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The Indian Ocean is great for this blog. Why? Maybe cause there’s a bunch of great power politics going on there! China, India, Iran, Middle Eastern oil cartels, the United States all have vital and strategic interests throughout the lengthy tide of the Indian Ocean and its importance in world politics is only becoming greater. Not only does the Indian Ocean encompass all of these world actors it is also hosts most of the Islamic world, is a major transport hub for oil, gas, and many other global goods, and will be the seen for great power cooperation and conflict for years to come.

Robert D. Kaplan, a US national security expert, is in the process of writing a book about the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean (IO) and recently contributed a essay on the topic for Foreign Affairs magazine. Kaplan calls the IO, the ‘center stage’ for the challenges of the 21st century as the rise of India and China have started to reveal in the colossal waterway a ‘multilayered and multipolar’ world. The Indian Navy has grown much in the past 10-15 years and has sought to spread its influence and power through this mechanism across the IO, including battling pirates in the Gulf of Aden. China’s lifeblood of oil and trade transport are held hostage, or more nicely put, held in a cradle, in the IOs pathways. Kaplan notes that more than 85% of Beijing’s oil crosses the Indian Ocean, more specifically the Straight of Malacca, which is controlled by the US Navy. This of course causes China’s leaders a great deal of heartburn as they could literally be ‘cut off’ from oil supplies by the US at any time.

Speaking of the US, what should its role be in the geopolitically shifting IO? While, the US, which has been the preponderant naval power in the Ocean every since WWII, holds many keys. As China, India’s, and Japan’s naval power has grown in recent decades, and cut into US relative naval dominance, there has been created an opportunity for cooperation and competition in the IO. Kaplan believes this process of change can be handled smoothly if the US follows an ‘Elegant Decline’. By this he means, balancing the power of China by leveraging the sea power of India and Japan against it, but at the same time assuaging China’s fears by continuing the American policy of having no territorial ambitions in the region. This would help the US Navy burden-share in the region and pass off some of its responsibilities to the like-minded, democratic allies of Japan and India, while still maintaining a very strong presence.

Why would China play along with this, one might ask? While, first off, they have to in a way as the US Navy is so dominant that dislodging it would be near impossible. Even if this were possible, could China protect the sea lanes on their own? Doubtful. China and the world economic system have benefited from safe sea lanes guaranteed by the American navy and this will likely remain for years to come. That being said, Beijing is continually looking for ways around the US naval zone in the IO, on land across Central Asia, where they are building gas and oil pipelines and major highways, and by the sea, as the Chinese government is working towards creating an Eastern Panama Canal in Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, which would circumvent the US-controlled Straight of Malacca. Another major factor that could work in Kaplan’s American ‘Elegant Decline’ strategy is the fact that India, China, Japan, and the many other actors in the IO can all work with the US more effectively than with each other. In this vein, it is hoped that the US presence could curtail a burgeoning China-India-Japanese rivalry in the Indian Ocean.

Soft power has once again become a favorite news topic during the G-20 Conference and ongoing NATO Summit, and to some the US is actually losing this battle to the Euros, but there is one actor in this world where the word ‘soft’ are just plain not appropriate, North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-il.  North Korea is set to launch a Taepodong-2 missile, which most experts believe will be a show of their intercontinental missile capabilities and nuclear weapon prowess, this coming Saturday and as of right now it appears the US, Japan, South Korea, China, and the whole international community can and will do nothing.  President Obama and others have called the possible launch a ‘provocation‘ and warned NK of ‘stern’ action, but these words are unlikely to change Pyongyang’s decision.

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This advertised Taepodong-2 missile launch and its likely occurrence is just another of a long line of aggressive, yet useful tactics by Kim’s government.  They do some something dangerously provocative, test a nuclear weapon, kidnap foreign nationals, partake in naval skirmishes, sell nuclear know-how to rouge regimes like Syria, and somehow it only leads to further aid and attention from the international community.  This is obviously a poor precedent to set for other would-be pariah states.  That being said, figuring out a way to handle and react to such a situation as the missile test this weekend is easier said than done.  My GPP colleague, Hubbel Relat, I know believes we should end all forms of appeasement to the Kim regime and play the hardest of ball, but I’m not sure this would A. work and B. Not lead to something worse.  China and South Korea know that if the North had a major governmental or societal collapse they would face a huge humanitarian and strategic challenge that could disrupt their lives for years and they just don’t seem willing to put themselves in that position.  The US of course has to work with the South Koreans and Chinese to get anything done in North Korea so it has to take their considerations seriously.  

