Uncertainties and black swans in the U.S.-India relationship

Editors’ Note: International relations almost never progress in a linear fashion. In this excerpt from a new Brookings India briefing book titled “India-U.S. Relations in Transition,” Tanvi Madan examines some of the high-impact but low-probability events that may affect the relationship in the future: so-called “black swans.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently said that the U.S.-India defense partnership would become “an anchor of global security.” But in an increasingly uncertain world, the partnership between these two large and relatively stable democracies can also potentially be a critical anchor of stability more broadly. Here are some black swans—low-probability, high-impact and, in hindsight, predictable events—that could exacerbate regional and global uncertainty and instability, and affect both countries’ interests and, potentially, their relationship. 

  • Regional Assertiveness: What might be the impact of greater Chinese or Russian assertiveness—even aggression? How might Russian actions against Ukraine, Georgia, or even a NATO member change not just U.S. calculations, but India’s as well? How will it affect their bilateral relationship? What about a China-U.S. confrontation over Taiwan or in the South China Sea? Or Chinese action against a country like Vietnam, with which India has close ties and which the United States is increasingly engaging? What if there is a sudden or serious deterioration of the situation in Tibet, perhaps in the context of a leadership transition? 
  • Chaos in India’s West: What happens if there is political uncertainty in Saudi Arabia, a country with which the United States has close—albeit tense—ties, and which is India’s largest oil supplier and home to millions of Indian citizens? How will the United States and India react if Iran, after all, decides to acquire nuclear weapons? What about the chain reaction either of these scenarios would set off in the Middle East? Closer to India, what if Afghanistan relapses into a total civil war? Or if there is a sharp downturn in stability within Pakistan, with the establishment challenged, the threat of disintegration, and challenges posed by the presence of nuclear weapons? 
  • Shocks to the Global Economy: What if a confluence of circumstance leads to a major spike in oil prices? What will the impact be of a major economic crisis in China, not just on the global economy or Chinese domestic stability, but also in terms of how Beijing might react externally? How will the United States and India deal with this scenario? And what if the eurozone collapses under the weight of refugee flows, Britain’s threatened exit, or national financial crises? 
  • The Epoch-Defining Security Shock: Both the United States and India have suffered major attacks relatively recently—the United States on September 11, 2001 and India on November 26, 2008. But what if there is another major terrorist attack in either country or on the two countries’ interests or citizens elsewhere? Or a major cyber incident that takes down critical infrastructure? 
  • Environmental Challenges: What if rising sea levels cause a catastrophe in Bangladesh resulting in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, crossing over into India? And then there are the various climate change-related challenges that can perhaps be considered “white swans”—more-certain events, whose effects can be more easily estimated. 

In addition, one could think of domestic black swans in each country and some in the bilateral context. These might include dramatic domestic political developments, or a spark causing a major backlash against immigrants in the United States or American citizens in India. 

As the U.S.-India partnership has developed, and India’s regional and global involvements have increased, the U.S.-India conversation—and not just the official one—has assumed greater complexity. This will help the two countries tackle black swans in the future. So will the further institutionalization of discussions on global and regional issues of the sort already underway. Amid the day-to-day priorities, there should be room for discussing contingencies for black swans in dialogues between the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and the Indian Foreign Secretary, in the two countries’ dialogue on East Asia, and in discussions between the two policy planning units.