India seems to be one of the few countries where you can find a little bit of Bush nostalgia, says leading thinker Walter Russell Mead.

On a recent visit to Chennai, Walter Russell Mead, a leading thinker, student and teacher of U.S foreign policy, spoke to Nirupama Subramanian, Arvind Sivaramakrishnan and Raghuvir Srinivasan on a range of issues. Edited excerpts:

If President Obama is re-elected, what would his top foreign policy priorities be, or what should they be?

If President Obama is reelected, I don’t expect to see a lot of change in the big priorities. Of course, Secretary Clinton is going to be stepping down, and we don’t know who the new Secretary of State is. That would be an important signal about where the administration wants to go. I think the pivot to Asia will remain a key element of policy, the US will continue to try to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, especially its military footprint, while continuing to watch its interests. The policy of trying to work with moderate Islamist groups in the Middle East will continue. The effort to avoid a war with Iran while persuading the Iranians to stop their nuclear programme will also continue. Other than that we don’t expect a lot of changes if he’s reelected.

We haven’t heard either the President or Romney talk a lot about Afghanistan in the last few months. Why do you think?

The President has announced a policy on Afghanistan, and it’s interesting, he doesn’t seem to want to talk about that policy much. I wish he would say more. When you’ve got American troops fighting somewhere, you need to explain to people, including the families of the troops, what you hope they will do and how important it is. But I think the President feels he’s set the war on a strategic course, in line with what he said he would do, and the next point will be when it’s time to start withdrawing troops, is that still going to be possible, what will the schedule be, what kind of political negotiations will be taking place.

Obviously they’re pursuing consultations with a whole range of partners, some very intensive consultations are going on, not only with Pakistan but with a whole host of regional governments that have an interest, others, and possibly they feel that nothing is to be gained by talking about this; they just need to keep advancing the policy. Obviously it leaves an empty space, while you have a war that’s going on and you’re not talking about the war

There’s been a kind of patch-up between the U.S and Pakistan. Where is that relationship headed, and how might it work out if Romney were elected?

I don’t see a lot of change in terms of US-Pak relations in terms of Romney being elected, but Governor Romney hasn’t shared a lot of his foreign policy ideas. I think that the real factor shaping US-Pak relations right now is that nobody in the world shares Pakistan’s vision for Afghanistan after an American withdrawal. The Americans certainly don’t like some of the groups the Pakistanis are supporting, but the Russians don’t want to see Afghanistan become a kind of petridish for all kinds of religious radicalism, the Chinese think that’s a terrible idea, the Iranians don’t like it, and the Indians don’t like it. Not only that, a great many Afghans don’t like it. So Pakistan has set itself objectives in Afghanistan that are not very realistic. If I were advising the US on this, I would say, let’s not make us the issue, let reality be the issue, that Pakistan is trying to accomplish something it may not be able to accomplish, rather than giving Pakistan the opportunity to bash the United States every time reality falls short of Pakistan’s hopes. But precisely because so many interests are involved, and because Afghanistan itself is such a complicated place, its future is very difficult to predict.

When India and the US had the strategic dialogue a couple of months back, the criticism was that ‘the old magic’ was missing. What’s the focus now in the relationship?

India seems to be one of the few countries where you can find a little bit of Bush nostalgia. In most of the world, there’s a sense that when we shifted from Bush to Obama, relations improved. In India, there is this sense that the magic has gone. I actually think there is [no] partisan divide in the US on the US-India relationship. Both Democrats and Republicans agree on the fundamental importance of a deeper, stronger relationship with India. The weak spot [is that] to some degree the administration hasn’t talked about its foreign policy enough in the US.

…The average American will need to have some understanding of what the United States is trying to do, and it’s the job of the President in my view to tell people what we’re doing and why it’s important …But because we haven’t been having this national discussion over the shift to Asia, American-Indian relations are taking place without this kind of public discussion and scrutiny that would ultimately strengthen the policy and strengthen the relationship, so in the American election campaign, when people talk about India they talk about outsourcing, rather than about a whole range of interests that in fact tie the countries together.

…Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the US-India honeymoon has ended, but we’re not drifting apart; the relationship is getting closer and deeper. The interests that are binding us together are becoming more important to both countries. So yes we’re going to argue about outsourcing or retail, there are a whole lot of things India doesn’t like about American policy and there are a whole lot of things the U.S. doesn’t like about Indian policy, and we will continue to have these discussions.

There is a constant tug within the Indian system not to be seen as aligning with the US against China…

The U.S. is not looking for India to be our ally in containing China. That’s a common view of what is going on, but I think the real policy is subtly different; the U.S. is seeking not to win a contest of containment with China but to avoid the necessity of making the containment of China the core of our Asia policy for the next 30 years, and the way to do that, in our view, is for Asia to demonstrate that it is too big, too diverse, too dynamic for any single power to realistically aspire to the kind of domination say that Germany tried in Europe, or Japan in the 1930s.

The U.S. isn’t trying to get India to join some sort of Nato alliance in South Asia against China, but it wants to see India emerge as a vibrant, dynamic, growing economy, as a power with regional interests and global interests and a vocation and a voice, and that in itself makes a U.S.-China clash much less likely. We’re not trying to get India to do something about China, we’re trying to get India to succeed and prosper and grow, because that advances a lot of our core strategic interests in a way that’s better than an alliance would do. We do want to see India, for its own reasons, grow and involve itself more in Asian affairs…in a way that promotes an interconnected and prosperous and peaceful Asia-Pacific region.

You’ve said a great deal about Afghanistan. Syria gives us a lead-in to the U.S. geostrategic role. Is aiding Syrian rebels not about aiding Syrian democracy but about containing Iran?

That’s probably more the focus of the Saudis and some of the other regional powers that have taken the lead in arming. People in the U.S. who argue that the U.S. should be doing more for the Syrian rebels also argue that the Saudis and others will increase the sectarian nature of the conflict by favouring the more sectarian forces rather than the democratic ones. The reason that has not been accepted as policy is more the difficulty of identifying clear groups and forming working partnerships. If the U.S. could achieve what it hopes in Syria, it would be that a liberal democratic government that was open to all religious groups would follow Assad. The U.S. has been unhappy with the nature of the Syrian government for the last 30 years, and may well be unhappy with the nature of the Syrian government for the next 30 years.

It is also true that for Iran to see its regional position more or less shredded in the last few months is one of the factors that certain people in the U.S. hoped would lead the Iranian government to reconsider its nuclear programme. That is, the sanctions are far more effective, I think, than most Iranians and indeed most people in the world thought they would be. The process of developing a nuclear capacity has taken longer than the Iranians expected it would, and the price in terms of their position in the region is tremendous. A year ago Iran could convincingly portray itself as the fist of anti-American resistance, pro-Islamic resistance to Israel. Now you have Hamas denouncing Iran, breaking with Iran, which has a tremendously delegitimising effect on Iran’s position in the Middle East. You have not only the Saudis and the Gulf states increasingly opposing Iran, but you have Turkey taking a very strong role here. People have to be, in Tehran, looking at this situation as a nightmare scenario, and one hopes that they would then think that if the policies they’ve been trying aren’t working, maybe they’d try some that would work.

From a US standpoint, Iran has a legitimate and serious role to play in the region. Before 1979 Iran was one of the closest US regional allies, and a lot of the geopolitical issues that made that alliance sensible still exist today, and there’s a lot of public sentiment in Iran, not so much among the top clergy, for a different kind of relationship with the US. The Obama administration clearly doesn’t want a war with Iran, and it clearly doesn’t want an Iranian nuclear weapon, so as events unfold in the region it keeps hoping that something will induce the Iranians to make a change of policy. President Obama began his administration by reaching out to the Iranians; he was deeply criticised in the US for not siding with the Green Movement in Iran at the time of Ahmadinejad’s reelection, but he intended to send a signal to the Iranian regime that the US really is willing to work with them if they change policy. That is still his position.

