India and the United States: A Rare, Stable Partnership

November 18, 2007

India will be one of America’s key partners in this young century, and the overwhelming, bipartisan congressional support for U.S.-India civilian nuclear legislation that President Bush signed last December reflects this consensus among American foreign policy strategists. Indeed, the state of relations between the two countries is a rare example of “policy continuity,” beginning with President Bill Clinton’s turning point March 2000 visit to India and accelerated during President Bush’s administration.

And despite the nuclear deal’s current vulnerability to the turbulence of Indian politics, there is every reason to believe that strong bipartisan support for strengthening U.S.-India ties will continue into the next administration, Democratic or Republican. The challenge for that new administration will be to build on the Clinton-Bush foundation and take it to its next stage.

Underpinning this agenda should be a concerted effort to realize the full economic potential of the U.S.-India relationship. Steps need to be taken to deepen commercial ties, identify and remove impediments on both sides, and clear the way for a new era of trade cooperation. Such ties have the added advantage of providing needed ballast in the overall relationship when political differences arise, as they surely will.

In addition to generating greater investment, U.S. and Indian officials have set a goal of doubling bilateral trade over the next three years. That would be a plus, but both sides need to think bigger – a free-trade agreement, for instance. The US-India Business Council is developing a “road map” to enhance trade and investment with India, beginning with the hoped-for successful conclusion of the Doha Trade Round and leading eventually to a free trade deal – potentially the largest-ever negotiated.

Washington and New Delhi also share a broad range of common strategic interests. We both want a South Asia that is prosperous, stable and democratic. We both want an Indian Ocean and adjacent waters that are open to trade. We both want to defeat jihadist terrorism.

Part of a forward-looking agenda therefore involves strengthening India-U.S. military cooperation as well as achieving a breakthrough to ensure greater defense technology sharing and possible co-production of combat aircraft and other weapons systems. The two countries should also expand their counter-terrorism cooperation.

Relatedly, the U.S. and India should also work to promote a secure, democratic and prosperous Pakistan. The current political instability in that country allows Islamist militants to thrive and raises the specter, over the longer term, of radical elements seizing control of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. Nothing could place India – and the United States – at greater risk.

Enhanced U.S.-India cooperation should extend to the institutions of global governance. It is time for the United States to publicly support India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and to work actively with India (and others) to expand the council.

In addition, the next administration should institutionalize a closer, cooperative relationship among the United States, the other leading industrialized nations, India and China by making these two rising global powers formal members of an expanded Group of Eight. The G-8 agenda now goes well beyond the state of the global economy to include energy, climate change, AIDS and poverty.

Today, the world’s two largest democracies have their best relationship ever, thanks in large part to the unusual policy continuity exhibited on India by Presidents Clinton and Bush, both of whom recognized the rising importance of India as a global power.

Unfortunately, the civilian nuclear deal – probably the single most important agreement ever signed between the two countries – is in serious political trouble because of stiff opposition from the left parties in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ruling coalition. This was not unexpected.

Disagreements and strongly held views on nuclear issues in New Delhi and Washington – largely centered on India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty despite America’s demand – have long dominated our relations. It will take time and patience to sort these matters out and to bring along the domestic constituencies needed to sustain a new and more constructive nuclear relationship between the United States and India.

It is also important to recognize that the U.S.-India nuclear agreement is an important part – but not the sum total – of the much-improved and expanding broad-based relationship between our two countries.

Hopefully, building on the successful conclusion of the nuclear deal, the challenge for the next president will be to take the partnership that has been created to the next stage and make it one of the most important bilateral relationships the United States has in the 21st Century.