Three years after the conclusion of the path-breaking civilian nuclear agreement, the U.S.-India relationship suffers from the lack of a new energizing project. In its first year or so, the Obama administration did not display much interest in continuing its predecessor’s high-profile engagement with New Delhi, turning its attention instead to expanding ties with Beijing. To be sure, the United States more recently has moved to re-engage India, as evidenced by the warm sentiment flowing from President Obama’s state visit last November. The problem is that Mr. Obama’s rhetoric during the trip made it sound like the visit was more connected to his export-promotion initiative than to any grand foreign policy objective.
For its part, New Delhi is a constrained strategic partner, one that is not well-equipped – ideologically or institutionally – to take on bold bilateral projects. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally did manage to push the nuclear agreement through a balky Parliament, his victory was in important measure pyrrhic, in the end revealing just how small the consensus (see the analysis here and here) is among Indian political elites for undertaking ambitious bilateral initiatives.
The paucity of visible leadership in both capitals is problematic. It is true that both governments are collaborating as never before at the bureaucratic level. But the U.S.-India partnership has yet to find sure footing and still lacks sufficient institutionalization to advance the new era in bilateral relations. Robert Blackwill has warned that “neither the U.S. nor the Indian bureaucracies at present are yet prepared instinctively to facilitate a deeper and more intimate degree of cooperation between the two countries….It is going to take leadership and direction from the top to change old habits and attitudes.” Ronen Sen has made a similar point: “We have not reached the point where the relationship can be placed on auto-pilot. It still needs to be nurtured.” And the Hindustan Times noted last year that the Washington-New Delhi connection is still not yet “a machine that will move on its own steam.”
The burden of advancing bilateral affairs, at least in the next few years, will have to be borne by the key societal bonds that helped build the relationship in the first place. Headlines about the nuclear cooperation accord and expanding military ties notwithstanding, it is important to bear in mind that the foundation for the partnership was actually forged outside the realm of government policy and far beyond the confines of Washington and New Delhi. Unlike most of the relationships maintained by the United States with other leading countries, the one with India is distinguished by the signal role played by societal ties and privatesector initiatives. As Shivshankar Menon, now Prime Minister Singh’s national security advisor, remarked last year, “[I]f anything, the creativity of [American and Indian] entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists has sometimes exceeded that of our political structures.” And Nicholas Burns, who did yeoman’s work in hammering out the details of the nuclear accord, emphasizes that societal bonds are “the greatest strength in the relationship” and that “the big breakthrough in U.S.-India relations was achieved originally by the private sector.”
Consider, for example, the dynamics at work a little more than a decade ago. In response to the 1998 nuclear tests, Washington imposed an array of economic sanctions on India and expelled visiting Indian scientists from U.S. government laboratories. Yet at the same time, concerns about the “Y2K” programming problem led companies in Silicon Valley and in India to set the foundation for today’s strong technology partnership. And as I wrote earlier, the Indian-American community, relatively small but highly influential, has lead the way in building new ties between its native and adoptive countries.
The significant role played by these societal bonds has caused Fareed Zakaria to compare U.S.-India ties to the special relationships the United States has with Great Britain and Israel. Shashi Tharoor has likewise remarked that “in 20 years I expect the Indo-U.S. relationship to resemble the Israel-U.S. relationship, and for many of the same reasons.”
Although they are often overlooked by national policymakers, societal bonds give fuller texture and equipoise to the bilateral partnership than could be hoped to be achieved at the intergovernmental level alone. And at a time when bureaucratic mechanisms are not firing on all cylinders, strengthening these ties will be one key in securing the growth of broad-based, resilient relations over the long term since they work to limit the risk that political and diplomatic frictions could escalate and disrupt the overall U.S.-India partnership.
This is particularly important as the structural dynamics of the bilateral relationship will prove challenging to manage in the future. The basic framework of U.S. security and economic relations with a number of key countries in Europe and Asia was laid down in another era of world politics, when the national power of these states was in decline. The resulting alliances were, and in many ways still remain, unequal partnerships. In contrast, India’s power trajectory is upward.
Moreover, foreign policy elites in New Delhi continue to insist on the prerogative of strategic autonomy and, hence, are unlikely to accommodate Washington’s priorities as readily as other U.S. allies. With continuing divergences over foreign policy objectives, frictions will inevitably develop on a range of issues – from global trade negotiations, climate change and nonproliferation policy, to differential approaches on Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as India’s bid for a higher profile in world affairs. As Nick Burns cautions “the United States must adjust to a friendship with India that will feature a wider margin of disagreement than [Washington is] accustomed to.”