What makes the situation even worse is the fact that Pyongyang is holding two US journalists hostage and threatening to put them on trial, with a lengthy prison sentence in the horizon.  How is this type of behavior by a modern nation-state aloud today?  Where are the Europeans and others, who cried and cried aloud about Israeli war crimes in Gaza a few months ago, on this issue?  

North Korea’s provocative and aggressive actions need to be halted for good as soon as possible.  We need to figure out a way for them to calculate that when they perform these types of actions it will lead to negative consequences, not just negative words, or aid, or greater leverage, etc.

President Obama arrives in London for the G20 Summit and Michele Obama is having a horrible hair day.

President Obama and the rest of the G20 leaders sure have quite the task ahead of them during their summit in London this week: To Save the World!  While I guess it isn’t that dramatic, but there are some pretty big expectations for this meeting, ones that go beyond what Barack Obama will be wearing.  Here’s a short list of issues on the agenda:

A coordinated global response to the worldwide economic crisis, building consensus on an international financial regulatory framework, adoption of international accounting standards, coordinating Central Banks policies, curtailing any talk or movements toward protectionist measures, saving capitalism, and avoiding these guys….

These protesters are scarier than bankruptcy!

The last major economic summit in DC to work out these problems did not breed much concrete success nor calm global markets, so we must temper our expectations.  In fact, though there were calls for diligent openness in terms of global trade during the Fall conference, the World Bank recently reported that 17 of the 20 countries had imposed a total of 47 trade-restrictive measures, a bad sign to say the least.  However, Daniel Drezner of Newsweek argues that the G20′s last summit should receive a ‘mulligan’ and offers hope that with a newly instated and popular US President, 6 months more of the global crisis to sober up the skeptics, and more time for those involved to come up with possible financial solutions something could be done.

I am far from an economic expert and am loath to recommend specific proposals to solve this economic downturn, but I have some thoughts.  President Obama needs to lead the charge of anti-protectionism at this conference and show the world that we can’t tariff our way out of this mess.  I am already concerned about this occurring as Obama and the EU are already bickering over the breadth of a European stimulus package.  (Americans telling the Euros to spend more!).  I believe these heads of state of the world’s largest economies also need to come to this conference with a sense of urgency, but not a sense of emergency.  I do not think we need to tear apart a global economic system (World Bank, World Trade Organization, IMF) that has led to the prosperity we have taken for granted, in order to solve this crisis, nor do I believe we can ‘regulate’ our way to solvency and growth.  These institutions need to be reformed and re-legitimized in the eyes of the world so they can continue to help bring the benefits of free trade to all states.

Conflict occurs at all times in world politics, but at times of economic distress it becomes even more likely and acute.  The world must not repeat mistakes made during the Great Depression, where states looked only inward to solve their problems.  We need calm, yet energetic world leadership to help get us all through this current economic crisis.  Let us hope we find some this week in London.

Most of you have already heard about Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, call for the eventual creation of a new international currency reserve to replace the formerly, almighty dollar. (But did you know the US DoD released their assessment of Chinese Military Power today, no?!)  This of course comes in the context of the Chinese government’s holdings of billions of dollars and the ongoing destabilizing aspect of the global economic crisis.  The Chinese People’s Bank suggested that the IMF could help create such an ‘international currency’.

