Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

Perceptions, Reality, and U.S.-India Relations

If not even Americans believe their country is the world’s leading economic power today, how can India be expected to work on that assumption?

Scanning the vast amounts of Indian commentary in the aftermath of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit, the overall reaction appears to have been a…big…collective…yawn. It’s not as if nothing happened. Mrs. Clinton made a positive statement about wanting to see India take on a bigger role in the region (risking some minor heart palpitations in Islamabad).  Her sojourn down south to Chennai was a wise decision, and a welcome signal of the region’s positive development. And simply continuing regular high-level interactions between the U.S. and Indian governments was good, if only for further instilling habits of dialogue and familiarity between the two sides.

As Indrani Bagchi rightly points out, however, we can’t expect a major advance in U.S.-India relations before 2014. In Washington, political bandwidth is being taken up by domestic battles, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Iran, and the Arab Spring on the foreign policy front. With presidential elections scheduled for November 2012, there is not going to be any appetite for a major push on U.S.-India relations. In India, the diminished political capital of the UPA coalition means little can be expected before the next general elections. On the plus side, second presidential terms in the United States have traditionally seen greater attention paid to India, as under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, while Indian governments have on occasion made foreign policy breakthroughs from positions of political weakness. Nonetheless, the medium-term picture for bilateral U.S.-India relations looks uninspiring, if not bleak.

A continuing challenge in the interim is managing expectations, particularly in Washington. For many in the United States—including some favourably inclined towards India—New Delhi has simply not done enough to justify greater investment. They point to what, from their standpoint, are important setbacks, such as the nuclear liability legislation, India’s positions on global trade, its votes at the UN Security Council, the MMRCA shortlisting that excluded U.S. suppliers, and an absence of movement on reforms that would enhance U.S. market access and otherwise benefit American businesses.

This attitude is shortsighted, for it assumes two things. One, that the relationship is transactional, which in turn implies that India’s value for the United States is of a similar quality—although perhaps on a different scale—to other key relationships. Two, many (not least, Fareed ‘Rise of the Rest’ Zakaria) believe that India needs the United States as a partner more than the other way around.

But these assumptions overlook important changes to the international system, hastened by the financial crisis and recession in the United States. In 2005-07, it was possible to make the argument that India had no real alternative to the United States as its primary international partner, as it was widely perceived as the world’s preeminent economic power. After 2008—and certainly the past two years—that argument has become harder to make. If, as polls indicate, not even the American public believes their country is the world’s leading economic power today, how can India be expected to be persuaded by that argument? All of this might suggest that U.S. priorities should be at home, in line with Richard Haass’s call for a grand strategy of “restoration“.

Perhaps. But building up national power domestically does not a foreign policy doctrine make. Moreover, the United States is desperately short of friends in an increasingly multipolar world, at least friends who are large, rising powers with converging interests on first-order challenges, shared values, and the entire gamut of military, economic, and diplomatic tools at their disposal. For one reason or another, none of China, the European Union, Japan, or Russia makes the cut. If the United States wants a fruitful partnership with India, altering perceptions about its decline would certainly help. But that is no excuse for not investing more in a bilateral relationship that will render intangible benefits well in excess of two nuclear reactors or a paltry $10 billion in arms deals.

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