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Carnegie Endowment: Toward Realistic U.S.-India Relations

Author: George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
October 2010

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As President Obama prepares to visit India next month, he faces criticism that his administration has done too little to enhance U.S.-India relations. George Perkovich argues that expectations for a partnership between the two countries in the near term are unrealistically high and overlook how their interests, policies, and diplomatic style will often diverge. U.S. policy cannot do much to help India's rise, but it can inflict major damage on global problem-solving efforts if it defers too readily to the narrow, often mercantile demands of the current relationship.

Soon after the end of the George W. Bush presidency, many longtime observers in India and Washington charged his successor with abandoning the cause of elevating U.S.–India relations to the pinnacle of American foreign policy priorities. Veteran Indian diplomat Kanwal Sibal lamented, “The confidence of the Indian establishment that India–U.S. relations were set on a steep upward trajectory has eroded noticeably with President Obama replacing President Bush.” Daniel Twining, a former Bush administration official, reported in the Weekly Standard that Indians frequently say, “We miss Bush.” India's strategic community, he notes, is “concerned about (and in some cases, alarmed by) the president's approach to Pakistan; his strategy for Afghanistan; his willingness to pursue a more robust Asia policy that raises the costs of Chinese assertiveness; the absence of American leadership on trade; and his commitment to treating India as a key power and partner in world affairs in a way consistent with Indians' own sense of their country's rising stature and capabilities.” The Indian-born American scholar Sumit Ganguly wrote in Newsweek this April that “Barack Obama is in danger of reversing all the progress his predecessors, including George W. Bush, made in forging closer U.S. ties with India. Preoccupied with China and the Middle East, the Obama administration has allotted little room on its schedule for India, and failed to get much done in the short time it did make.”

Like a Rorschach test, commentary as President Obama prepares to go to India tells us as much about the authors as it does about the president, his policies, or India. Much of the commentary is negative, but this in part reflects the tendency of people to speak up only when they have something negative to say. More interesting is the proclivity of critical Indian pundits to yearn for the friendly presence of George W. Bush. For their part, many American commentators see Chinese and Pakistani monsters sneaking up behind Obama's thin, unsuspecting frame and wonder why he is not standing closer to India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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