To Guard Against Drift

Officials of the Obama administration have not been shy of stating how they feel about India — they like India, they really really like India. A State Department official has noted that the U.S. believes “the emergence of India as a more consequential and powerful actor in the international system is good for U.S. interests and good for the international system, good for the global economy”. There were more such reaffirmations during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to India, and there is little doubt that there has been significant progress in India-U.S. relations over the last 15 years. To ensure that the partnership remains truly strategic and sustainable, however, the two countries will have to ensure that they don’t just depend on nature taking its course, but actively continue to nurture it.

Both sides need to guard against four dangers: drift, the dominance of differences, disillusionment and dilution of the other’s importance. Drift might result from domestic preoccupations, the lack of a crisis or high-profile initiative focusing bureaucratic and political attention on the relationship, limited capacity on the Indian side, and other more pressing international concerns.

With much of the progress being behind the scenes, bilateral differences rather than achievements might take centrestage. The two governments successfully navigated the Iran sanctions issue last year. However, if the situation with Iran worsens, Delhi and Washington might find themselves on opposite sides. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan could be another area of difference, especially with Indian concerns that U.S. actions in the run-up to the 2014 drawdown of troops in Afghanistan will compromise Indian interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Pakistan and, potentially, counter-terrorism. As the U.S. calibrates its relationship with the new leadership in Beijing, Indian concerns about a China-U.S. G-2 may also arise again. Similarly, Sino-Indian cooperation will create consternation in some quarters in the U.S. Renewed activity in three multilateral arenas — trade, non-proliferation, climate change — might bring India-US differences to the fore. Finally, increasing economic ties will mean that economic tangles will naturally rise.

The two countries are no strangers to disillusionment. Often this is a result of heightened expectations. The disillusionment problem is exacerbated because, in many cases, the returns on the investment in the relationship may only become apparent in the medium to long term.

Related to this is the potential dilution of U.S. importance in India and vice versa. Some doubters in India have questioned the value of getting closer to a country that they believe is on the decline. U.S. investment in India has been predicated on at least three assumptions. For some, it is the idea of India that is important — a diverse, developing democracy that could be a partner. For others, it is India’s economic potential that makes it attractive. For yet others, it is India’s strategic potential, especially as a balance against China. India’s importance because of the latter, however, can wax and wane with the health of Sino-U.S. relations or with assessments of India’s willingness and capacity. As for economic potential, there has been more doubt than hope on this front in the last year or so. Other developments have also meant that the India-as-a-role-model constituency is disappointed.

To avoid these dangers, on its part India can consolidate existing constituencies and create new ones for the relationship in India and the U.S. among officials, legislators, corporations, and individuals outside government. First, by strengthening the Indian economy and its security, which will increase India’s importance and alleviate the problems of “India fatigue” and “India irrelevance”. Second, India can work with the U.S. to implement existing agreements, conclude current negotiations and explore new opportunities, especially on the economic front. Third, it can create greater awareness of the opportunities India offers, as well as the constraints that exist in the country. It can facilitate study tours for influential Americans, as well as the ability of a greater number of Americans to work and study in India— including, perhaps, by encouraging the private sector to create a significant scholarship fund designed to increase understanding of India. It should also promote greater learning about the U.S. in India.

Finally, India needs to act on initiatives to show specific U.S. constituencies — especially political and corporate ones — that their investment can yield tangible benefits. Both sides need to get beyond asserting that the relationship is not transactional, while constantly asking of the other “what have you done for me lately?” Realistically, foreign relations are not altruistic; both sides need to derive benefit for a partnership to be sustainable. Strategic partnerships require strategic patience, but they also require both sides to continue to believe that the patience will be worth it.