How worried is the Obama administration about the talk that has been coming out of Israel [against Iran], and what is it doing to ensure that that doesn’t spin out of control into something rash by Israel?

Many of the top US national security officials are visiting Israel, to maintain a line of communication and reassure the Israelis. The problem is that the US and Israel are operating on different timetables vis-à-vis the Iranian programme. There’ll be a time when the Israeli military no longer feels it has the ability to stop their progress, and there’ll be a time when the US feels it has lost that ability. But those are not the same moment, because the U.S. has the greater ability to act should it decide it needed to. It’s key to President Obama’s approach to give diplomacy the absolute maximum amount of time…sanctions are very definitely a part of that, and increasing sanctions in order to have the maximum of time for the Iranian government to reflect for different negotiating approached to be tried.

…The sanctions don’t hurt the ayatollahs in terms of their personal consumption, but this regime needs public support. From the standpoint of the ordinary Iranian citizen you see an unnecessary economic disaster coming as a result of sanctions and a foreign policy disaster in terms of Syria and the region uniting against you. People in Iran are blaming the regime for these more than foreign forces. Iran is not the absolute tyranny that some regimes are; there is a flow of information and communication, there is connection with the Iranian diaspora, and public opinion is not happy with what’s happened. I think the regime is encountering obstacles that are an inducement to rethink.

Has background thinking in US foreign policy moved away from Henry Kissinger’s balance of power theory?

The work I’ve done on the history of U.S. foreign policy has led me to see both more and less continuity. In the U.S. there are quite different ways of thinking about conceiving the nation and of its international interests and responsibilities, and these are rooted in different subcultures and regions and ideas, and the way the U.S. constitutional system works, none of these voices can ever be permanently excluded from the foreign policymaking process. We’ve set it up so that minorities have all kinds of blocking power; you can’t serve as an ambassador without being confirmed by Senate, but any single member of the Senate can put a nomination on hold without giving any further reason, and the other Senators out of courtesy won’t vote on that nomination…an ambassador has one hundred bosses, and not just one.

At any given moment American foreign policy is responsive to several different ideological and cultural forces, and there never is a moment when one of these is in full control. That creates tremendous variations in policy from administration to administration as different as different forces gain or lose power in the internal contest, but at the same time that neglects the long-term continuities that you can see.

A realpolitik approach—balance of power, Westphalian state—has never [dominated], even when Kissinger was Secretary of State, he still had to accept the human rights declarations as part of the Helsinki accords, which he later claimed as one of his greatest triumphs, but was not something at the time he put a lot of weight on.

President Obama I think is working within three of our four national trends. [One is] sort of an Anglo-American realpolitik, balance of power, state interests, and also commercial interests…a commercially based world order is much more powerful in American foreign policy, even among realists, than a classic Metternichian balance of power; and commercial interests might outweigh security interests. That’s one of the reasons Kissinger has always felt like an intellectual foreigner in America.

Another one which is important to Obama is the idea of America as the agent of a global democratic transformation…the belief that the cause of war is bad government, and therefore for America to be safe at home we have to get rid of tyrannical, dictatorial, antibusiness government abroad, and Obama individually responds to this a great deal. I think that because of his own life history as an African-American, for him patriotism is understood as a belief in the democratic transformation of America itself. He’s admiring what America can become rather than what it has been. And that is linked to some notion of America as a transformative force in the wider world as well as at home.

But when he ran for President, he ran from yet another yet another platform, which is that America, in order to preserve its democracy at home, needs to avoid excessive wars and entanglements. So opposed the Iraq war, but then he invades [sic] Libya, so to build democracy.

This oscillation among schools is characteristic among American presidents. Think of Jimmy Carter, simultaneously trying to reduce America’s global footprint but push human rights….we’ve been doing this for 225 years. We will probably continue to oscillate between these schools for some time to come; they’re deeply implanted in our national identity.

Where would the lily pads strategy fit into this? The United States has been building very large, effectively permanent bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Clark Field and Subic Bay are still US bases under a Status of Forces Agreement.

