11 min read

Inside Biden’s embrace of India

What happened to Biden’s human rights-centered foreign policy?
Inside Biden’s embrace of India
President Biden and Prime Minister Modi during a 2021 meeting

Good morning! It’s Thursday, June 22, 2023. The 2024 elections are 502 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

When foreign leaders visit Washington, sometimes they fly under the radar — and sometimes the White House pulls out all the stops.

Last week, for example, when President Biden met with the president of Uruguay, it wasn’t announced in advance or even included on Biden’s public schedule.

Today, though, Biden is rolling out the red carpet for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

Modi will be greeted with a formal arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn, complete with a 21-gun salute and performances of the American and Indian national anthems. He will be feted at a glitzy state dinner, only the third foreign leader to receive one since Biden took office. (In deference to Modi, guests will dine on a stunning vegetarian menu.”)

This afternoon, the Indian leader will speak before a joint meeting of Congress, addressing lawmakers from the same rostrum presidents use for the State of the Union — another rare honor. Last night, Biden hosted Modi for a private pasta-and-ice-cream dinner; in a review of Biden’s schedules since 2021, I couldn’t find another instance of the president having as intimate a meal with a foreign leader.

The pomp and circumstance shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, with 1.4 billion residents, India is now the world’s most populous country and fifth-largest economy. Biden also speaks often about the need to team up with other democracies in a global struggle against autocracy — and India is generally referred to as the largest democracy on the planet.

Well, sort of.

Under Modi, Biden’s honored guest today, international experts have cited India as a prime example of democratic backsliding.

The list of Modi’s offenses against democracy is long:

Modi was popularly elected — and remains popular in India, partially due to his viral radio show — but human rights groups have warned that his nine-year presidency has promoted Hindu nationalism and made India more an “electoral autocracy” than a democracy.

In a 2022 report, the State Department’s list of India’s “significant” human rights abuses included everything from “extrajudicial killings by the government” to “lack of investigation and accountability for gender-based violence”:

All of this is relevant because Biden has repeatedly pledged to emphasize human rights in his relations with world leaders.

“I’ve been clear that human rights will be the center of our foreign policy,” he said in 2021. The 2020 Democratic platform promised to “hold to account those who perpetrate human rights abuses.”

Biden has previously been accused of straying from that promise, just as previous presidents have been forced to shelve their values in favor of realpolitik.

While running for president in 2020, for example, Biden promised to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” after revelations that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. By 2022, Biden was visiting Saudi Arabia, bumping fists with MBS in hopes that the country would increase oil production. (They didn’t.)

But Biden’s embrace of Modi isn’t about oil: it’s about China.

American officials view India as a crucial counterweight against China in the Indo-Pacific region, elevating the importance of U.S.-India economic and military partnerships.

Just as relations between the U.S. and China are worsening — after Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Xi Jinping this week, Biden referred to the Chinese leader as a “dictator” — so are Indian-Chinese tensions, as skirmishes along their 2,100-mile-long contested border escalate.

Increasing ties with an eye to China, then, is mutually beneficial for Washington and New Delhi alike. Many foreign policy hands view China as America’s most pressing foreign policy challenge; an Air Force general even predicted in January that the U.S. and China will be at war over Taiwan by 2025. India’s assistance in such a conflict would be critical, although it is far from guaranteed.

To formalize their deepening bond, Biden and Modi are expected to announce a deal today that will allow General Electric to produce engines in India that will power Indian military jets. The U.S. rarely inks such agreements to share American defense technology, making today’s announcement a pointed message aimed squarely at China — and at Russia as well.

Russian equipment makes up about 85% of the Indian military arsenal, one reason that India has yet to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine and has continued to purchase oil from Moscow during the invasion. (Borrowing from the American political lexicon, foreign policy experts have taken to referring to countries neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as “swing states.”)

India’s swing-state status in Ukraine will surely come up at Modi’s meeting with Biden today, as will efforts to counter China.

What about human rights concerns, the supposed cornerstone of Biden’s foreign policy?

75 Democratic lawmakers — some of whom are boycotting Modi’s address to Congress — wrote a letter calling on Biden to directly press Modi on human rights during the meeting.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told the New York Times that the president will “try to indicate where we stand without coming across as somehow talking down to or lecturing another country that has a proud history of sovereignty.”

It appears that journalists, at least, may have a chance today to press Modi, who rarely speaks to reporters. A White House press release said that the president and prime minister will “deliver remarks and take questions from the press” — although it notably stopped short of calling the session a joint press conference, as is typical when foreign leaders visit. (The Times had previously reported that Modi’s aides were resisting a joint press conference.)

My email to a White House spokesperson seeking clarity on the change in terminology did not receive an answer.


California Rep. Adam Schiff. (Gage Skidmore)

The House voted to censure Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on Wednesday, making him the third House member to be so rebuked in the past 40 years.

The censure was approved in a 213-209 vote, along party lines except for six Republicans members of the House Ethics Committee who abstained by voting “present.”

According to the resolution, Schiff was censured for behaving “dishonestly and dishonorably” while leading investigations of former President Donald Trump as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. A similar censure resolution failed last week after some Republicans objected to language calling for Schiff to receive a $16 million fine; that language was stripped out of the version that passed on Wednesday.

As is traditional, after the vote, Schiff stood in the well of the House as Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) read out the allegations against him. In a unique scene, Democrats surrounded him on the floor in solidarity, yelling “shame! shame!”

