February 7, 2006

WAITING ON A FRIEND (via Mike Daley):

Getting India Right

By Parag Khanna and C. Raja Mohan
Parag Khanna is a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Second World, forthcoming from Random House. C. Raja Mohan is strategic affairs editor of the Indian Express in New Delhi.

For those who missed the symbolism of Indian flags draped from the White House’s Old Executive Office Building, President George Bush’s words on the morning of July 18, 2005, while standing next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, drove home an emerging reality with trademark pithiness: “The relationship between our two nations has never been stronger, and it will grow even closer in the days and years to come.” Combined with the Bush administration’s visible push to strengthen Japan’s hand in managing Asian security, the Indian prime minister’s visit to Washington cemented a growing de facto strategic partnership between the United States and India.

Numerous American officials already used the term “irreversible” to describe the course of Indo-U.S. relations. No U.S. president visited India between January 1978 and March 2000, when President Clinton made a historic trip to the Subcontinent. Cabinet-level exchanges have since become routine, and President Bush’s planned visit in early spring 2006 will reflect an agenda that has come to encompass shared global interests and concerns ranging from Iran and China to nuclear cooperation and biotechnology. Some have begun to see Bush’s visit to India as similar, in both intent and consequence, to that of Richard Nixon to China in 1972 — which transformed Sino-U.S. relations and the global balance of power for the next three decades.

Given the bilateral tensions over nuclear proliferation in the 1990s, such strong relations are in themselves remarkable. When viewed through the prism of geopolitical shifts, however, Indo-U.S. alignment is if anything long overdue. [...]

When President Bush visits India, he will surely reiterate his administration’s support of India’s emergence as a great power. But America cannot itself make India great, nor can it guarantee that India’s emerging power will be used to the benefit of American interests. Indeed, plausible scenarios for U.S.-India relations still range from having India as stable democratic ally in the heart of Asia to India as a reluctant partner in the Sino-Russian anti-hegemonic coalition. As Manmohan Singh declared on the eve of his July visit to Washington, “We are an independent power; we are not a client state; we are not a supplicant. As two equal societies, we should explore together where there is convergence of interests and work together.”

A broad, integrated American policy towards India should therefore begin by asking how America can promote — rather than interfere in or manipulate — the complementarity of Indian policies and American interests. For the hopes of an enduring alliance on the scale of America’s relations with Japan to materialize, U.S.-India relations will have to be constantly nurtured and the competing sets of priorities jostling for influence in both Washington and New Delhi mastered. Building a strategic partnership with India will test America’s ability to engage an independent democracy that has had no record of security or economic dependence on the United States. [...]

t has become the norm to speak of India as a “natural ally” of the United States, and in the first years of the Bush administration, India transacted more political business with the United States than in the previous 40. That public attitudes in India toward the United States have begun to shift in a fundamental manner was evident in a recent Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey. Of all the countries surveyed, pro-American sentiment was strongest in India, where 71 percent of respondents reported a favorable view.

Yet bilateral relations have continued to carry some of the baggage of historical antagonism. India lost its independence when America gained its own, and when India did become free, it placed itself essentially on the opposite side of the Cold War from the U.S., leading to decades of mutual suspicion and mistrust. Though in the 1950s the U.S. had pledged to pursue a “non-zero sum” relationship with India and Pakistan, American weapons found their way into Pakistan’s arsenal during the two countries’ second major war in 1965. Though Jawaharlal Nehru himself believed that the U.S. and India should be natural democratic allies, and though India’s shared commitment to the ideals of the European enlightenment is evident in its secular democracy, it was only with the passing of both colonialism and the Cold War that India and the U.S. could undertake a systematic and lasting rapprochement.

On the whole, the 1990s saw a number of missed opportunities for deepened strategic engagement with India. Though respectful of India’s democratic character, the Clinton administration saw India primarily as a nuclear proliferation threat; India’s troubled relations with Pakistan and the violent insurgency in Kashmir also topped America’s diplomatic agenda with India. At the time, it was not even clear whether the U.S. considered the emergence of a strong, liberal and democratic India in its interest. Reflecting on this period, influential Congress Party minister Jairam Ramesh remarked, “We find the Americans over-bearing, preachy and sanctimonious . . . insensitive to our needs, aspirations, challenges and threats.”