Under all the agreements with Iraq, the Iraqi government has to agree to the use of any bases, and I don’t think people in the U.S. see much chance of that happening. If it came to a war with Iran, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis have been pushing us for a very long time to move faster. People sometimes misunderstand that all the pressure on the US is coming from Israel; as much is coming from the Gulf and it’s more consistent in some ways. So there’s no shortage of bases, if we’re thinking about Iran.

The US is actually moving away…to a point where bases of any kind are becoming less important. Drones that are being operated form Arkansas don’t need the same kind of facilities. Some of the early bombing in Iraq was carried out by planes which started in the US and returned to the US…an aircraft carrier is a source of strength, but it is also a very obvious target.

In a recent interview to an Indian news agency, President Obama came up with advice for further liberalisation of India’s economy, especially retail, which set off a hostile reaction in the country. What was the President hoping to achieve from the interview?

Well, the first thing to say is that he’s running for re-election in the United States and not in India. So his remarks were intended for the domestic audience. There is no sign of a lack of desire to continue the beneficial economic relations between the two countries under the Obama administration. The administration to my knowledge is pushing no laws in Congress that would restrict trade with India. There are no movements afoot that I have seen to take India to the WTO or anything like that. There is nothing than the normal commercial static in a relationship. My advice to people in India would be to wait until they (U.S.) actually do something as opposed to judging a policy by what a politician facing what is a very tough re-election is saying.

The other thing I suppose is that President Obama enjoys a lot of support from the Indian-American community in the U.S. India needs effective spokespersons in the U.S. I think there are a plenty of people who have a foot in each camp, so to speak, who are able to explain in a very clear way to American politicians the importance of this relationship. So my guess is that Indian-Americans are going to be seen by both sides as a desirable political constituency in this election cycle. So I don’t seen any sign in American politics of an anti-India turn.

Is too much emphasis being placed by the U.S. on this issue of FDI in retail which is but a small part of a larger relationship?

All I can say is that retail is something the U.S. is actually quite good at. And we are not asking for any special treatment. Our retail chains are very good in managing supply chains and delivery and coping with local markets. Naturally, when you make up a wish list for another country you include things that you think will be of clear benefit to you. I think there is also a sort of intellectual point here. In terms of unleashing the potential of the Indian economy itself, an inefficient retail sector functions as a tax on every kind of economic activity in India. It is true that a lot of studies show that when Walmart moves into a particular area, the price of necessities for the poor falls. I will drive out of my way in the U.S. to reach a Walmart because I will pay so much less for basic items of clothing, groceries etc. So it raises the standard of living of poor people by reducing the prices that they have to pay for retail.

Granted, but by bringing it up so directly, will it not be counter-productive because any policy change will be seen as conceding to the U.S.?

Well, I think again the Indian process has gone in a way that a decision is taken to do something and then a decision is taken to reverse it. So the U.S. reaction is not surprising; after having thought it had an agreement and a commitment and then it turns out that when you say “yes” you really don’t mean an “yes”. If everything that the Indian government says its going to do and then the moment there is a political opposition they drop it, from the U.S. point of view the question is: why are we talking to you anyway? We should be doing this more at the Consulate in Kolkata than in Delhi!

This ballooned into a much bigger issue because a decision that was originally reached was not followed up on. But in general the U.S. and India manage these kind of issues all right. I know that there was an issue over the liability clause in the nuclear deal. Today I read in the papers that the Russians are saying the exact same things that the American did. The Russians thought they had an understanding and it turns out they don’t have an understanding and naturally are upset. So, I don’t know that because India changes its mind on something and the other people make an issue of that in negotiations, the other people are responsible for the political problem. That’s certainly one point of view. I think maybe all of us, including the Indians need to learn how to deal with this as for the foreseeable future, India is going to have coalition governments. This is a problem for not just New Delhi but for anyone wanting to negotiate with New Delhi too. As Henry Kissinger used to say about the European Union once, “who do I call up when I want to talk to Europe?”