Shed the gloom over Indo-US ties
August  10,  2012

Too many pundits in Delhi are writing premature obituaries for the Indo-US relationship. Though the highs of the nuclear deal and the rhetorical extravagance of the Bush years may have subsided, the basic forward thrust of the relationship is not in dispute, and the positive momentum is strongly supported by the influential Indian-American community in the United States.

Of course, Americans should not expect as much from India as they would from a close ally like Israel, but they are no longer the recipients of non-aligned diatribes from India, and New Delhi has voted with the United States more often than had once seemed likely on key issues before the UN Security Council, notably backing a US resolution on Syria in early 2012 rather than joining Russia and China in their opposition.

Relationship

Even when India and the US disagree, as they did on Libya and Iran, there is much more mutual understanding than before, and a respect for Indian ways of thinking on world issues that did not previously exist in Washington. On Burma, for instance, the United States, a staunch critic of India’s appeasement of its generals (so much so that Obama even mentioned India’s unsatisfactory Burma policy in his otherwise laudatory speech to our Parliament), has gradually veered around to the Indian point of view favouring engagement with Naypyidaw. The two countries consult each other on a wide range of subjects and at a significantly high level, in ways that simply were inconceivable a couple of decades ago. And when things go wrong for one country, the other one tends not to fish in troubled waters, as New Delhi’s refusal to be drawn into the recent US-Pakistan tensions testifies.

This is not to suggest that the relationship is perfect, or could not be improved. Many Indians feel that the United States could be doing more to give its friends in New Delhi ammunition in their efforts to resist the reflexive suspicion of ‘imperialist’ Washington in many influential circles in India. Many in Washington despair at what they see as India’s reluctance to oblige the United States tangibly on issues that matter to it. One can also point to India’s own seeming reluctance to take domestic decisions (from economic reform to market access issues to military realignments) that would make it a more worthwhile partner for the United States. For India to continue to be regarded as an important friend in the United States, however, it is not enough to rely on an American interest in helping India to displace sufficient weight in the world as to balance, or help constrain, less friendly powers. The two countries will have to develop the habits of substantive cooperation that make each turn naturally to the other on issues engaging both.

Indian public opinion is generally more favourably disposed to the United States than influential political leaders are, and this is particularly true of the younger generation, which has grown up without the anti-imperialist rhetoric of earlier years and sees much to admire in America’s free- enterprise culture. The shared values of democracy, the two countries’ use of a common language (with Indian English becoming increasingly Americanised) and congruent strategic goals should strengthen these ties.

Diaspora

The social links between Indians and Americans have also been deepening over the years, especially with the integration of the thriving Indian diaspora into the American mainstream, and the corresponding increase in American interest in the land of their forebears. (That diaspora is particularly prosperous – the median income of an Indian-American family is almost 79 per cent higher than the national median – and therefore disproportionately influential.)

India’s increasing economic opening will help, as will policies that provide more incentive to US businesses to invest in, and trade with, a market whose middle class is estimated by McKinsey as likely to reach 525 million by 2025. Economic engagement in the era of globalisation has reinforced these bonds, as more and more categories of people in both societies interact with and learn from each other.

The increasingly significant informal relationships between power brokers in the US and business leaders in India are another manifestation of this trend. Indian business leaders often attend the exclusive Bohemian Grove retreats, for instance, and the Aspen Institute has done an effective job of promoting strategic dialogue between the countries’ elites. The US India CEO Forum, set up by the two countries’ heads of government, is an example of harnessing the power of such relationships.

Risks

And yet there remain some potential flies in the proverbial ointment. One is undoubtedly the notoriously short-term American attention span to foreign affairs issues that do not appear to impinge directly on the country’s immediate security or welfare. A more inwardly focused domestic orientation, a more benign relationship with China and a post-Afghanwithdrawal indifference to South Asia could all lead Americans to forget the enthusiasm for India of the Bush years. Increased ‘America-first’ism would have consequences for Washington’s bilateral relationships with countries whose economies have become increasingly dependent on it, especially India’s.

Washington does not always appreciate that India cannot move faster on certain issues than it is currently doing, however frustrating that might seem to Americans (the nuclear liability issue is a case in point). India’s own stubborn emphasis on its independence of thought and action, while respected in principle by Washington, can sometimes grate there: as became apparent on the issue of sanctioning Iran, Washington may not always understand or fully appreciate India’s inability to agree with it, leading many to think of India as a false friend. And there is always the risk of complacency on the other side: the notion that the United States need not make more of a special effort with India since it has nowhere else to go but towards Washington, and that in any case it is too cussed to go far enough to make additional attention worthwhile.

There is an additional risk. America’s own gradual transformation from a globestraddling superpower to something less could have an impact on the relationship. An America in decline, if that is indeed what transpires, will both have less interest in India and be of less use to it in the world as a partner in its own rise.

Source: India Today

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