The Chinese do indeed have reason to feel unsure about the US dollar, with inflation threatening to erode their savings, and it is apparent that they are not overly impressed or assuaged by US Treasury and Obama’s economic policies so far, but there is unlikely to be a realistic changing of the world’s financial currency system anytime soon.  Phil Levy, an economist at AEI, jokingly calls China’s new claim a search for a ‘extra-terrestrial currency’ that does not exist and rightly points out that the viable alternatives for the Chinese government, the Euro or spending all their dollar reserves, would not be wise and have their own shortfalls.  David Kampf also analyzes this economic strategic conundrum and sympathizes with China and world’s plight when it comes to the currency situation, but he also concludes, while leaving open the question if an international currency was a good idea, that the dollar is not going anywhere.  Here is an excellent chart from the Wall Street Journal (and from Rising Powers) that showcases the currencies state’s have chosen to keep their reserves in:

The dollar remains dominate, but the Euro is definitely gaining steam.  So what does this Chinese Bank claim and recommendation mean for global finance and politics?  There’s one thing I know for sure, there is now a strengthening China that feels more and more comfortable in voicing its strategic interests out to the world.  This incident also further showcases the world’s current disenchantment with US financial leadership, though disenchantment is still far from ‘denial’ or ‘rejection.’  What do you think this means?

Have you, like me, had enough talk about realism and liberalism in US foreign policy? NO! You haven’t?! Wow, you guys are dedicated to the IR cause! I’ll give you only a mild break then, by just providing you with several stories and pieces that tackle or showcase various facets of the classic IR debate:

  • China-US Naval Standoff - For those who think great power war is just a thing of the past and for those who forget how foreign policy crises can shape a presidency, the thankfully mild standoff between a US surveillance ship and a small Chinese naval fleet, is a stark reminder. I encourage you to read about this incident as it is intriguing in many ways and even includes Chinese guys in their underwear. If the incident, which showcases the US global reach and the Chinese attempting to further their own ‘sphere of influence’ in the Pacific, escalates in anyway, I’ll do a larger post.
  • The Geopolitics of Tibet – Dan Twining of Shadow Government provides an interesting analysis, with useful historical background, of a possibly brewing conflict between India-China over Tibet’s autonomy. It is important to know that parts of Tibet are located in India, the Tibetan exile government is located there, and China and India fought a war over border territory there in 1962, which is still unresolved.
  • Turkey’s Diplomatic Power – My placement of Turkey in GPP’s Power Rankings garnered quite a bit of debate, with GPP contributor Hubbel Relat offering some criticism. One of main reasons behind putting Turkey on the list was their strong influence in several key geopolitical issues, specifically Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Iran, and the EU. Foreign Policy Association’s Christopher Herbert details some of Ankara’s recent diplomatic maneuvers on their Rising Powers blog. Also of note was Sec of State Hilary Clinton’s ‘friendly’ stopover in Turkey during her Middle East trip.
  • US Soft Power in Asia is Strong! – David Kampf on the same FPA Rising Powers blog writes about the findings from a poll showing that the US remains the supreme cultural and diplomatic power in the region, much to Beijing’s consternation.
  • Sovereignty Under Attack? – Former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolten wrote a serious piece criticizing those who argue that the United States need to have a ‘shared sovereignty’, in that we should further connect ourselves to international institutions, much like the EU. Bolton sees this as a dangerous idea that would undermine the rights and choices of American citizens. Here is his conclusion:

“Sharing” sovereignty with someone or something else is thus not abstract for Americans. Doing so by definition will diminish the sovereign power of the American people over their government and their own lives, the very purpose for which the Constitution was written. This is something Americans have been reluctant to do.

  • Obama Taking On Too Much? – William Galston at The New Republic advises Mr. Obama to focus and tighten his foreign policy ambitions, worrying that he might be taken too much on too soon.

Since there’s some heavy stuff in there, how ’bout I end on an upbeat note: Have any of you heard of the conflict between Fritolaysia and Snakistan?

A hot topic recently is Obama’s foreign policy ‘realism’. Now those who visit this site regularly already know that I’ve called Obama on his realism DAYS AGO! There are those who applaud this approach, arguing that the best foreign policy doctrine is not to have one. Then there are those who fear this outcome, asserting that one of America’s greatest assets is its promotion and defense of democracy and human rights.

This brings up two issues before we can argue for either side; 1. Has Obama truly shown himself a realist by his policies? 2. And is he really departing so completely from President Bush’s so-called ‘freedom agenda’? First off, I believe that all US presidents have been at least partially liberal in their world view, even those early presidents who lead a weak, fragile state at the time. That being said, it is not like these guys only had international liberalism in their bones, blood, and sinew, as they all followed the rules of power politics in most cases, from the Jay Treaty to the Bush’s partnership with Pervez Musharraf. Bush full heartedly tried to bring democracy to two despotic states, called the Darfur conflict a genocide, criticized the Burmese military dictatorship, gave prime time to political dissidents from China and elsewhere, and made many key speeches preaching the power of liberty and human rights. YET, he cozied up with dictators in Pakistan, Egypt, China, and Kazakhstan, used military force in pursuit of US interests, and disregarded many multilateral treaties. Bush was followed both a realist and liberal foreign policy.

