WASHINGTON: The Washington that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting today is, in ways obvious and not so obvious, significantly different from the Washington he visited in June 2016.
Not only has the party, worldview, life experience, and temperament of the occupant of the Oval Office changed. So too has the potential power of the presidency—the restraints imposed by a divided government under most of the Barack Obama presidency, lifted with the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands.
But those are the most apparent changes Washington has undergone. Below the surface—and profoundly important to the future of US-India relations—is a palpable shift in American confidence in the benefits of multilateralism, of the effectiveness of soft power, of adherence to international norms and commitments that yield more tangible gains to America’s partners than to America herself.
Of course, a central topic in the coming talks in Washington is likely to be another issue invoking disparate assessments of benefit that has shifted significantly under the Donald Trump administration: the future of the H1B visa program. A President who campaigned on repeated promises to prevent foreign workers, at every level, from taking Americans’ jobs, will face a Prime Minister who knows that high-skilled foreigners can expand the American economic pie, to the advantage of American workers and consumers, and foreign workers and consumers alike.
The differences between positions staked out by then-candidate and now-President Trump and those of the Modi government on other issues—including the realities of climate change and prospective means to alleviate it, and the regional and global security threat posed by Iran and the urgency of countering it—will no doubt feature in this week’s Washington talks. But the emphasis will likely be on common concerns, shared perspectives of threat, prospects for increased cooperation.
Policy disagreements will be confronted, if not resolved in one 48-hour visit. The impact of this week’s talks will lie elsewhere. For personality polarities aside, there is every reason to expect positive chemistry between the rigorously disciplined Prime Minister and the irrepressible President on their first meeting—and out of that chemistry can come mutual benefits to India and the United States.
These mutual benefits, that level of trust and interdependence, are what advocates of the US-India strategic partnership, my organisation prominently among them, have been working for and hoping for—for decades. The Modi-Trump summit, following in the footsteps of President Obama’s two visits to India (including as the featured guest on Republic Day) and the Prime Minister’s two previous visits to Washington (including his triumphal address in Congress last June), promises further progress on several fronts: military sales, including continued Indian production of US hardware and eased restrictions on technology sharing; counterterrorism cooperation; and new understandings on India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and a frank assessment of Pakistan’s destabilising role and links to terror.
Contributing to the success of this visit, as in previous visits, will be the increasingly well-organised, civically and politically active, and influential Indian American community. The American Jewish Committee has been privileged to partner with our Indian American countrymen for more than two decades to advance the growing US-India alliance. We worked side by side to win passage of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008—a milestone on the path to strategic partnership. And we have worked side by side to promote expanded trade and investment, educational exchange, and political understanding between Washington and New Delhi.
So, too, hand in hand with Indian American leadership, AJC has promoted the mutual benefits of expanding cooperation between India and another pluralistic state in a turbulent region: Israel. How fitting it is that just one week after Prime Minister Modi concludes his latest consultations in Washington he will land in Tel Aviv—the first visit by an Indian head of government to Israel. There, too, the emphasis will be on common interests, common threats, shared opportunities, and the virtually unlimited potential of economic, strategic, educational, technological, agricultural and cultural synergies between sister democracies.
Over the course of 10 days, the leader of the world’s largest democracy will forge important ties with the leader of the world’s oldest and strongest democracy, and then demonstrate by his very presence the substantial and hitherto often hidden bond between India and Israel.
Next week’s historic stop will be the Prime Minister’s second time in Israel, after a visit as Gujarat Chief Minister in 2006. As in his Washington visit, some of the names and the issues will have changed. And as with the United States, the fundamentals of India’s bilateral relationship with Israel just keep growing stronger.
Jason Isaacson is the Associate Executive Director for Policy of the American Jewish Committee, a New York-based NGO with 22 US and 10 international offices, including representation in New Delhi.