“I have all night,” McCarthy said as he continued the reading.


bethbap kids cars toys road carpet
A child care center. (BBC Creative / Unsplash)

During the pandemic, the U.S. expanded its social safety net more than at almost any other point in history. But most of the expansions were temporary; many have lapsed without receiving renewal.

Two of the final Covid-era social benefits are set to expire in the months ahead, the New York Times notes in a pair of pieces:

  • On August 30, the pandemic-era pause on federal borrowers having to repay their student loans will expire, requiring borrowers to begin making payments again for the first time in more than three years. The expiration was mandated by the recent Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling deal, although the White House had already signaled plans to end the pause this summer.
  • On September 30, the U.S. government will wind down its massive increase in funding for child care providers. According to the Times, during the pandemic, the U.S. was “effectively running an experiment in federally funding child care providers”; the $24 billion distributed since 2020 “has been the largest investment in child care in U.S. history.” According to a report by the Century Foundation, the end of those funds could lead to more than 70,000 child care programs closing; the group projects that 43% of day care centers will have to raise tuition.


Sen. Chuck Schumer speaking about AI policy on Wednesday. (Gabe Fleisher)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) unveiled his long-awaited framework for AI legislation on Wednesday.

“We come together at a moment of revolution,” Schumer declared. “Not one of weapons or political power, but a revolution in science and understanding that will change humanity.”

“What once existed in our imaginations,” he continued, “now exists in our day-to-day lives.”

Like President Biden did in remarks earlier this week, Schumer pointed to both the opportunities AI could present (for health care, education, and other sectors) and the risks, from job displacement to misinformation.

Sitting in the room along with a group of think-tank denizens and AI experts as he unspooled his framework, I couldn’t help but be struck by the vagueness of his much-hyped proposal.

Schumer named his plan the “SAFE” framework, and he mostly spoke in general terms about the four values that formed the acronym: security, accountability, foundations, and explainability — as well as innovation, which “must be our North Star,” he reminded us. No concrete details of potential legislation were laid out.

In an interesting moment of self-reflection for an avowed institutionalist, Schumer also spoke about the process he envisioned AI legislation going through. “AI moves so quickly and changes at a near exponential speed, and there’s such little legislative history on this issue, so a new process is called for,” he said. “The traditional approach of committee hearings play an essential role, but on their own won’t suffice.”

However, his replacement for committee hearings — a series of “AI insight forums” in which subject-matter experts will brief lawmakers on a range of AI-related topics — seemed like approximately the same thing. Hearings, he said, would be too slow: “By the time we act, AI will have evolved into something new.” But the “insight forums” aren’t set to start until the fall. (Schumer also did not commit to a timeline for legislation in the speech.)

The biggest headline, then, from Schumer’s speech might just be that he held it at all. Even as AI development has quickly accelerated in recent months, Washington has largely sat on the regulatory sidelines.

No more, Schumer seemed to be saying. “Don’t count Congress out!” he told the crowd assembled at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a D.C. think tank.

I was also struck by Schumer’s insistence that any AI legislation move forward on a bipartisan basis. He unveiled a group of four senators who will run point on AI: Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Todd Young (R-IN), and himself.

Intriguingly, he also name-checked other conservative lawmakers — including Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) — whom he hoped to play a role.

Already, Schumer’s plan has attracted support from unexpected corners. “Congress must join the AI revolution,” the Senate leader tweeted after his speech.

“Definitley,” responded Elon Musk, the Twitter CEO, AI skeptic, and recent Democratic antagonist.

Read Tuesday’s newsletter for more on AI in politics.


Test scores for U.S. 13-year-olds over time. (NAEP)


Chile’s Salar de Atacama, the world’s largest source of lithium. (Francesco Mocellin)

All times Eastern.

President Biden will spend the day with Prime Minister Modi of India, greeting him with an official arrival ceremony and meeting with him in the Oval Office. Later, the president and prime minister will “deliver remarks and take questions from the press.” Tonight, Biden will host Modi for a state dinner.

Vice President Harris, First Lady Biden, and Second Gentleman Emhoff will also attend the arrival ceremony and state dinner.

The Senate will vote on a House-passed resolution to overturn a Biden administration rule requiring a federal license to own a pistol brace, an accessory that allows its user to shoot a firearm one-handed.

The chamber will also vote on a tax treaty with Chile, which will help avoid U.S. companies having to pay double taxes on income earned in Chile. The treaty, which has been lingering in the Senate since 2012, will particularly ensure continued low-tax U.S. access to Chilean lithium, a crucial ingredient for electric vehicle batteries. Chile is home to the world’s largest lithium reserves.

On the committee level: Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell will testify before the Senate Banking Committee.

The House will vote on a resolution “condemning the use of elementary and secondary school facilities to provide shelter for aliens who are not admitted to the United States.” New York City mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, housed migrants in public school gymnasiums for about two days last month, before abruptly moving them after protests.

What the House won’t be voting on: A resolution by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) to impeach President Biden for “continuously, overtly, and consistently” violating federal immigration law with his border policies. Boebert was planning to force a vote on the measure today, but reached an agreement with Republican leadership to have the resolution referred to committee. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had told his members to oppose the effort if it reached the floor.

On the committee level: The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a meeting to view documents related to an IRS whistleblower’s claim that the agency slow-walked its investigation of Hunter Biden.

The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference and release opinions at 10 a.m. The justices have yet to announce major rulings on cases involving affirmative action, student loans, LGBT rights, and election law.

Thanks for reading.

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