It pays to be optimistic about U.S.-India relations, but also realistic.
One year ago, the Devyani Khobragade affair plunged the U.S.-India relationship into deep crisis. Then, several months later, Indians elected a new national leader who had effectively been banned from visiting the United States in years past.
Given these troubles, the progress in bilateral relations made in recent months has been nothing short of extraordinary. Soon after Narendra Modi became prime minister, U.S. President Barack Obama invited him to the United States. Modi—setting aside any lingering grudges—accepted, and enjoyed what by all accounts was a successful visit. In recent weeks, Modi invited Obama to be the guest of honour at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January. Obama has accepted. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to make two visits to India.
Today, there is good reason to be hopeful about the trajectory of U.S.-India relations. The United States and India have come a long way since the Cold War era, when New Delhi’s treaty of friendship with Moscow and Washington’s tilt toward Islamabad bred mutual mistrust and ill-will. At the same time, it’s important that we be realistic. This is because formidable obstacles—more conceptual than policy-based—stand in the way of a deeper and healthier partnership.
Patching up the Partnership
India’s liberalisation reforms in the early 1990s set in motion a period of reconciliation between Washington and New Delhi. Aside from a brief period in the late 1990s when India’s nuclear tests triggered U.S. sanctions, relations continued to strengthen into the new millennium. After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. President George W Bush—aided by influential pro-India administration officials such as Nicholas Burns and Robert Blackwill—pushed for an even deeper relationship, and he found a willing interlocutor in Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The civil nuclear agreement in 2008 was hailed as a cornerstone of this closer rapport.
Admittedly, President Obama’s laser-like focus on the war in Afghanistan—and by extension on boosting ties with Islamabad—would cause relations with New Delhi to drift. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that his administration has been uninterested in engaging India. Obama has insisted that the bilateral relationship will be one of the 21st century’s defining partnerships. His first state dinner was for Singh. And, while visiting New Delhi, he endorsed the idea of a permanent Indian seat on the UN Security Council.
Geopolitical Signs for Future Bilateral Relations
There are two geopolitical factors that portend good things for U.S.-India relations in the coming months. One is the anticipated U.S. rebalance, or pivot, to Asia. Washington rightly sees a convergence between the goals of this pivot policy and those of India’s own Asia policy. These goals include tightening diplomatic and economic links with East and Pacific Asia, in order to provide a counterbalance to China’s growing regional clout. Modi’s decision to rebrand India’s traditional “Look East” policy as “Act East”—suggesting more robust and assertive engagement in East Asia—has been music to Washington’s ears.
To be sure, there is scepticism about the U.S. pivot, given that President Obama has done little beyond the rhetorical to demonstrate an intensified American focus on Asia. Additionally, Washington is constantly distracted by events in the Middle East. However, there are recent indications of renewed U.S. efforts to reinforce its commitment to the rebalance—from Obama’s long trip to Asia in April 2014 to Washington’s stepped-up efforts to conclude negotiations on the Trans Pacific Partnership, an Asia-focused trade agreement.
The second geopolitical factor that portends better bilateral relations is the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. By winding down its combat role, Washington will be able to free up more strategic space to better engage an India that, in recent years, has been victimised by an ‘AfPak’-dominated U.S strategic lens: A lens that has regarded South Asia largely through the war in Afghanistan, and by extension through Pakistan.
Limits to U.S.-India Partnership
Despite all this, U.S.-India relations are far from problem free—and the sources of tension go beyond purely policy disagreements, which are themselves significant and numerous. These policy divides include Delhi’s unhappiness with Washington’s continued courtship of Islamabad; each side’s belief that the other pursues protectionist measures (especially regarding visas, tariffs, and local content requirements); and differences over the proper treatment of Iran and especially Russia.
The more fundamental disconnect in U.S.-India relations is a conceptual one. Quite simply, neither side has explicitly articulated what it wants out of the relationship. There have been incessant yet vague references to a “strategic partnership.” However, the two countries have not spelled out what this means—and yet if they were to spell it out, they would likely find themselves in deep disagreement. For Washington, strategic relationships generally entail vast amounts of trust and goodwill, and involve deep levels of global cooperation—especially on military and intelligence levels—that extend beyond the confines of the bilateral relationship. Washington wants its strategic partners to help it fight wars, and to work with it inside international institutions such as the World Trade Organization. It is unlikely that India would happily sign on to such an enterprise, given New Delhi’s views on foreign policy, which continue to be influenced by the principle of nonalignment. Additionally, given lingering tensions and other baggage from the Cold War era, it is unlikely that there is sufficient trust and goodwill between the two countries to support the type of strategic relationship preferred by Washington.
Consider, even now, how each side perceives the bilateral relationship. New Delhi views it largely bilaterally—as seen by India’s tendency to play up trade, investment, and technology transfers. Meanwhile, Washington, while supporting bilateral engagement, also views it globally—as evidenced by frequent American calls to jointly promote regional stability, and to cooperate in international fora. Until and unless the two sides can resolve this definitional disconnect, the nature of the relationship will remain undefined—and ultimately unfulfilled.
Being Optimistic but Realistic
This is not to say U.S.-India relations are doomed to tread water. Far from it. There are many shared interests and concerns—from combating terrorism to unease about China’s rise. There are also many success stories to build on—from robust economic relations and maritime cooperation to a 3-million-strong Indian-American diaspora. Furthermore, as outlined above, recent months have seen dramatic improvements in bilateral relations, and geopolitical factors suggest the future should yield even more progress.
The wisest course of action is to build on—and deepen—existing cooperation, but also to be realistic about how far the relationship can go. This will involve lowering expectations. It may also involve—at least for now—toning down talk of “strategic partnership.” U.S.-India relations today are driven less by deep trust and shared grand visions, and more by needs, interests, and above all what one side hopes to get from the other—the epitome of a transactional relationship. The term “transactional” elicits cringes within U.S. diplomatic circles, but it is no dirty word. In fact, it accurately describes most of the world’s diplomatic relationships, including perfectly healthy ones.
In essence, it pays to be optimistic about U.S.-India relations, but also realistic.
Photo: American Citizen Service India