Barack’s election rhetoric and policies so far have definitely trended more realist (and in many ways logically follow many of Bush’s policies). He has has openly stated he will negotiate with many dictator-run states (Iran, Syria, North Korea), put NATO expansion on hold, let Russia know that deals involving security trade offs could be made, treated Britain like it was just a ‘state’, rarely discusses the liberal threesome of liberty, democracy, and human rights in speeches, and his Sec of State Hilary Clinton stated that human rights would not get in the way of US-China relations. This being considered, Obama has also leaned liberal on many occasions. His emphasis on ‘talking’ and diplomacy are not just realist measures, but seem to him to be modern ways that conflicts are solved. He has also reached out to the Muslim world in a widely heard interview and plans on making a speech in a Muslim-majority country this year. Obama also showed his trust of international institutions and treaties by raising the US ambassador to the United Nations to a Cabinet Position and in his early discussions with Russia about arms reductions and Europe regarding climate change. But overall, I do agree with the aforementioned articles that Obama is mainly following a realist foreign policy so far. (of course so did Bush before 9/11)

I googled 'Realism vs. Liberalism' and this was the first picture that came up.

So should we be concerned or pleased about Obama’s realist leanings? I think, like when given the choice between chocolate and strawberry ice cream, a little of both. The realist attributes of cautiousness and pragmatism are indeed valuable and Obama seems keen on following them in many of his policies so far. International relations are indeed fraught with dangers of missteps and a realist viewpoint can prevent the US from unforeseen calamities and overzealousness. However, if the US becomes more and more just like another state, it not only denies what it has been for its entire history, a beacon of liberty and hope, but it may also undermine the growth of a stable world, which has made a steady climb in democratization. It is not an overstatement to say the current strength of democratic governance in the international system is held up by American leadership. Specifically, states in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States, and Poland, in many ways have their sovereignty and free political system dependent on US/NATO engagement and protection. These states will not welcome the canceling of the missile defense system treaty or talk of NATO expansion quietly fading away. In terms of Afghanistan and Iraq’s governing future, Obama has already laid framework for a less than democratic outcome. I also hear loudly how much Obama has NOT spoken about the power of liberty, democracy, and human rights and I think this is a shame as the world is listening.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen poignantly quoted an Obama intro to one of theologian/realist theorist Reinhold Niebuhr’s books: “there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. We should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”


Great Power Podcast

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This past weekend GPP contributer Hubbel Relat and I had a little conversation about GPP’s Great Power Rankings and lucky you, we recorded it!  In the 20 or so minute interview, I discuss my criteria for the rankings and the thinking behind my selections.  Hubbel then goes on to pester me with questions and critiques, some of which you may have thought of yourself or even wrote in the comments section of the earlier post.  Enjoy!


During this podcast session, Hubbel and I also recorded a short 10 minute talk on Obama’s Iraq troop withdrawal plan and I will post this in due time, at least before the SOFA agreement comes to its conclusion.  Short podcasts such as this one will hopefully become a regularity and I plan on bringing as many voices and subjects to the exercise as possible.  If you have an idea or subject you would like for Hubbel and I to discuss let us know.  It may even be possible for the GPP community to have a group talk in the future.  Recommendations of all types are welcome.

So after a long wait of almost 20 hours, I bring you GPP’s first Great Power Top Ten List! Great powers have come to their position of power slowly and have generally left their esteemed place in international politics in a similar fashion, so how can one do a monthly Great Power – Power Ranking system, one may ask? Long term prognosticating will of course be an important aspect of GPP’s rankings, but short term moves, issues, and strategic successes and failures will also be considered. For instance, if I did a power ranking after Russia’s successful invasion of Georgia, which proved Moscow’s hard power was not only still capable, but willing to be used, Russia would have gotten a ‘bump up’ in my rankings. This list is not exhaustive and is of course open for debate and even your own Top Ten. I think this is an exciting time for Great Power Politics as many claim the US is declining as a superpower, there is much focus on the Rising Powers of China, India, Brazil, and older great powers, such as Russia and Iran, are starting to reassert themselves on the global stage.

