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.
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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 Devyani Khobragade incident is but the latest in an intermittent series of spats that have cropped up between Washington and Delhi over the decades. These spats suggest an immaturity in the relationship, for on neither side have the leaders quite figured out how to manage minor differences in ways that serve the greater good.
To their credit, both Modi and Obama have taken early steps to sweep prior diplomatic and personal slights under the carpet in an effort to pick up where the Manmohan Singh government lost steam. Early policy announcements, such as India’s opening the door to greater levels of US direct investment in defence industries and Washington’s renewed push for the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative, offer a glimmer of hope that the two can take their cooperation to a higher level.
In other words, Modi and Obama are off to a fine start. But even leaders of enormous and powerful states are bound by the realities of domestic politics, as well as by the behaviour of other states in the international system. Indian and US interests in the context of global negotiations on trade and climate change, for instance, will remain at odds because of their vast disparities in wealth and development. In these areas, the average Indian citizen simply has different priorities than the average American, a reality their elected officials ignore at great peril.
Likewise, in the regional context, even though India and the US generally see eye-to-eye on the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, they have long disagreed on how best to deal with Pakistan. In particular, Indian strategists chafe at US military assistance and arms sales to Islamabad, which US policymakers have tended to perceive as the cost of winning and sustaining Pakistan’s cooperation (however inadequate) in tackling al-Qaeda and enabling the US military presence in Afghanistan. Compounding that difference, as US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, Indian anxieties about a Taliban resurgence could easily translate into greater frustration with Washington for leaving Kabul in an all-too-precarious position. Here too, US officials are sympathetic to Indian concerns, but Delhi’s preferences have been outweighed by the Obama administration’s other strategic and political calculations.
Historically, all allies and close partners have had divergent interests. The operative question is whether they have other, more compelling reasons to cooperate, like a common adversary. One could imagine, for instance, that a more belligerent China could lead Delhi and Washington to put other differences aside. But that is not the world in which we live, at least not yet, and as Hagel took great pains to observe, Washington would prefer to “avoid the traps of rivalry” with China and recognises plainly that India — like nearly all other Asian states — would rather not have to choose between the US and China. As strategists Rory Medcalf and C. Raja Mohan observed in a recent report for the Australian Lowy Institute, middle powers in Asia — including India — would be better off improving security relationships amongst themselves, given “China’s rising assertiveness and uncertainties about America’s response to it”.
Under such conditions, policymakers in Delhi and Washington are right to pursue greater cooperation on issues of mutual interest and, more than that, to improve habits of interaction even where they have differences — as in the latest WTO row — so as to mitigate the costs of their disputes. But they should equally take care not to hype the promise of a revolutionary, positive transformation in the nature of their relationship, for even vast stores of goodwill and common principles rarely overcome domestic politics, or the structure of the prevailing international system.
Markey is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of ‘No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad’