It’s a tough time to be the top diplomat representing the world’s sole superpower. Israelis and Palestinians are at war. Iraq and Syria are convulsed by civil strife. Libya’s security situation is rapidly deteriorating. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine threaten to explode. Afghanistan is enmeshed in an election crisis. A nuclear agreement with Iran remains elusive.
And at this crucial juncture, Secretary of State John Kerry has jetted off to New Delhi for the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue on Thursday.
Given all that’s going on elsewhere, some argue that this is the wrong time for Mr. Kerry to make this particular visit.
Wrong. Here are three reasons why Mr. Kerry is doing the right thing at the right time:
First, the U.S. has an opportunity to demonstrate that Washington values its relations with the world’s largest democracy (which is on track to overtake China as the world’s most populous country). Many in New Delhi believe that Washington has allowed U.S.-India relations to drift. The Obama administration’s focus on Afghanistan, they argue, has led to increased engagement with Pakistan, with neighboring India left in the lurch. What better way for the U.S. to show its commitment to India then by sending its chief envoy to New Delhi while crises the world over compete for U.S. attention?
Second, the shifting strategic sands of South Asia create an opening for deeper U.S. engagement with India. The U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan means that Washington could soon give more attention to the broader region. This wider strategic lens is likely to be accompanied by strategic objectives—such as more regional integration and cross-border trade—that will require buy-in from India, the region’s largest economy. Greater bilateral cooperation could help attract such support, though building this bridge will take time. Don’t forget that India’s recently elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, was denied a U.S. visa for nearly 10 years. Mr. Kerry’s visit can help get things off on the right foot.
Third, Mr. Kerry needs to repair his own image in India. In recent days he’s been battered in the Indian press; one journalist described him as a “traveling salesman” who hectors more than he listens. Indian analysts have expressed unhappiness with his past positions, including his insistence that India sign the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty. The warm relationships Mr. Kerry has cultivated with Pakistani officials also make many Indians wary; few senior officials in Washington are on better terms with more of Pakistan’s top civilian and military officials than is Kerry. His multi-day stay in New Delhi can help reduce some of this negative sentiment. For India’s relations to improve with Washington, they must also improve with Mr. Kerry himself.
To be sure, Mr. Kerry’s visit will be heavy on symbolism and light on substance, and it won’t resolve the numerous sore points afflicting bilateral ties. But it can still be a significant diplomatic success—significant enough for the U.S. secretary of state to take a break from the world’s crises for a few days.