sidelines of the Bali summit, with Syria in focus. The work by the experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is proceeding according to plan but a political underpinning is urgently needed in the nature of a peace process without which the civil war conditions in Syria may aggravate and new flashpoints may arise.

A Putin-Obama meet would have helped at this point. Moscow seeks an early Geneva 2 conference that brings together the Syrian protagonists and Washington needs to prevail upon US’ regional allies in the Middle East to roll back their covert military-financial-logistical support of the Syrian rebel groups. 

Doubts are bound to rise in the Iranian mind regarding Obama’s political muscle to carry the non-cooperative Congress along if he were to engage. An incremental approach is needed to untie the knots of the US-Iran standoff. While in Tehran there seems to be unity of purpose following the election of Hassan Rouhani as president to negotiate with the Obama administration in a spirit of “heroic flexibility”, the same cannot be said about the alchemy within the political establishment in Washington where the White House and the Congress are not on the same page on Iran.

Closer to home, the uncertainties over the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan are deepening. The gnawing doubts in the Afghan mind about the dependability of the US to fulfill commitments – militarily, financially and politically – have held back the conclusion of the status of forces agreement and that, in turn, may prompt the Obama administration to exercise the so-called “zero option”, which is to withdraw all troops and leave the Kabul government on its own. Without any troop presence, the US may not have the motivation to extend financial support for the Afghan economy, which critically depends on foreign aid for survival. 

India cannot remain unaffected by these unseemly trends. India needs to think the unthinkable, namely, the era of American dominance on the world stage is ending. What is unfolding is a global transformation process that is redrawing the power dynamics and the global balance of power. Suffice to say, the US may remain the biggest military power and, arguably, the country with the biggest reach and influence in world politics, but it is no more the only player in the world order and is not necessarily any longer even the lead player. Indeed, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly a fortnight back, Obama candidly admitted the limits to American influence.

The harmony in the international system depends on the accord between the leading actors such as US, Russia and China and the rising powers, which includes India. India needs to adjust to this emerging reality. Yet, there are disquieting signs. The Indian policymaker reminds one of deer crossing the highway and is transfixed by headlights of vehicles speeding past. The mantra remains, “The India-US bilateral relationship is embedded in a larger vision of a global strategic partnership.”

The foreign-policy elite cannot keep a closed mind, holding on to ingrained ideas and old assumptions rooted in “unipolar predicament.” The simple mathematical truth is, Asia is shifting gear to global leadership, thanks not only to its economic dynamism but also due to the deep social and intellectual ferment that is under way – and, it is to Asia that India belongs.

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