Great expectations: Being realistic on India-US ties

Soon after the end of the Bush presidency, many long- time observers charged his successor with abandoning the cause of elevating US-India relations.

George Perkovich

Soon after the end of the George W Bush presidency, many long- time observers in India and Washington charged his successor with abandoning the cause of elevating US-India relations to the pinnacle of American foreign policy priorities. Veteran Indian diplomat Kanwal Sibal lamented, "The confidence of the Indian establishment that India-US relations were set on a steep upward trajectory has eroded noticeably with President Barack Obama replacing President Bush." Daniel Twining, a former Bush administration official, reported in the Weekly Standard that Indians frequently say, "We miss Bush."

India`s strategic community, he notes, is "concerned about (and in some cases, alarmed by) the President`s approach to Pakistan; his strategy for Afghanistan; his willingness to pursue a more robust Asia policy that raises the costs of Chinese assertiveness; the absence of American leadership on trade; and his commitment to treating India as a key power and partner in world affairs in a way consistent with Indians` own sense of their country`s rising stature and capabilities."

The Indian-born American scholar Sumit Ganguly wrote in Newsweek this April that "Barack Obama is in danger of reversing all the progress his predecessors, including George W. Bush, made in forging closer US ties with India. Preoccupied with China and the Middle East, the Obama administration has allotted little room on its schedule for India, and failed to get much done in the short time it did make."

Like a Rorschach test, commentary as President Obama goes to India tells us as much about the authors as it does about the President, his policies, or India. Much of the commentary is negative, but this in part reflects the tendency of people to speak up only when they have something negative to say. More interesting is the proclivity of critical Indian pundits to yearn for the friendly presence of George W Bush.

For their part, many American commentators see Chinese and Pakistani monsters sneaking up behind Obama`s thin, unsuspecting frame and wonder why he is not standing closer to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Nostalgia often colors perceptions and mixes fact with wishful projections. Former Bush administration official Evan Feigenbaum notes in Foreign Affairs, "Many in India believe that the Obama administration has tilted its policy toward Beijing in a way that undermines Indian interests." Yet, Feigenbaum rightly goes on to say, "Obama`s China policy is broadly consistent with that of every US president since Richard Nixon."

Obama has been tougher on Pakistan than Bush ever was (which is not saying much). Even stalwart Republicans acknowledge that Obama`s Afghanistan policy is struggling to clean up the damage caused by the neglect and mismanagement of his predecessor.

Putting aside wishful or partisan thinking about the results of Bush administration policy, one can easily see why some Indian elites long for the exceptional favor the former President bestowed on their country. Bush did more for India than he did for any NATO ally, including the United Kingdom, notwithstanding Tony Blair`s lonely, reputation- destroying support for the war in Iraq.

India, on the other hand, spurned Bush`s pleas to join the military coalition in Iraq and blocked his efforts to restart world trade liberalization and isolate Iran. Bush responded by giving India a global nuclear deal so lopsided that one of its architects called it a "gift horse. "The Bush administration offered more and asked less of India than it did of any other country, save perhaps Israel.

However, the special treatment of India was unrealistic and therefore unsustainable.

The United States would be wise to continue such a tilted relationship only if American national interests coincided closely with India`s preferences across most of the important bilateral, regional, and global issues now facing policy makers. Careful analysis of US and Indian interests does not show such a close convergence.

Therefore, a sound and sustainable US policy toward India should more accurately reflect multiple American, Indian, and global interests.

The United States should continue to emphatically support India`s efforts to prosper, secure itself, and gain international influence. Democratic India`s success will be an achievement of unprecedented scale and complexity, and it will benefit not only Indians but the entire world. Yet a US-Indian partnership should not be conceptualized as a means to contain or contest China—a notion that many self-proclaimed realists in America and India wish to project onto the relationship.

The United States should appreciate India`s intrinsic importance more fully. To conceive of India as a balance against China instrumentalizes it. India is nobody`s tool, and as a large, developing country it shares many interests with China. Sometimes India and China will stand together in opposition to the United States, as with climate change and World Trade Organization negotiations. More often than not, New Delhi will pursue a more cooperative approach with Beijing than China-balancers in the United States would wish…

Rather than maintaining the pretense of partnership, a truly pro-India policy would acknowledge that India has different near-term needs and interests as a developing country than does the United States, even as it recognizes that each will benefit in the long run from the success of the other. Most of what the US government can do for India lies in the broader global arena, and most of what India needs at home it must do for itself.

As Columbia University economist Arvind Panagariya writes, "Commentators who deplore the US for failing to match its words with action and exhort it to move beyond symbolism do not offer a concrete set of actions they would like the latter to take. Demands for the removal of certain export controls and access to or extradition of the Pakistan American terrorist David Headley, which find frequent mentions, do not make a coherent agenda?. Outside of the highly complex security area, there is very little beyond the atmospherics that the governments can do to promote partnerships."

The United States should be more willing than it has been to accommodate India`s interests when doing so would not undermine the evolution of a more cooperative global order. The most daunting needs today are enhancing stable economic growth, producing and using energy in new ways that limit dangerous climate disruption and weapons proliferation, turning disaffected states and populations away from violent extremism, stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and integrating rising regional powers such as India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa into global leadership.

Military balancing, which is the preoccupation of the so-called realists, is not unnecessary, but it is relatively easy. It can be done through procurement, operational cooperation, and training. The greater challenge is building confidence that big global problems can be managed effectively.

(This piece was originally published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Please visit for more information. Copyright Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010.)

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