from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

US-India: Strategic Partners with a Limitless Future

September 15, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) waves after meeting with India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao (R) upon her arrival into New Delhi India in July, 2011. (B Mathur/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past decade relations between India and the United States—the world’s two largest democracies—have utterly transformed. Carefully nurtured, this bilateral relationship should become one of the world’s strategic pivots and improve prospects for global peace and prosperity in the twenty-first century.

But this transition will require psychological adjustments from both nations. India must shed outdated mindsets that still dominate much of its foreign policy elite and accept the obligations of its surging power. And the United States must accept a more collective form of global leadership, in which others shape the terms and conditions of multilateral cooperation. If New Delhi and Washington can make this transition, their partnership has a limitless future.

This is the central insight of a joint study group report released today by CFR and Aspen Institute India (AII), The United States and India: A Shared Strategic Future. The high-level study group, including luminaries from both countries, was co-chaired by Robert Blackwill, former U.S. ambassador to India, and Naresh Chandra, chairman of India’s national security advisory board. As the report makes clear, the two countries share a slew of interests. Both seek:

  • to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, fissile material and related technology;
  • to combat Islamic radicalism and jihadi terrorism—particularly emanating from Pakistan— and stabilize the dangerous neighborhood of South and Central Asia;
  • to promote a stable balance of power in Asia, as a hedge against a rising China;
  • to ensure maritime security in the Indian Ocean, through which fifty percent of container shipping and seventy percent of oil shipments transit;
  • to encourage an open, rule-bound international economy, with reduced barriers to trade and investment;
  •  to pursue joint energy security and developing clean technologies to combat climate change;
  • and to promote their shared vision of stable, democratic governance within diverse, multicultural societies.

In sum, from Washington’s perspective, India “is a force for stability, prosperity, democracy, and the rule of law in a very dangerous neighborhood.”

No surprise then, that, the United States and India have recently moved from their historic estrangement to deep engagement. The biggest breakthrough, of course, was the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal signed during the administration of George W. Bush. Though controversial, the arrangement has helped to normalize India’s nuclear status, despite its non-membership of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.  President Obama has built on the deal by supporting India’s gradual entry into four major multilateral export control regimes (the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group, and Wassenar Arrangement).

Washington and New Delhi view each other as indispensable partners in stabilizing the balance of power in Asia. The U.S. military now conducts regular maneuvers with India’s expanding armed forces, which now boasts the world’s third largest army, fourth largest air force, and fifth largest navy. Washington has also encouraged India’s “look east” policy towards Southeast Asia, its membership in the East Asia Summit, and its growing links with fellow democracies Japan, South Korea, and Australia. In short, India is emerging as a U.S. military ally in all but name. It should be treated accordingly, starting with the elimination of outdated export control restrictions.

India has also emerged as one of the staunchest U.S. allies in the global campaign against terrorism. The victim of multiple devastating attacks, including in Mumbai in November 2008, India shares Washington’s interest in stabilizing Afghanistan and ending Pakistan’s distinction as the world’s leading exporter of jihadi terrorism. The abject failure of billions of U.S. aid dollars to persuade Pakistan to take firm steps against Islamic extremism has left both the United States and India in the cross-hairs—and compels them to deepen intelligence and law enforcement cooperation to prevent further attacks and secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if the state collapses.

The U.S.-India strategic partnership is also driven by economic imperatives. India’s recent economic performance has been impressive, averaging 7.6 percent annual growth over the past decade. After weathering the global economic crisis, India grew by an astonishing 10.4 percent in 2010. India’s booming economy, led by an English-speaking elite and middle class, offers huge opportunities for U.S. trade and investment. Bilateral trade has quadrupled in the past decade but remains lower than it could be, due to remaining commercial barriers. Given the moribund state of the Doha round—partly as a result of Indian agricultural protection—the United States should aim for a more piecemeal bilateral trade agreement with India (along the lines of the one the EU is negotiating). India’s modernization will only increase its demand for infrastructure, transportation networks, energy production, and defense systems. Pending a bilateral investment treaty—which should be a priority—U.S. firms will be well positioned to help meet these needs.  There is also ample opportunity for joint investment in clean energy technology, as well as cooperation on forest conservation.

Nevertheless, two frictions continue to stress relations.  From a U.S. perspective, India at times seems trapped in a post-colonial mindset that privileges developing world solidarity over other values, including human rights and democracy, complicating U.S. policy goals from Burma to Zimbabwe. India also maintains a strongly noninterventionist stance within the United Nations, generally opposing the use of coercive instruments. It usually opposes sanctions or the use of force to enforce UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, whether the challenge is restraining Iranian nuclear ambitions or ending Qaddafi’s brutality. Such attitudes give pause to U.S. officials and outside experts who worry about India’s likely behavior as a permanent member of the UNSC, notwithstanding President Obama’s declaration of support. Will India take a global view of its responsibilities, or cling to a more parochial role?

Second, India has not yet formulated a clear vision of its role in the world—nor signaled its readiness to assume the burdens of shared global leadership its emerging great power status implies. Within India, strategic thinking remains immature. This is partly a function of India’s under-developed diplomatic “software,” as my colleague Dan Markey observes. But it also reflects India’s fractious domestic politics. Currents of anti-Americanism and suspicion of U.S. imperialist agendas remain strong within India’s main political parties, and nearly derailed the historic U.S.-India nuclear deal, to cite one example. Perhaps more importantly, India confronts daunting internal development challenges. India remains desperately poor—with some 37 percent of the population under the poverty line, and with 400 million people lacking electricity. This combination of unclear vision, volatile internal politics, and pressing domestic priorities makes one wonder just how much India can—and will be willing—to contribute to global public goods. In view of these internal constraints, the Indian government will be sorely tempted to free ride on the contributions of others, even as it insists on entrée and voice in the world’s leading forums of global governance, from the UNSC to the Group of 20 to the World Bank and IMF.

Given Bob Blackwill’s leadership in spearheading the transformation of U.S.-India relations during the administration of George W. Bush, it is no surprise that the CFR-AII study group is bullish on the future of this strategic partnership. But realizing this vision—and its limitless potential—will require a modern India committed to responsible global leadership, and willing to shoulder burdens for world order.

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