Monday, March 21, 2011

Fickle American Relationships

Bruce Reidel just posted an update on why India abstained from the UNSC resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya. According to Reidel, Indians are "puzzled" by America's inconsistency. He quotes one Indian observer, "the U.S. is both promiscuous and flighty" with its relationships.

Certainly our intervention in Libya is arbitrary. Plenty of other dictators have taken a far larger toll on their populations while incurring little more than an expression of American dismay. Moreover, while Qaddafi was never anything close to our ally, we certainly had a working relationship with him only two months ago.

Yet the fact India feels troubled by our about-face in Libya reflects a significant communication failure. This is especially troubling considering both the Bush and Obama administration has worked hard to forge stronger ties with New Dehli. Nuclear deals, state dinners, and support for permanent status at the UNSC apparently have not adequately proven our commitment to our friendship with India.

We must make it clear to the world that we have two kinds of allies abroad: transactional and substantial. We work with transactional allies because it serves our immediate interests. Mubarak got his fiefdom, and we got counter-terrorism and peace with Israel. While abandoning these relationships can be painful, we will do so once our interests are no longer served.

India is not a transactional ally. Our friendship is far more substantial. Of course, we gain significant benefits from our relationship with India. But that relationship runs deeper than simple trade-offs because we share values of democracy, freedom and pluralism. Just as with our European allies, we will not abandon India for near-term gain. Rather, we have every intention to deepen and broaden our ties.

Moreover, as those ties strengthen, pro-Indian constituencies will coalesce in the U.S. just as pro-American constituencies will coalesce in India. Unlike diaspora groups of authoritarian regimes who lobby for their home goverment's overthrow (e.g. Egyptians and Iranians), diasporas from democratic regimes push for stronger economic, political, and cultural ties. It is these groups that will ensure a strong U.S.-Indian friendship in the future.

If we make the distinction between transactional and substantive allies clear abroad, it will naturally apply pressure to leaders to make essential political reforms. Foreign leaders will come to understand that the only way to secure their permenant friendship with the United States is to uphold the universal rights of their populations. If they can only offer us temporary stability, as Mubarak did, then they will always have to fear their transactional relationship may fall victim one day to American fickleness.

If our close friend India has not heard that message, then it is unlikely any other leader, democratic or authoritarian, has heard it either. And that is a problem.

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