Written by Sean Durns
President Obama is in Delhi, India today for a three-day visit. This trip comes a few months after what many consider to be a widely successful visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the U.S. Following up on this visit, Modi has invited President Obama to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, a first for a U.S. President.
The announcement and Modi’s visit came after a couple of years of particularly troubled relations between the two states. In an indication of how highly important the U.S. administration considers these talks, Secretary of State John Kerry previously visited Delhi to lay the groundwork for what the White House is no doubt viewing as a crucial visit to discuss defense, civil nuclear cooperation, economic partnerships, and climate change.
Yet, the White House would be wise to temper its expectations regarding these specific areas and the broader scope of U.S.-India relations.
Recent events have strained ties between the South Asian power and the United States. A high profile arrest of an Indian diplomat in the U.S. in December 2013 for her employing illegal labor and her subsequent indictment and treatment sparked a wave of protests and outrage across India, leading to what some have called the biggest fissure in relations since the 1998 nuclear tests.
Shortly thereafter, news that Washington was changing Ambassadors in Delhi seemed to speak of both a strained relationship and perhaps as well an unspoken admission that bilateral relations had not been given a degree of prioritization by the Obama White House on a par with the attention given by the two previous U.S. administrations.
Since the election of Narendra Modi and perhaps as a result of the publicity engendered by the diplomat spat, both Washington and Delhi have reached out to mend wounds.
Despite what some have called a low point in U.S-India relations, when one takes the long view, bilateral relations have actually been markedly improving since the end of the Cold War. The United States has at varying points sought closer relations with India since the latter’s independence in 1947. U.S. native anti-colonial sentiment and public skepticism towards British and European imperialism resulted in increased popular support for the emerging country’s cause.
India in turn often disappointed and frustrated Washington by being a lead player in the Non-Aligned Movement and by often leaning more towards Moscow than the U.S. government was comfortable with. The added dimension of U.S. support for Pakistan further complicated relations between the two.
With the fall of the USSR and the 1991 abolishment of some of the centralized economic planning encapsulated in the License Raj, many U.S. policymakers felt that the country could potentially have the sort of close ties as vibrant democracies that the Cold War seemingly interrupted.
Increasingly colored in these hopes was the U.S. desire to not only support an economically growing fellow democratic nation, but to have India as a balancing power against a rising and increasingly assertive China.
Both the Clinton administration and the George W. Bush administration focused on growing ties between the two countries, as is perhaps exemplified best in Ambassador Robert Blackwill’s fervent work in Bush’s first term and culminating with an agreement on nuclear cooperation in 2006.
Recently, distinguished U.S. public servants such as former Deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Burns have called for closer ties to Delhi. However, while their calls for greater cooperation on the economic, security, and political fronts are important and far-sighted, the U.S. will only be setting itself up for disappointment if it continues to expect what Delhi cannot deliver.
D.C. policymakers would be remiss to pursue ties in the order of an alliance with India by thinking that prior non-alignment was solely a product of the Cold War and not a reflection of both the country’s economic development and its heritage as a one-time unique colonial possession.
India is both a very old and a very new country, so new that only now does it have its first Prime Minister born in independent India. An alliance, or even the term “partnership,” may be a bridge too far for a country that prizes its hard fought independence.
By focusing on shared objectives and through a continuation of treaties and agreements, bilateral relations will grow stronger and hopefully continue their current trajectory. Washington would be wise to temper its expectations and focus on shared common interests that are cognizant of the immense energy poverty and inequality in much of India as well as its comparatively complicated geographic location, still plagued by border disputes.
Prospects for ongoing security cooperation are increased by Al Qaeda’s announcement of a branch in India, whereas protectionist instincts and energy poverty will likely present significant hurdles in the arenas of climate change and trade.
If Washington plays the expectation game right, the chances are reduced for disappointment on both sides and a more successful bilateral relationship going forward, with greater trade, cooperation, and understanding.