U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue: All-Star Cast, Playing Small Ball

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is bringing with her an all-star team for the second round of U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, which will take place later this year. Five heads of agencies are joining her, including the Director of National Intelligence, along with 3 officials who are one rung away from the top of their agencies. They will do useful work, but they need to make their game more ambitious.

When nine U.S. cabinet or sub-cabinet officers travel across nearly ten time zones together, it surely is an indication that the country at the other end of their long flight matters. Despite the impressive lineup, however, the focus is modest: continuing the work begun on homeland security during the visit of Secretary Janet Napolitano; chipping away at the governmental obstacles to expanded investment and technological exchange; bringing more vigorous life to the long-standing but under-performing energy dialogue. There is a long list of trade and investment issues that have been waiting for a solution for upwards of five years; unfortunately, the senior U.S. officials responsible for these aren’t on the delegation. Implementation is pesky but important, so one should not belittle high level dialogues that provide the visibility staff in both governments need to complete the job.

Those nostalgic for another game-changing initiative on the scale of the India-U.S. agreement on civil nuclear cooperation are destined to be disappointed. Neither government is ready for that kind of effort. The U.S. administration is overwhelmed with the debt ceiling, and behind it an equally nasty budget debate. The Indian government, hit by a string of scandals, has not yet regained the confidence it needs to navigate the treacherous waters of parliament.

But even recognizing the two governments’ political constraints and the difficulty (and lack of sex appeal) of implementation, one would have liked to see a bit more vision. I suggest three candidates.

First: a frank conversation about some of the broader strategic issues that concern both countries, such as Afghanistan and the emerging agenda for the United Nations Security Council. With India and Pakistan holding to their plans for talks despite the Mumbai blasts, one hopes the delegation will get a candid briefing on how India assesses the prospects – and will be able to discreetly encourage both sides to make real progress.

Second: Get serious about negotiating a Bilateral Investment Treaty. Preliminary moves have been stymied by differences between the two countries’ standard texts for such treaties, and by the Obama administration’s decision to review its template. Use the high level talent going to Delhi to achieve agreement in principle that both sides will need to deviate from their models, and get on with the job.

Third: There is a visionary goal out there, even if neither country is ready to embrace it yet: a free trade agreement. The delegation should at least get people talking about the idea – and why it could make the India-U.S. partnership truly strategic.