U.S.-India Relations

November 4, 2007

This column is adapted from their longer article, Breaking More Naan with Delhi, appearing in the Nov-Dec issue of The National Interest.

The US-India civilian nuclear deal—probably the single most important agreement ever signed between the two countries—is in serious political trouble. Amid stiff opposition from the Left parties, India may be moving toward rejecting the pact. For close observers of the Indian scene, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise.

Disagreements and strongly held views on nuclear issues in both New Delhi and Washington have dominated our relations for more than a quarter of a century. It will take time and patience to sort these out and to bring along the domestic constituencies needed to sustain a more constructive nuclear relationship between the US and India.

It’s also important to recognise that the nuclear agreement is an important part—but not the sum total—of the much improved and expanding broad-based relationship between our two countries. The overwhelming bipartisan congressional support for the nuclear legislation that President George Bush signed last December reflects the consensus of American foreign policy strategists that India will be one of America’s most crucial partners in the 21st century. Indeed, the current state of relations between the two countries is an example of something all too rare in US foreign policy, namely “Policy Continuity”, beginning with President Bill Clinton’s turning-point March 2000 visit to India and accelerated during the Bush administration.

There is every reason to believe that strong bipartisan support for strengthening US-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—”Policy Continuity Plus”.

Underpinning the ‘PC Plus’ agenda should be a concerted effort to realise the full economic potential of the US-India relationship. Steps need to be taken to deepen commercial ties, identify and remove impediments, and clear the way for a new era of trade cooperation.

In addition to generating greater investment, US 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 (FTA), for instance. The US-India Business Council is currently 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 an FTA—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 jehadist terrorism.

Part of a PC Plus agenda therefore involves strengthening India-US military cooperation as well as achieving a breakthrough to ensure greater defence technology sharing through co-production opportunities. The two countries, both targets of terrorist attacks, should also expand their counter-terrorism cooperation.

Enhanced US-India cooperation should extend to the institutions of global governance. Here the US is missing an excellent opportunity to do what the Bush administration has said is its goal: “To help India become a major power in the 21st century.” It is time for the US to publicly support India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and to work actively with India (and others) to accomplish the goal of Security Council expansion. In addition, the next administration should institutionalise a closer, cooperative relationship between the US (and the leading industrialised nations) and India and China by making these two rising powers formal members of an expanded Group of Eight.As former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke recently said, “G-8 communiques on energy, climate change, AIDS, Africa and poverty will remain empty and meaningless” without them.

The next US president will face a multitude of foreign problems and crises, but one country will pose almost unique opportunity, India. The world’s two largest democracies have their best relationship ever. Hopefully building on the successful conclusion of the US-India civilian nuclear deal (a win-win for both countries), 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 US has in the 21st Century.