Narendra Modi's Surprisingly Successful Selfie Diplomacy

06/15/2015 01:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

New Delhi -- Last month, in front of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang posed for Modi's smartphone and snapped a photo. "It's selfie time! Thanks Premier Li," Modi tweeted to his 13 million Twitter followers. The photo of the two men--together representing nearly 40 percent of the world's population--led the Wall Street Journal to wonder, "Did Modi Just Take the Most Powerful Selfie in History?"

Most powerful or not, it certainly isn't Modi's first. In the year since he swept into office in a historic landslide, Modi has posed for similar photos with leaders all across the globe. He took one in Fiji with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. He took another grinning shot at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Modi's "selfie diplomacy" has become so anticipated that, in advance of President Barack Obama's most recent visit to India, the Hindustan Times ran a story asking, "Where's the Obama-Modi selfie we've been waiting for?" (They settled for a warm hug.)

The photos serve as a kind of digital diary of a whirlwind, almost bewildering, year of bilateral and multilateral foreign visits--roughly 20 trips abroad, from critical allies like the U.S. and Japan to long-neglected neighbors such as Sri Lanka. ("Why on earth is Narendra Modi going to Mongolia?" read one recent headline.) But while the pictures may be lighthearted, Modi's message is no joke. As a retired general in the Indian Army tells me, "The message is that India is looking outwards now and it's willing to pull its weight." For the U.S. in particular, the message is a welcome one.

When Modi took office last May, few would have predicted that the controversial former governor of the state of Gujarat would morph into a globetrotting statesman. In its campaign platform, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party devoted a mere one page out of 40 to foreign policy; in his August 15th Independence Day speech, Modi glossed over the issue entirely. If the rest of the world considered India at all, this subcontinent nation of 1.2 billion was typically dismissed with a hyphen: part of the India-Pakistan situation, or the India-China relationship.

Yet foreign policy has undoubtedly become Modi's primary focus -- and his pragmatic methods have far exceeded expectations. "For a politician who came to office with virtually no foreign-policy experience, Mr. Modi has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen," observes the Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney. A well-known Indian diplomat adds, "He wanted to change the image of India. He wants to show that he will get things done and the buck stops here."

Speculating on this shift, a senior Indian official jokes to me, "Maybe he thought it's easier to deal with international affairs than domestic ones." It is true that on the home front, headaches abound -- from pervasive corruption to poor infrastructure. Every year, the Indian economy must generate an estimated 10 million new jobs to employ its growing population (by contrast, the U.S. economy has created roughly 12 million jobs in the past five years). And while the International Monetary Fund predicts that India's growth will outpace China's in 2015, India continues to grapple with an anemic manufacturing sector and high levels of poverty and growing inequality.

"India has the most number of millionaires and college graduates while at the same time has the most number of poor people," an ambassador to India tells me. "It's a country of contradictions." To make matters worse, an unexpected BJP defeat in the most recent parliamentary elections has diminished the prospects of many of Modi's desired reforms.

But the reality is that Modi's emphasis on foreign policy is not about avoiding India's domestic challenges -- it's about solving them. As the Observer Research Foundation's Niranjan Sahoo writes, "Geo-economics is the key." Modi is taking a page out of his playbook in Gujarat, when he traveled extensively throughout Asia to drum up foreign investment, going so far as to have business cards printed in Chinese. Modi's hardheaded approach has largely overlooked potential diplomatic sticking points -- from the U.S. previously denying him a visa over alleged human rights abuses to a Chinese incursion into Indian territory during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit. Yet it also has yielded some $30 billion in commitments from China, another $33 billion from Japan, and two high-profile state visits with Obama.

Modi "needs everyone on his side," the analyst Ashok Malik told the New York Times. "He needs a window of relative strategic calm in his backyard to build the Indian economy." For all of these reasons, Chellaney notes, "this means that India--a founding leader of the nonaligned movement--is likely to become multi-aligned."

The impacts of this shift are potentially profound. Unlike China, whose willingness to play a leadership role on the world stage has largely been confined to self-interest, India's newly assertive and multi-aligned foreign policy could make it a powerful global partner -- on issues ranging from climate change to Ukraine. And no country is better poised to partner with the world's largest democracy than the world's oldest democracy.

"There's new energy between the U.S. and India and the talk that the U.S. is ignoring us is gone now," the Indian political analyst Subhash Agrawal tells me. "The Obama trip was a success." During that trip, Obama declared that "India and the United States are not just natural partners. I believe America can be India's best partner." The slew of agreements that have followed--from civil nuclear deals to trade commitments -- have only served to reinforce this notion.

Yet with a history of mistrust and shifting alliances in the region, an Indian diplomat says, "The question is, can we trust the Americans when the chips are down?"

What should America do to ensure the right answer to that question? Three things.

First, the U.S. must continue to deepen the economic relationship. Obama and Modi have committed to quintupling bilateral trade to $500 billion--a target both nations can and should meet. Ultimately, India should be welcomed into the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum and could conceivably be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated in Congress.

Second, Washington should provide India the military training and support it needs to discourage Chinese aggression in the region. In January of 2015, both India and the U.S. committed to "safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea." This commitment must be kept.

Third, the U.S. should strengthen people-to-people relationships between the U.S. and India. "India and the US should have youth exchanges with universities," Agrawal says. "This would make India no longer a "weird country" to Americans." Call it "yoga diplomacy," after the Indian exercises that Modi does every morning -- along with millions of fit and trendy Americans.

In the meantime, we can only hope that Modi keeps up his frenetic travels. He may be fond of the egocentric selfie -- but what he's really demonstrating is that we are all in this together.

Stanley Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades.