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Working with India

Political Costs in New Delhi and Washington
16 February 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

India often finds itself making major demands of the United States. It asked the U.S. to rewrite global nonproliferation rules to accommodate India’s status as a de facto nuclear power (accomplished under the George W. Bush administration), to revise U.S. technology export controls so that Indian companies and India’s military can gain access to more advanced U.S. technology (a priority for the Obama administration), and to advocate permanent membership for India in the UN Security Council (a goal to which no U.S. administration has yet committed itself).

But America turns to India rarely; and when it does, in important areas from climate change to global trade to isolating Iran, India’s approach is often at odds with that of the United States. This limits the extent of the U.S.-India relationship. Indeed, many Indian politicians are sensitive about even the perception of aligning with the United States. While it doesn’t help to blindly accuse India of intransigence without understanding its policy environment, we would be equally mistaken to deny that the relationship will have limits until circumstances change.

Carnegie scholar Ashley Tellis noted in the Times of India last month that many Americans are asking “what India can give the United States in return for the advantages it often seeks.” Ashley sidesteps the issue by stating the relationship cannot be quid pro quo while Indian and American power are still asymmetric. America should simply help India, then (including by working to include it on the UN Security Council) because a powerful India is in America’s interest. And India will help the United States where it can, and when doing so is in its interest.

But the problem, for now, is not necessarily one of differing interests. India has much to lose as a result of climate change, for instance. When the U.S. and India share interests, it is domestic politics that most limits the ability of the Indian government to align itself publicly with America. The uproar over the nuclear deal reflected this. Even where working with America is clearly in India’s interests–the nuclear deal, for instance, is making it possible for India to import nuclear technology from countries like France, Russia, and Korea–doing so is politically costly for Indian politicians.

For this reason, I find Ashley’s argument ultimately unsatisfying. The bilateral relationship one would hope to see with India should surely not be quid pro quo. But India has to be willing to work with the United States in areas where it counts, and where interests align. If politics continues to keep Indian politicians from working with the United States, an asymmetric relationship will be more asymmetric than it ought to be, and could become politically unsustainable in Washington. This would be a loss for both countries.

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2 Comments »

  • Ashesh Prasann said:

    Dan, I disagree with the premise that only domestic politics prevents India from a closer relationship with the U.S.

    On trade and climate, India’s interests are very much those of a developing country, with 60% of the population engaged in agriculture (explaining being at loggerheads with the US at Doha) and 45% extremely poor (making it hard to accept legally binding emission cuts).

    On Iran, while India does not support sanctions against it, it did vote against it at three IAEA resolutions between 2005 and 2009. These were significant moves for India, which has had warm relations with Iran since the heydays of nonalignment. In fact, this vote was criticized in many quarters as a test set up by the US for India during the nuke deal negotiations.

    Also, the unwillingness to have a closer relationship is reciprocated by the US on an issue like Afghanistan. Both countries have a convergence of interest there, with India even more leery of any reconciliation with the Taliban (it was the only country to express dissent against negotiation with the Taliban at the recent London Conference). While it is unlikely to send troops there, it could have contributed to US efforts by supplying military trainers. But the idea was shot down during the US strategy review because of Pakistan’s apprehensions.

    Finally, I take the point that there is a reflexive distrust of US geopolitical motives in certain Indian political circles. It was a significant political cost during the nuke deal negotiations as well. But it does not explain the divergence between India and the US on many issues. Divergence of interests does.

  • Daniel Michaeli (author) said:

    Ashesh, thanks for the comment. I agree with you that many of the differences between India and the United States come from their differing stages of development (and different interests more generally). I think this is something many Americans can understand.

    The problem is that, for the relationship to mature, India and the U.S. will need to find ways of working together better where interests do align. (This includes the Afghanistan/Pakistan issue.) As part of this, ideally Indian domestic politics won’t be the impediment that it is now in many areas. In Copenhagen, for instance, much of the specific disagreement with India was not on the basic structure of how an agreement should look; it had to do with Indian concerns about not wanting to allow the West to scrutinize the results of climate measures it was already offering to adopt.

    I don’t hold the U.S. blameless, by any means. In the run-up to Copenhagen, for instance, America devoted far less attention to India than to China, suggesting that the administration does not prioritize U.S.-India bilateral cooperation as it should.

    My fundamental concern is if the U.S. and India don’t develop habits of cooperation now, and if the Indian public is not supportive of a comprehensive bilateral relationship, the potential for cooperation will always be limited, even as more interests do come into alignment. This is why making an argument based almost entirely on national interests is, I believe, missing much of the picture.

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