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A new Indo-US partnership model

Washington and New Delhi should shift to a joint-venture framework — focusing on specific collaborations and creating conceptual space for inevitable disagreements.

Written by Alyssa Ayres , Charles R. Kaye, Joseph S. Nye Jr |
Updated: November 11, 2015 12:00:43 am
A conceptual recalibration along the lines of a joint venture, concentrating on a series of specific collaborations rather than a diffuse appeal to bonhomie and democracy, which can create disappointments of its own, will allow more opportunity for success and should help insulate against disillusionment. A conceptual recalibration along the lines of a joint venture will allow more opportunity for success and should help insulate against disillusionment. (Illustration: Pradeep Yadav)

Americans like India, the world’s largest democracy — a rare example of a bipartisan foreign policy consensus in the politically polarised United States. Washington DC has a strong interest in better relations with New Delhi for many reasons — the pursuit of mutual goals, complex global issues, the economic power India is becoming, and a convergence of views on Asia. From the civil nuclear initiative a decade ago, bilateral ties have grown to cover a far wider range of areas than at any time in the past.

Yet, despite such progress, India is not yet among the closest US partners, a role still occupied by allies in Europe and Asia. Given India’s potential trajectory, and the opportunity a rising India presents for advancing a slate of American national security, economic and global policy interests, a Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force recently deliberated over ways in which Washington should best advance its ties with India. Our topline was this: Washington and Delhi should deliberately adopt a new model of partnership borrowed from the business world, that of a joint venture.


Americans are accustomed to specific terms when thinking about allies and partners. Washington sees alliance relationships as the closest form of partnership — a relationship of mutual support and obligation. But Washington also expects its allies and closest partners to endorse, or at least not reject outright, American foreign policy positions. In India, on the other hand, a strong sense of policy independence creates a different assumption for Delhi’s relationships, one focused on maximising independence and limiting obligations. For this reason, even though India and the US have a much stronger convergence of views than they used to on many global developments, it still comes as a surprise for many in Washington when Indian officials appear to embrace positions that Americans see as impossible to understand, such as during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which India carefully refrained from criticising.

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Because India does not sign on to formal alliances and does not seek one with the US, it would be a mistake to view strengthening US-India ties as an alliance-in-process. Instead, to capture the opportunity for increased cooperation, while acknowledging the inherent limits to partnership India places on its foreign relations, it would be better to emphasise a joint-venture model for US-India ties.

Just as joint ventures in business bring together parties to advance a shared objective without subordinating their many other interests, so should India and the US pursue their shared ambitions without assuming that each will — or even should — see eye to eye with the other on every matter. Reframing ties in this way will better explain how convergence on the need for open sea lanes, for example, may not presume agreement on climate change, and how convergence on the Asia-Pacific may not presuppose like-mindedness on the Middle East.

Such a conceptual recalibration, concentrating on a series of specific collaborations rather than a diffuse appeal to bonhomie and democracy, which can create disappointments of its own, will allow more opportunity for success and should help insulate against disillusionment. Reframing ties with this flexible model will also create conceptual space for inevitable disagreements, without calling into question the basis of the partnership, or unintentionally “infecting” other issues. It will also facilitate better management of disagreements, because the expectation will be that divergences inherently exist and, therefore, must be managed.

India is in the midst of change, seeking to reorient its position on the world stage. The country is rethinking a longstanding foreign policy that has been defensive, focused on non-alignment and its successor, “strategic autonomy”. This year, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar called for India’s transition from a “balancing” to a “leading power”. This shift opens the door further for Washington and Delhi to deepen ties, and primes India to take on a larger global role.


India’s shift away from non-alignment remains incomplete, but continued geopolitical changes around the world, the importance of economics, and China’s rise have all created a landscape in which Indian and US interests are in a process of structural realignment. This structural realignment increases opportunities for the US and India to pursue mutual self-interest through closer cooperation. But India’s size, its class-of-its-own sense of self, and its fierce independence all make for a bilateral relationship — both today and tomorrow — that little resembles American ties with other countries. It’s time for a new model, and for the world’s two largest democracies to shift to a joint-venture framework instead.

Kaye, co-CEO of Warburg Pincus, and Nye, university distinguished service professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, served as co-chairs of the Independent Task Force on US-India Relations.

Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as Task Force project director.

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First published on: 11-11-2015 at 12:00:40 am
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