May 15, 2006


What India wants (Christopher Griffin, 5/15/06, Armed Forces Journal)

In principle, my first stop in Delhi was the perfect venue to discuss the question of how to square India’s longstanding ties to Iran with its new strategic partnership with the U.S. The Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, an elite foreign-ministry-funded think tank, was holding its annual Asian Security Conference on India’s relations with the Middle East, or in deference to the local nomenclature, “Southwest Asia.” I would see Indians talking to Indians, not performing for an American audience.

Alas, my hopes for a nuanced discussion of India’s emerging security strategy, or indeed any other issue, were immediately dashed. Early speakers set the tone for the conference when they declared that U.S. efforts to “dominate” the region had done “no good and much harm” and presented India with “a choice between harmony and hegemony” in international relations. Later speakers would alternate between lambasting America’s Middle East policy as oil-grubbing and defending India’s relationships with such countries as Sudan and Iran as necessary in the face of Washington’s efforts to “squeeze India out” of the global energy market. Not the sort of stuff the Bush administration has been touting.

But as the conference wrapped up — and as my despair peaked — one of the organizers took me aside and said: “Ignore everything you’ve just heard.” He explained that although Indians criticize the U.S. and the Singh government, they privately support closer relations with Washington. Indian intellectuals would require more time before they could break free of vestigial mistrust of America and embrace an emerging strategic partnership.

While it initially sounded as though he was apologizing to a dinner guest who had been insulted, the more time passed, the more I saw his point.


In both capitals, the public debate on U.S.-Indian relations is too often obsessed with the bogeymen of the past. Whether it is the fear that India can only be developing ballistic capabilities in order to target the U.S., or apprehension that the current nuclear deal is just another Yankee ploy to undermine India’s strategic ambitions, public, political dialogue — what bureaucrats call “track two” — this is has not caught up to the “track one” diplomatic agreements between the two capitals.

This perception gap is dangerous because it creates political pressures to limit the scope of a strategic partnership that’s barely begun, and which may unravel the progress of the last five years. As one Indian diplomat warned when I asked about the cost of failure to carry out the nuclear deal: “Anybody who expects that, if this deal doesn’t go through, then the morning after will be the same as the day before, will be wrong. ... The next time there is a tsunami disaster, we might not take your call.”

In sum, it is more than possible to destroy the potential of the partnership, and destroy it fairly quickly. This is because the partnership is starting from a weak position: Although officials in Washington and Delhi recognize the necessity for greater cooperation, there have been no major “deliverables” that skeptics would demand in exchange for closer ties.

Indeed, a near-term focus is the major source of confusion in Washington and Delhi; witness the proliferation of litmus tests and ultimatums. This U.S.-Indian relationship should not be judged in terms of immediate deliverables, but the gradual convergence of national interests. This is the essence of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s characterization of the U.S. and India as “natural allies.” Although there are strong reasons for the relationship to come to fruition, it can only occur with concerted, sustained effort.

Trends indicate that over the next 20 to 50 years, India will emerge as one of the world’s great powers. And the Bush administration believes that as Indian power grows, Delhi will assume greater responsibility for regional and international security. India shares Washington’s support of democracy at home and abroad, opposition to international terrorism and concerns about the security of the sea lines of communication upon which the world economy depends. Philip Zelikow, the State Department official who has been one of the key architects of the Bush administration policy, said the goal is “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century.”

Bharat Verma, publisher of Indian Defense Review, explained the Indian view of partnership to me: “We won’t hand over strategic autonomy to anyone, but our strategic autonomy does not conflict with American interests.”

But just because India’s rise will not conflict with American interests does not mean there won’t be differing priorities or diverging perceptions. Thus, the challenge for American strategists is to shape India’s understanding of its own power, of its own growing strategic interests, of its role in the world. An essential means will be to tie U.S.-Indian cooperation into those fields where India’s abilities are growing most rapidly.

The key to a special relationship in foreign affairs is that your interests are sufficiently mutual that even a rough patch or two won't matter much in the long run. Thus, Britain and America can be at odds every once in awhile, but our backgrounds, cultures, and national interests are so similar we're generally there for each other -- or at least not actively opposed to one another -- when push comes to shove. Not only does India share some considerable portion of that culture but since its natural enemies are China and Sunni Pakistan there's every reason to believe we'll be forced back into each other's arms even if there should be kerfuffles and fusses over trivial issues.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 15, 2006 1:32 PM

"...U.S. efforts to dominate the region had done no good and much harm ...Americas Middle East policy as oil-grubbing ..."

What is new? The Indians are just parroting what they heard from CNN, and what they read in Time and Newsweek. I heard the same thing on CNN when I was in Beijing last year. Our enemy is our MSM, the foremost anti-American propaganda machine.

Posted by: ic at May 15, 2006 5:09 PM