Working with India
Political Costs in New Delhi and Washington
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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