Here are some of the major criteria for which the states will be considered as Great Powers:

  • Power – Basically, how much total influence does your state have in the world. In what ways can your state make other states or actors do something that they don’t necessarily want to do?
  • Economy – What is your GDP? Is your economy growing? Declining? (aren’t they all right now?) How much can your economic power be easily translated into ways to influence other actors?
  • Permanent/Near Permanent Resources – natural resources controlled, population size, geography
  • Ideology/Cultural – How powerful is your state’s governing and lifestyle philosophy in the world? Do your beliefs and ideas translate to influence around the globe?
  • Internal State Strength – How strong and legitimate is your domestic government? How stable?

It is time. Below are my Top Ten Great Power Rankings, followed by a Tier breakdown, with short explanations to follow:

  1.  United States of America
  2.  China
  3.  Russia
  4.  Germany
  5.  Japan
  6.  India
  7.  Brazil
  8.  France
  9.  Turkey
  10.  Israel
On the GP Bubble – Iran, United Kingdom, South Africa. Indonesia, San Francisco Giants (only in the NL West)        

Tier A – USA

Tier B – China, Russia

Tier C – Germany, Japan

Tier D – India

Tier E – Brazil, France, Turkey, Israel

 1. USA – The United States is still the only state on the planet that can project power to all corners of the globe. Despite the economic crisis, the US economy is still head and shoulders above all others. The US geographic security is second to none and its domestic government holds a tremendous amount of legitimacy. Lastly, its cultural and liberal ideology, though under fire from many directions, is still the most pervasive of any kind throughout the world.
 2. China – The greatest challenger to US supremacy (and for the top spot on GPP’s Rankings!) for this century is the Middle Kingdom. China’s economy has been booming for nearly 20 years now and though it is facing many hardships during this financial crisis, it is still in relatively good economic shape. In the last few years, Beijing has bought up resources and influence throughout the world, especially in Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Militarily, China is still relatively weak, but its defensive spending has expanded every year and it is starting to present itself as a regional power player. China’s internal governance, ruled by the Communist Party, though well disciplined and organized, faces social unrest and is challenged by two separatist movements, Tibet and Xinjiang.
 3. Russia – Moscow has been a great power on and off for centuries and though it is currently struggling economically, this has not hurt its ability to effect world events. As the Georgia invasion, Kyrgyzstan Manas Base extraction, and NATO expansion/Missile Shield protests have shown. Moscow is an old fashioned great power as it unabashedly showcases its willingness to use hard power (including cyberwarfare and gas politics). Though the Putin-Medvedev rule is challenged on many fronts, it is nevertheless a strong government with a decent amount of legitimacy from its population.
  4-5. Japan and Germany – These two WWII allies have the 3rd and 4th strongest economies in the world and though their military capabilities are rather weak (thanks to US protection and internal preferences) they each could translate this soft, economic power into hard power in a short time, ie. Japan’s nuclear capability. Lastly, their domestic governments are strong and have high legitimacy at home and abroad.
  6-7. India and Brazil – These two geographic and population giants are both experiencing strong economic growth and are definitely two ‘up and comers’ in the great power game.
 8. France – Strong, if not large economy. Great power history. Though somewhat weak militarily, Paris does hold multiple nuclear weapons and uses diplomacy effectively to spread its influence around the world.
 9. Turkey – Turkey is a real ‘middling’ power. It has decent influence and power in two continents and a strong historical legacy as a great power. Domestic stability and governance has been its achilles heel in the past, but it seems to be weathering that storm rather well in recent years. Ankara’s economic growth has been slow and steady.
 10. Israel – Though it is small in population, economy, and geography, the Jewish state has a tremendous amount of influence in the Middle East and a strategic partnership with No. 1 USA. Israel is in a precarious, to say the least, security situation, but its military, which includes nuclear weapons, is second to none in the region.

Your thoughts? Your Rankings?