This was to change rapidly. A succession of events — India’s nuclear tests in 1998, the Kargil war of 1999, and the Musharraf coup in Pakistan — created the circumstances for putting relations on a new, more even keel. It may seem ironic that this rapprochement occurred only after India conducted its nuclear tests. Though India proved that it would not buckle under the pressure of American economic sanctions and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (ctbt), the Clinton administration, in India’s view, continued its policy of condoning Chinese missile and nuclear technology transfers to Pakistan.3 Through an intensive year-long dialogue between then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, the U.S. came to a de facto acceptance of India’s nuclear capability and posture. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure in 1999, followed by the Musharraf coup — the first in a nuclear-armed nation — validated India’s concerns over its volatile Western neighbor. By the time Clinton visited India in March 2000, he praised India as history’s greatest melting pot in a speech before parliament and signed a “vision statement” for future cooperation. By contrast, he scarcely left Air Force One when it landed in Islamabad for six hours. He lamented the return of military rule in Pakistan and admonished those who “struggle in vain to redraw borders with blood.” Clinton’s personal intervention in the Kargil escalation and his subsequent visit convinced many Indians for the first time that the U.S. could indeed play a constructive role in the region. Yet the Clinton administration could not bring itself to transcend the nonproliferation dilemmas and consider the geopolitical importance of strengthening India’s power capabilities; that had to wait until the advent of the Bush Administration. [...]

India’s quest to go global has not only reached the United States; in many ways it originates here. Numbering almost two million, Indian-Americans are now the wealthiest ethnic minority in the country, boasting a median income of $60,000 and 200,000 millionaires. Fifteen percent of Silicon Valley start-ups have been launched by Indians, many of them first-generation immigrants who have chosen to make the U.S. their home. Indian-Americans are also leaders in the medical and financial professions and — following in the footsteps of the Jewish diaspora — are increasingly seeking to match their rising economic and social status with political clout. Though India has yet to learn the ropes of lobbying hard for its interests in the areas of steel, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and weapons, it has pushed membership in the bipartisan India Caucus of the House of Representatives to over 130 congressmen. Furthermore, a half-century after Dilip Singh Saund, the first Asian to serve in the U.S. Congress, the savvy young Bobby Jindal was elected a Republican member of the House from Louisiana in November 2004. Jindal’s fast-track academic career is also but one example of Indians’ amazingly disproportionate representation on Ivy League campuses. Given the Indian diaspora’s contributions to American economic and cultural life, the more than 50 percent decrease in h1-b visas for Indian professionals has been extremely disturbing to Indians in both countries, and the 25 percent drop in mba applicants from India is similarly worrying. If the U.S. does not allow Indian nationals to become Indian-Americans — in a demonstration of American pride, many prefer this term to be de-hyphenated as well — it ignores the Asia Foundation’s advice that the Bush administration should “continue to take advantage of Indian-Americans as a bridge” between Washington and New Delhi.

Towards the end of the Cold War in 1989, the Pentagon commissioned the Rand Corporation’s George Tanham to report on India’s strategic thinking; he famously concluded that there was none. This is no longer the case. India is beginning to rediscover the enduring elements of its own traditional geopolitical thinking and actively considering partnership with America, if only to advance its own interests. Within a constellation of shifting regional alliances among major states and powers such as the U.S., eu, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China, South Korea, and Japan, India’s relevance to the future of international power balances is assured. India’s strategic canvas is broadening, as is its thinking in the military, economic, diplomatic, and cultural realms. America’s trade with China will eclipse that which it has with India for years to come, but democratic India is sure to be a more reliable partner.
To some considerable extent the Clinton Administration has to be viewed as little more than fallow years.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 7, 2006 11:48 AM

To a great extent, the rapproachment and alliance between America and India was inevitable after the end of the Cold War. The obstacles in the way simply needed time to remove them. I do not discredit Clinton for not forcing the relationship sooner than natural, nor do I credit Bush with any particular genius for going with the flow afterwards. I see a lot more continuity than OJ does. The media is clueless as always, but unless a place is great for tourists, the media is generally bad on foreign issues.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at February 7, 2006 12:43 PM

compare the attention clinton gave to yassar arafat with the time he spent on india. if clinton had performed well in other ways then his inattention to india might be explained, but it is part and parcel with his overall fecklessness.

Posted by: toe at February 7, 2006 6:34 PM