Modi and Obama are off to a fine start. But New Delhi and Washington must improve habits of interaction even where they have differences.
What would it take to turn the US-India relationship from a budding, if tumultuous, romance into a committed, cooperative partnership?
The question has plagued policymakers in Washington for the past decade, and it was surely on the Barack Obama administration’s mind recently as a string of top US cabinet officials visited New Delhi, paying their respects to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new government and setting the stage for a summit in Washington later this month. Despite warm and apparently productive meetings that spanned a wide range of strategic, commercial and military topics, the question lingers. The grey cloud of scepticism hangs overhead mainly because, over the past several years, red carpets and fine words have too rarely been matched by tangible accomplishments.
The stakes, of course, are far greater than any upcoming summit. For Delhi, the US offers a potential means to accelerate the expansion of India’s national power and prosperity, whether through access to high technology armaments or through billions of dollars in private sector investment. For the US, India represents a rising power in Asia and the allure of a massive market for American goods and services.
With these aspirations in mind, both sides are inclined to emphasise their similarities, starting with shared political principles and practices. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, for his part, observed that India and the US are unusual for having political systems in which “the son of a tea seller” and the “child of a Kenyan father” can rise to become prime minister or president. The mantra of a “natural partnership” between India and the US has been mouthed religiously by leaders in both capitals ever since the last BJP government sat in Delhi.
A shared attachment to democracy undeniably opens the door to trust and understanding in ways that are never quite managed with non-democratic states. Wars between democracies are — as so many international relations theorists inform us — historically unprecedented. For theoretical and practical reasons that are widely appreciated, we have the luxury of taking for granted that military conflict between India and the US is inconceivable. Sadly, this is not true for many of the other players in Asia.
That said, the commonalities of democracy have never been enough to pull India and the US into a trusting embrace. Too many irritants, not to mention genuine differences of national interest, have got in the way. The continued…