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US-India Relations: What Do We Want? What Should We Want?

US-India Relations: What Do We Want?  What Should We Want?

Washington : President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug while making statements in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, June 26, 2017. (AP/PTI)

In their June 26 meeting President Trump and Prime Minister Modi voiced their mutual admiration as the nations grapple with a complex relationship. Ultimately, India’s tradition of electoral democracy makes it a friend. Though we also share strategic interests, we should take care to base our relations on the deeper values.

Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Modi’s styles may make them compatible. Both were elected by majoritarian populist movements. Both boast large Twitter followings. Both, in Trump’s original travel ban and Modi’s elimination of large bank notes, have sprung hasty policy moves on their countries that led to turmoil. Mr. Trump apparently also now sympathizes with India in its rivalry with China, over his disappointment at the latter’s inaction toward North Korea. A U.S. sale of surveillance drones to India reinforces this common interest, in a strategic counter to China’s “One Belt” projection of economic power across Central Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Interests could diverge, partly in Trump’s immigration-unfriendly plans, and his populist-driven pullout from the Paris Accords. Modi criticized the latter. On immigration, the two countries have unique issue, in the question of the specialized H-1B visas for persons of unique skills—IT driven in this case—to work in the US. India has also been an advocate of free trade, reflecting the interests of a developing economy. These issues were muted at the summit, and many strong rationales for reconciliation are available.

The U.S. should take care that the rationales we invoke, to bolster friendship or to manage differences, rest on the values of freedom and rights. Economic interests can evolve to put us at odds, and strategic calculations have not always brought us together.

But it was Indian-born Amartya Sen (politically opposed to Modi but not renounced in this) who defined both freedom and development as “the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kinds of lives they value – and have reason to value.”

Which sounds a lot like Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.