India: America’s New Ally?

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

July 18, 2005

Stephen Cohen is the author of India: Emerging Power (2001).

This week Washington hosts Dr. Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, and one of the most thoughtful economist-politicians of this or any other era. The visit will be heralded as the further flowering of a “natural alliance” between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. The relationship has received bipartisan praise, notably by several former American ambassadors to Delhi, and in think-tank reports and Congressional testimony.

All of this attention is deserved yet Washington still does not seem to have grasped the complexities and ambiguities present on the Indian side of this putative alliance. India is a democracy; while there was continuity between the conservative nationalist BJP-led coalition and the current left-liberal Congress-led coalition, the fact is that India is likely to remain governed for many years by ideologically diverse coalitions of uncertain durability. This means that US-Indian relations will remain hostage to Indian domestic politics. Further, there are important differences within the Indian strategic elite as to the wisdom of the growing American tie.

There are four schools of thought in India regarding relations with America. These derive from differing readings of the past and differing visions of the future.

The Enthusiasts tend to look upon past strains in the U.S.-Indian relationship as stemming from the Cold War or America’s ignorance of India’s importance. They believe that times have changed, and emphasize the many benefits that will accrue to India if it were to join with the United States in a quasi-alliance relationship. The Vajpayee government invented the term “natural alliance” which has been adopted by Prime Minister Singh’s government ,and American officials. The Enthusiasts, found in the Indian business community, in a few corners of the foreign ministry, and among some politicians, are confident that they can manage the Americans via the growing India lobby, by more gracious diplomacy, and by holding out the prospect of collaboration on a number of issues of mutual importance, notably terrorism, containing China, and coping with Islamic radicalism. They see the US-Israel relationship as a model, and for that reason have strongly cultivated Indian-Israeli ties. In the distant future, they see this new alliance as ensuring that American support for Pakistan will wither away.

The Free Riders resemble the Enthusiasts in much of their analysis of the past, and acknowledge the major changes in the international order and in American perceptions of India, but they do not envision a long-lasting, open ended or durable alliance relationship with Washington. They might ride the American bus for a few stops, but not to the end of the line. Widely distributed in the Indian strategic community, the Free Riders believe that sooner or later as India gains strength from the American connection, strains will appear. In their view Indian national interests require a close connection to Washington but that in the long run America is too fickle and too powerful to be trusted. The US can be used, however, to establish India at the global level as a major power (symbolized by admission to the nuclear club, and a Security Council Seat), and to make India the dominant power in South Asia. For some Free Riders, Washington’s acquisition of bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan are warning signs that Washington might still be interested in challenging Indian dominance.

The Doubters not only have a different reading of history than the first two groups, they see the future as far more troubling. From their perspective, Washington remains a potential threat to Indian interests, just as it was during much of the Cold War, when it armed and supported Pakistan. While the Enthusiasts and Free Riders might point to the threat to India from a “rising” China, and conclude that Washington sees India as a potential balancer, the Doubters, found among many diplomats and soldiers who came to political maturity during the worst period of US-Indian relations (the 1970s), do not believe that the Americans will consistently hold this view. In any case, they believe that India can cope with China’s rise, and that a too close entanglement with America might make India the target of Chinese hostility. In other words, they do not want a situation where the United States will fight China to the last Indian. The doubters favor continued restrictions on American scholars in India, are wary of American attempts to broker an agreement on Kashmir, and are alarmed by the rising “American lobby” in New Delhi and Mumbai, as distorting an independent analysis of Indian-American relations.

Finally, the Hostiles see America as not only a dominant superpower, but as intrinsically opposed to India. From the left we hear that America seeks to dominate Indian markets, exploit Indian labor and manpower, and pollute the Indian landscape, to its own benefit and India’s detriment. On the right the arguments include a fear of cultural pollution from Hollywood and materialistic America, a concern that American technology will wipe out indigenous skills and entrepreneurs, and finally that Washington will never really abandon Pakistan because it needs to appease Muslim opinion, and because it fears a rising Hindu India.

These four opinion clusters overlap, and a major Indian debate on relations with America is now underway. Washington must understand this debate, for it will influence future Indian policy decisions. For example, New Delhi led Washington to believe that it would send troops to Iraq, but after a loud cry was heard from the Doubters and the Hostiles, the Vajpayee government backed off. Conversely, there are Indian expectations regarding American policy (notably, support for a UN seat and membership in the nuclear club). How America responds to these Indian demands will shape the balance of influence among these four schools. Burying US-Indian differences under labels (“natural allies” being one of them), does injustice to the prospect of two democratic states discussing their real differences and their real shared interests, and forging a relationship that is both durable and mutually beneficial.