This Monday I will ask my IR students to to identify realism and liberalism in current foreign affairs. A major exercise of this will be the following video of The Stanley Foundation’s Michael Schiffer, who discusses the attributes and consequences of Rising Powers in our world today for the Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions program. I will ‘require’ my students to find elements of realism and liberalism in Schiffer’s talk about these great powers, and I ‘urge’ you to do the same in the comments section. What do you see in his discussion that is focus’s on states, their interests, their rationality, and their life in a self-help world? aka realism’s view of IR. Where does he emphasize IR liberal arguments and topics? International institutions, ideology, multilateral cooperation, economic integration, norms against war and narrow state interests, etc.? Go at it!

(The embed code isn’t working, so you have to click the link to watch the video.)


Now I wouldn’t give you homework on a weekend without a reward would I? Yes. Yes, I would. But I won’t today. Tomorrow I’m going to do my first…….wait for it…….wait……GREAT POWER TOP 10 RANKING! At first this will be a quick, rather superficial analysis with results of the world’s great powers and how they compare, but it will evolve into a scientific system where each power is judged on specific criteria, economy, military, political influence, number of Taco Bells, etc. Tomorrow I will give a quick overview of how I came about with my choices and a quick summary of why each great power is ranked where they are. This list is my own, but I encourage your input and to see your own rankings. I plan on having these rankings updated on a monthly bases, taking into account recent foreign affairs changes or moves. With the help of my super Admin, we also plan on getting these rankings up permanently on the side bar and maybe even creating a way for you to voice your criticisms and much more likely, compliments. Now get back to work on Mr. Schiffer’s video!

One of President George W. Bush’s greatest successes in international affairs is the institutionalizing of an American partnership with India. From Bush’s earliest days he had kind words to say about what he considered a burgeoning multi-ethnic and multi-cultural democracy in the Indian state and he cemented these ties in the United States-India Nuclear Cooperation Approval and Non-proliferation Enhancement Act, just passed by US Senate and India parliamentary months ago. This Act does much more than create a framework where the two great powers could share nuclear technology and resources. It is a strategic symbol of an alliance that appears to have many bright days ahead.

'I'll do anything to get that Treaty signed!'

'I'll do anything to get that Treaty passed!'

This partnership did not come about without controversy and geopolitical tension, however. The Nuclear Cooperation Act pretty much completely bypassed the Non Proliferation Treaty, which the US was instrumental in creating and still backs mightily, and there are reasonable fears that it could have done irrevocable damage to its future ability to curtail proliferation. That being said, I think this was a wise, realist move by President Bush. India has nuclear weapons and they are not going to give them up. Combine this with the democracy connection and the growing power of China in the region and this looks to me like a sensible balance of power move.

India and the United States share more than just democratic governments and a dependency on customer service telephone operations, they each seek to contain the growing power that is China and equally fear the rise and existence of Islamic extremism. With India on board, the US now has strong relations all around China, ie. Japan, Australia, Philippines, and Indonesia. Some of course are stronger than others. For India, their nuclear program has now been brought out of the shadows and they can feel more secure with a US strategic investment. Regarding Islamic terrorism, though the two great powers (India and the US) may not share every counterterrorism policy choice, they each stand by each others fight, with India helping provide financial resources in Afghanistan and with Secretary of State Condi Rice racing to Mumbai immediately after last years attack to show solidarity.

Bush with India PM Singh

The Bush administration was able to accomplish this growing partnership with New Delhi while at the same time maintaining crucial ties with Pakistan, India’s bitter rival, which was no small feat. Though the war in Afghanistan has gone poorly of late, the past administration should be given props for handling the delicate regional situation rather well in recent years. It is easier said than done to support up one rival’s nuclear capabilities while at the same time working hand and hand with the other. Of course, it has been reported that the US does indeed also work with the Pakistani military on securing their nuclear weapons, though this is done very, very quietly.

There is still much to go over in Bush’s foreign affairs’ disappointments and accomplishments. I really want to tackle the question of Bush the Realist vs. Bush the Idealist. The India-US relations he fostered mainly represent realist notions of the balance of power and security first thinking, but there was also the ‘democratic friends’ aspect as well. What do you think of all this?

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