For the last decade, presidents and prime ministers have routinely declared that India and the United States are “natural allies.” Gallons of ink have been spilled touting the many advantages that would accrue from a closer relationship between Washington and New Delhi. The civil nuclear agreement concluded after years of patient diplomacy and navigation of the bureaucratic channels in both capitals was supposed to usher in a new era.
But why has the reality fallen short of the promise? Most commentators acknowledge that there has been an improvement in ties but the fact remains that there remain significant gaps between both sides on a number of issues. For all the talk about an emerging alliance between the world’s oldest and largest democracies, there is nothing that suggests that a “special relationship” is likely to develop anytime soon. The transformation of US-India relations has stalled.
When asked about the culprits slowing down the rapprochement between India and the United States, former deputy national security advisor Robert Blackwill noted that there was “a constant struggle with two entrenched forces in the bureaucracy of the US government” that hampered change. He identified the non-proliferation “ayatollahs” whose stance towards India was conditioned largely by the non-proliferation policies pursued by the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, and the “hyphenators”-those who viewed India through the prism of US relations with Pakistan. Daniel Twining, senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who served at the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff during the Bush administration, likewise identifies a “Pakistan-centric” bureaucracy as a continuing obstacle. This is especially problematic, both at the State Department and at the Pentagon, where there are powerful constituencies which argue that moving closer to India complicates US efforts to achieve its objectives in the region. In particular, those who believe that success in Afghanistan is only possible through close co-operation with Pakistan worry that any tilt towards New Delhi would doom the Afghan mission. Active bureaucratic resistance to engineering a major shift in US policy is a factor—but not the only one.
Often overlooked is an increasingly ossified and sclerotic national security policymaking process in Washington that is slow to respond to changing world developments. Andrew Stigler, a colleague of the author in the National Security Decision Making department of the Naval War College, likes to comment: “Inertia is often a governing force.” Bureaucracies are locked into policies that have become standard operating procedures; presidents and their advisors discover that making significant policy changes disturbs important stakeholders; any new administration can only pay attention to a limited number of issues. One of the defining characteristics of US national security policy is the extent to which Cold War institutions and policies remain in place. So while there might be continued active resistance to the vision of a US-India special relationship mounted by a rear guard in the bureaucracy, an even bigger obstacle is the lack of bureaucratic frameworks to nurture ties. When pundits speculate about a possible “quartet”—the United States, Japan, Australia and India—to foster peace and security in the Indian and Pacific ocean basins, Washington has established treaty relations with Tokyo and Canberra to fall back upon, and a series of regular interactions with these two designated “major non-NATO allies” of the United States. With India, however, there is no existing template for action which impedes closer military cooperation. A slow and cumbersome review process prevents liberalisation of US export controls, as a result, promising areas of co-operation, particularly in the nuclear and space sectors, is stymied by continued onerous restrictions on the sale of US high technology goods to India.
The Bush administration (in turn, building on some of the work initiated by the Clinton administration) knocked the US-India relationship out of some of the ruts into which it was defined but did not complete the construction of the necessary bureaucratic architecture for sustaining a new relationship. In part, this is because the US national security apparatus has never been able to define and operationalise the concept of a “partner” as a mid-way point between a traditional Cold War-era “ally” (not a feasible status for an India whose geopolitical and economic interests are not fully in alignment with Washington’s) and being a friendly, non-hostile state. Even the possible threat of a rising China is not really a basis for a post-Cold War alliance between the two states. Would India commit to assisting the United States in defending Taiwan from an assault from the mainland? Would Washington work to contain the expansion of Chinese power in southern and western Asia?
With a country that is not defined as an ally, however, it is still quite difficult to set up effective mechanisms for intelligence-sharing, joint military operations, and effective collaboration in high-technology areas—the things that can build trust and confidence between the two bureaucracies over time. There is no “partnership” version of America’s bureaucratic box of the NATO/non-NATO major ally status as of yet—the designation of a country as a “close partner” of the United States that would clear away the bureaucratic hurdles that still inhibit the development of a closer US-India relationship.
The Obama administration could define—and Congress could ratify—which sets of benefits that current major non-NATO allies enjoy could also be extended to countries that would be bureaucratically classed as “close partners”: these could include full participation in a number of counter-terrorism initiatives, an expedited export control process for space technology, and invitations to participate in selected research and development projects with the Department of Defense.
The recent US-India Strategic Dialogue said all the right things about partnership. Yes, this is an important first step—such meetings set the foundation. President Barack Obama personally went to the State Department to meet the Indian delegates, a signal honour. But statements aren’t enough. What working groups are in place to begin translating presidential statements into concrete policy documents?
More importantly, has a clear message been sent through the bureaucracy, that timelines for completing policy reviews will be enforced? Will there be consequences if deadlines for action aren’t met? If the White House is serious about wanting to move the relationship forward, it will have to demonstrate consistent interest (and continual pressure) to force through the necessary organisational changes in the US national security apparatus. Otherwise, we will continue to have a schizophrenic approach: India and the US as symbolic, rhetorical partners, but their national security bureaucracies continuing with “business as usual.”