The Forthcoming Strategic Dialogue with India

Secretary Clinton’s trip to New Delhi this week for a strategic dialogue with Indian counterparts will get a “low-pass” grade unless it engages India on the nuclear issue and grapples seriously with the two major calamities facing American policy in the region—Afghanistan and Pakistan—all of which are of vital interest to New Delhi.

Inconsequential dialogues are often elevated in joint statements by including diplomatic “bumper stickers” such as “strategic partners” and announcing a lot of “deliverables,” most of which are a promise to hold more meetings. There now are at least thirty official India-U.S. dialogues and working groups covering a wide range of subjects, but many of these remain symbolic, merely marking time. At the same time, Washington also likes to put India in its basket of “friends and allies,” which ignores the reality that not all friends are allies, and not all allies are friends.

Indians will probably fill Secretary Clinton’s ears with the dangers of a rising China, but their real and immediate threat still comes from a nuclear-armed Pakistan (now too nuclear to fail) with irredentist ambitions in Kashmir. The Obama administration, reverting to Clintonian notions of arms control, carries on with soothing words, urging “dialogue” between India and Pakistan, even while the two have very little to talk about.

However, on the one issue that the Obama administration takes seriously—nuclear proliferation—it is unwilling to consider a regional agreement (as proposed by Rajiv Gandhi in his 1988 Action Plan, and recently revived by Prime Minister Singh). This would upset the framework built around the NPT regime, which is patently irrelevant to both India and Pakistan. It would also require serious talk with China and the kind of problem-solving diplomacy that cuts across regions, bureaus and departments. Mrs. Clinton cannot be blamed for inaction on this front, as a weak National Security Council is myopically obsessed with one (and only one) problem in South Asia: Afghanistan.

Here, also, there is a role for India, but American officials are confused as to what that should be. A top priority for the United States should have been to serve as a monitor of Indian and Pakistani presence in Afghanistan, but the conceptually silly “Af-Pak” framework prohibits this, leaving India out. The country has thus emerged as another site for the India-Pakistan cold war, yet both Islamabad and Delhi will be among the first to suffer the consequences from the post-withdrawal mess.

In the end, Secretary Clinton’s trip will undoubtedly be rated a success by both sides. There are, after all, enough reasons to acclaim the new relationship. There are growing economic ties, a shared commitment to democracy (but not always democracy promotion), and a common interest coping with what will hopefully be China’s peaceful rise. But the trip is likely to be a failure when it comes to practical policies that address the coming collapse in Afghanistan and after that, conceivably, Pakistan.