United States President Barack Obama accomplished three important things during his visit to India last month. He put to bed a notion that held sway earlier in his administration that a US-China 'G2' could jointly manage Asia and the world. He rejected a re-hyphenation of India-Pakistan relations that many had urged on him. And he took ownership of a relationship with New Delhi that had been on the rocks since he took office. He deserves credit for expressing America's core interest in India's rise and success as a future democratic superpower.
Obama's vision of a transformative partnership with India — to manage global diplomatic and security challenges, catalyse prosperity and promote good governance in Asia and beyond — was bracing. It helped mitigate concerns in Washington that Obama does not care about the balance of power in Asia — he now does, thanks largely to China's misbehaviour over the past year. It also underlined an historic and bipartisan American belief that democracies make the best allies in world affairs.
In New Delhi, Obama made a strong case for the exceptionalism of India-US ties that would help chart the course of the 21st century. His embrace of India came just in time to check a growing chorus of pessimism in Washington. Prominent among the sceptics is George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Perkovich was an India expert before it was popular in America, so his arguments carry weight. That is why his recent Carnegie report (http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=41797) arguing that India cannot be the partner America wants it to be — and that ambitions of the kind Obama expressed for the relationship are harmful to it — deserves attention.
Perkovich argues for a more "realistic" relationship that treats India in many ways as the impoverished, isolated, defensive, even hostile-to-the-West country it once was. India does not want to be an Asian balancer, the report maintains; US efforts to facilitate India's co-equal rise with China will only create discord between Asia's giants and upset China's peaceful development. Rather than converging, the report maintains that Indian and US interests hopelessly diverge on a host of important issues, from climate change to Iran. America's embrace of India is actually detrimental — it has alienated China and Pakistan and up-ended the old nuclear order.
Thankfully, the majority view among Republicans and Democrats in Washington today is different. It holds that Indians and Americans enjoy natural affinities, and that America has an intrinsic interest in India's success — as a country that can shape a non-Western modernity that is inherently peaceful, pluralistic, prosperous, and attractive to the wider world.
India's economic growth under democracy puts the lie to the myth that China's model of authoritarian development is the wave of the future. India's bottom-up, domestically driven development is a welcome antidote to the State-directed Chinese mercantilism that has so destabilised the global economy. That is why the leaders of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have praised a new 'Delhi consensus' on development.
More broadly, the character of a country's foreign policy cannot be separated from the nature of its internal rule. Asian nations from Japan to Australia want India to play a bigger role in their region even as they seek to leaven China's heavy hand.
America, more than any country, is invested in India's success. As Senator John McCain has said, "India and the US share common values…. It is for this reason that we are confident that the ongoing rise of democratic India as a great power… will be peaceful, and thus can advance critical US national interests.... We seek not to limit or diminish India's rise, but to bolster and catalyse it."
The affinities between the US and India are striking. Both are threatened by terrorism, State weakness in Pakistan and Afghanistan, China's assertive rise and economic protectionism. Both countries want to live in a world safe for the values of open societies. Indian Americans are the wealthiest immigrant community in the US. Indians have traditionally outnumbered other foreign students at American universities.
But thanks to a residue of mistrust stemming from five decades of Cold War alienation, India and America don't enjoy the habits of cooperation that lubricate relations among other great democracies. Hence the importance of Obama's passage to India. That is why China and Pakistan are so concerned about closer Indian-American ties — and why Indians and Americans must continue to nurture them.
Daniel Twining is Senior Fellow for Asia, German Marshall Fund, Washington. The views expressed by the author are personal.