US President Barack Obama’s return to India carries the hope that Washington and New Delhi may succeed in placing their cooperation on firmer foundations. The history of the past few years suggests that India and the United States are still some distance away from realising their objective of cementing a strong geopolitical affiliation that advances each other’s interests. Despite the transformation that occurred during George W Bush’s presidency, the bilateral relationship has not yet shed its cycle of alternation: The repetitive oscillation where periods of great improvement are succeeded inevitably by disheartening drift, if not deterioration.
The structural constraints that have characterised the US-India relationship since 1947 have not disappeared, even if their specific policy consequences have atrophied in varying degrees. For example, the contrasts in worldview still endure. The US views international politics from the vantage point of a hegemonic power and remains determined— as it should — to preserve its primacy. In contrast, India views the international system very much as a subordinate state and desires a multipolar system that would more easily accommodate its preferences. Although this divergence may seem overly abstract, it nonetheless produces practical disagreements especially in regard to diplomatic cooperation over questions of global order.
Many of the constitutive thickets at the Indian end that prevent cooperation with the US are still around — and these constraints are only amplified when other elements of process, such as bureaucratic resistance, poor political decisions, and sluggish policymaking, are thrown into the mix. Together, these elements often prevent New Delhi from reciprocating American overtures in the manner increasingly expected by Washington. The impediments in New Delhi are often matched by those present in Washington. A major obstacle at the US end is strategic amnesia, the recurring failure to remember why assisting India’s success remains fundamentally in America’s national interest. What compounds this is the capacity of various interest groups in American society and narrow bureaucratic interests within the US government to hijack national policymaking toward India, turning it away from what US grand strategic interests demand.
Given these constraints, two outcomes must occur if the US and India are to make good on the strategic partnership. One is that Washington, as the stronger entity, must return to the best of its past practices toward New Delhi. That entails acting magnanimously toward a friendly but weaker power without any expectations of ‘specific’ reciprocity.
US policy toward India should be rooted consistently in the geopolitical imperatives that drove the transformation of bilateral relations. The country that is most likely to undermine American and Indian interests today and for the foreseeable future — and from a position of strength — is China. Consequently, US-India relations, whether acknowledged publicly or not, ought to be grounded on the ambition of creating an Asian order that serves the vital interests of both states. Washington should purposefully assist the rise of Indian power — in tandem with similar policies directed toward other states on China’s periphery — to create a sturdy continental equilibrium that prevents Beijing from misusing its growing capabilities. Senior American policymakers should encourage India to reciprocate their liberality by cooperating with Washington whenever possible...yet they should resist the temptation of demanding recompense in big or small ways because bolstering Indian power remains of strategic value to the US in the larger context of managing China as an emerging competitor.
New Delhi must actively look for ways to deepen its cooperation with Washington comprehensively, thereby increasing the incentives of US policymakers to continually extend preferential support to India. India needs to do two things right if it is to successfully collaborate with the US on an enduring basis. For starters, it would help immensely if New Delhi could clarify for its American interlocutors its understanding of the term “strategic partnership”. Specifically, it needs to explain how this affiliation with Washington stacks up against the more than 30 other strategic partnerships India enjoys with countries as diverse as Argentina, Canada, Iran, Japan, Mozambique, Russia, South Africa, and South Korea. It also needs to spell out what it believes to be the obligations of such an association in the myriad areas of high politics.
To date, India has been reticent to speak clearly on this issue. While US policymakers have been transparent about how India fits into American strategic interests, Indian leaders have either shied away from addressing this matter or responded to it in banalities. Gaining clarity about these fundamental questions is essential to rescuing the strategic partnership between the US and India from both derision and vacuity. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is currently no task more important where rebuilding bilateral ties is concerned.
The effort at articulating the priority that India places on special ties with the US must lead naturally to the second element essential for sustaining ungrudging American support for New Delhi: Actually cooperating with Washington on various issues across the widest possible canvas. Prime Minister Modi confidently told Obama in Washington that the US and India needed each other. Such a view of the relationship imposes significant obligations of reciprocity on India. It implies that India, too, would have to contribute in exemplary ways toward assuring the success of the strategic partnership.
India’s contributions need not be restricted to the mutual exchange of favours. In fact, everything India could do to partner with the US in achieving common goals globally or multilaterally would count in spades. More to the point, if the Modi government were to focus relentlessly on completing the second-generation economic reforms, stimulate increased bilateral investments in both countries, accelerate Indian national growth and the robustness of the Indian state, India will have come a long way in being able to assume the burdens of partnership that Modi’s conception of symmetrical dependence entails.
Ashley J Tellis is senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
This is excerpted from the report Unity in Difference: Overcoming the US-India Divide
The views expressed by the author are personal