Posts Tagged ‘obama administration india’
With the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue concluding earlier this month, what does the future look like for the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies? I consider this question in a piece for World Politics Review. I’ve pasted it below.
The Future of U.S.-India Relations
Judging by the atmospherics on display during last week’s inaugural U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, the bilateral relationship between the two countries appears to be on solid footing. U.S. Under Secretary for Public Affairs William Burns called the relationship “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of a joint responsibility to “determine the course of the world.” U.S. President Barack Obama even made a surprise visit at the dialogue’s reception, and announced that he would visit New Delhi in November.
Yet this flowery rhetoric masks the complex realities of what has been and continues to be a testy relationship between Washington and New Delhi. Even today, Indians worry that the United States is cozying up to Pakistan and China at their expense, while some in Washington charge that India is too caught up with its “neighborhood” concerns to assert its influence on the world stage. If the two countries hope to forge a stronger partnership in the 21st century, they will have to navigate past sharp disagreements and bridge wide perception gaps.
Divergent interests kept India and the United States estranged during the Cold War. India’s policy of “moral nonalignment” in the 1950s was viewed in Washington as immoral, while the U.S. arming of Pakistan after 1954 as part of a global containment policy engendered much mistrust in New Delhi. Estrangement continued through the 1970s and 1980s, as India drifted toward the Soviet camp, while the U.S. pursued rapprochement with China and armed Pakistan to undermine the USSR. While the end of the Cold War did lead to some bilateral cooperation, including joint military exercises in the 1990s, India’s nuclear test in 1998 — which it viewed as retaliation for Pakistan’s nuclear tests — drew Washington’s ire. It was only with the signing of the civilian nuclear deal under the Bush administration in 2008 that the relationship began to really take off.
Both sides now realize that there are manifold areas in which to pursue functional cooperation. Economically, India’s blistering growth rates and role in the G-20 means that it is unquestionably a global economic power, with room for expanding bilateral trade, investment, as well as educational linkages. Strategically, Washington views India as a counterbalance to Chinese hegemony in Asia, even if New Delhi is itself at times reluctant to play this role. Both the United States and India are among the world’s top-five greenhouse gas emitters and have been victims of extremism, and are thus vital to solutions on climate change and terrorism. India’s geographic proximity to the Indian Ocean and status as the world’s fifth-largest navy also means that opportunities exist for further cooperation in the maritime domain, from disaster relief to anti-piracy operations and joint patrols. Beyond these interests, both are also large, vibrant democracies.
Yet discord continues to persist. The two countries often lock horns on trade and climate issues, and there is still bad blood surrounding both the collapse of the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2008 and the Copenhagen Climate Conference of 2009, where New Delhi is said to have colluded with China to obstruct any meaningful outcome. More recently, Indians have hissed at the Obama administration for interfering in the “internal” Kashmir issue, carelessly signing off on a joint U.S.-China role in South Asia (which India considers its neighborhood), and turning a blind eye on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and nuclear activities in exchange for Islamabad’s cooperation in Afghanistan. The United States, for its part, laments India’s more-conciliatory position on Iran and its inability to even pass the requisite legislation for civil nuclear cooperation to begin.
As Jasmeet Ahuja, a staff member for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told a conference at the American Enterprise Institute recently, “India needs to think strategically about how to engage. . . . If India does not want to, there isn’t much more that the U.S. can do.”
Forging a strategic partnership will require both sides to find a way to compromise on these issues and address their respective concerns, while also managing perception gaps. While India sees the world from the prism of “strategic autonomy” and views itself as a great power and civilization, the United States is used to relationships where it has the dominant voice. Despite the vast asymmetry in terms of material capabilities, both nations engage in preachy moralism, and neither is used to adopting a deferent attitude. Learning to deal with each other amid vibrant media communities and noisy democracies is a challenge in and of itself. The United States must understand and at times accommodate India’s perception of its “inherent greatness,” as India scholar Stephen Cohen once put it. But India similarly needs to comprehend that it is only one of many priorities on the U.S. agenda, and that other interests may at times take precedence.
Washington is often critical of New Delhi’s unwillingness to assume — or ambivalence about — a global role, or to think strategically beyond its immediate neighborhood. At a Brookings Institution event last week, Indian journalist Gautham Adhikari plainly admitted that “India does not have a strategic view of the world,” and urged New Delhi to formulate a comprehensive vision for its foreign policy. At the same time, Washington must grasp the fact that India is still grappling with a complex set of domestic challenges, from poverty that affects a third of its population to a growing Maoist insurgent threat, and external challenges that include a terrorism threat from Pakistan and unresolved border issues with China. Such a full plate understandably weighs New Delhi down and restricts its ability to assert a global presence.
A strong basis for cooperation exists between the United States and India, both in principle and on specific issues. But solidifying a strategic partnership in the 21st century will require compromise, vision and deftness from both sides. For, as Mr. Burns himself has noted, “progress in U.S.-Indian partnership is not automatic,” no matter what the atmospherics may suggest.