A moment for realism

The case for India-U.S. partnership has been always strong, but the romanticism accompanying it is on test

June 22, 2017 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:44 pm IST

India has complained of American lack of sympathy for its concerns in its policy towards Pakistan. (Representational image)

India has complained of American lack of sympathy for its concerns in its policy towards Pakistan. (Representational image)

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump shake hands and perhaps embrace each other next week, the mandatory encomiums about India and U.S. being the world’s largest and oldest democracies, respectively, would have a sombre undertone to them. Both these democracies are passing through testing times.

Two nations in churning

Powerful political forces are trying to re-litigate principles that have held for decades in India, and have evolved over centuries in America. This ongoing re-litigation involves, at the functional level, some fundamental questions about citizenship, individual and collective rights, particularly religious rights, the terms of engagement between the state and citizens, the balance of power between various branches of the government, the role of the media, etc. At the conceptual level, what is being debated is the question of national identity itself. As recurring incidents show in both countries, this process is oftentimes violent, and not based on a commonly agreed set of facts. And facts are being invented and misrepresented, including in cases where historical records and scientific evidence do not leave any such scope. This internal debate on democracy is also testing the resilience of institutional checks and balances, the bedrock of both democracies. While both India and the U.S are pondering over the values that define them as nations, talking of shared values — the bond between the two countries — may sound incongruous.

The other shared bond is of interests. America is deeply divided on what its national interests are. It is unable to decide who are its friends and who are its enemies. Indian commentators have over the years admired America for its single-minded pursuit of its strategic culture, its ability and willingness to use military power to change the course of world politics. But the Trump movement is based on a public repudiation of this strategic culture. The President has repeatedly called out the country’s war planners and strategic thinkers. It is not that he is offering any alternative thinking; in fact, his actions are contradicting his own stated positions on so many fronts. He believes that championing a new era of military build-up is essential for making America great again, though he has called American interventions in recent decades “stupid”. It is unlikely that America’s strategic behaviour would change dramatically, but the fact remains that it now has a President who believes that what America has been pursuing all this while is not its national interest.

Resisting Chinese expansionism has been a shared interest between India and the U.S in recent years, and the rising defence cooperation between the two countries is testimony to that. But the American attitude to China, and the way it sees India in that equation, is more nuanced than the linear notion prevalent in India. In the order of American threat perceptions, China appears to be quite low at the moment, with Russia climbing to the top as a conventional threat — yet another point on which the security establishment and the President are not on the same page. Islamism and the potential for nuclear adventurism by North Korea or Iran come much higher on the list than China.

Not a military threat

China is not a military threat to the American mainland unlike Russia, which has the capability even if not the intent. Economic ties are no guarantee against conflict, strategic commentators have argued citing pre-World War trade links among European countries. But U.S.-China economic links are of a different nature qualitatively. American companies fume about unfair state interventions and IPR (intellectual property rights) losses in China, but the Chinese market and manufacturing processes are essential for their global operations. For the American state, China, as a threat, comes in the category of ‘important, but not urgent’. Moreover, China is a valuable partner dealing with some more urgent questions. During the Obama years, they were climate change and North Korea. Under Mr. Trump, the single-minded focus is on dealing with North Korea. Mr. Trump also hopes for Chinese cooperation in his plans for the America economy. His administration has taken a benign view of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative while American companies are trying to get as much business out of it as possible.

Reining in Pakistan

India has complained of American lack of sympathy for its concerns in its policy towards Pakistan. There has been increasing appreciation among Washington’s strategic thinkers and policymakers of Pakistan’s duplicity in the conflict in Afghanistan. That Pakistan exports terror to its neighbouring countries has now been stated in multiple government documents and Congressional hearings. However, successive U.S. administrations have viewed India’s attempts to influence America’s Pakistan policy with scepticism. While India wants the U.S. to rein in Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism, it does not want American opinion on Kashmir — a position that American policymakers consider contradictory. While Americans increasingly appreciate the fact that India has been a victim of Pakistani aggression, they also believe New Delhi could be more appreciative and supportive of American efforts to stabilise the region. Stabilising Pakistan and seeking a political deal with the Taliban have been part of that approach.

Previous administrations would be more guarded in expressing such concerns with India, which may not be case with Mr. Trump. Already, by offering to negotiate between India and Pakistan, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has stirred up a hornet’s nest in India.

While it will take continuous engagement for India and the U.S. to explore their shared interests in Asia-Pacific and Af-Pak, any misalignment between the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon is no good news for India. Mr. Trump has cut the budget for the former while committing more money to defence, and the White House has declared that the new administration believes in hard power, not soft. The Pentagon sees each bilateral relationship from a military planning perspective while the State Department places it in a broader strategic calculation. Consequently, the U.S. Department of Defense has been a champion of enhancing cooperation with India, and its initiatives often do not pass muster with the Department of State. For instance, the Pentagon supports the sale of Guardian drones to India, while the State Department has raised the red flag that the technology has been given only to South Korea, a treaty ally of the U.S., so far in the region. Resolution of such intra-government disputes can only be achieved by a strong-willed political leadership committed to ties with India.

The India-U.S. partnership has inherent reasons to survive. But the romanticism that characterised the hype of well-meaning advocates of a stronger partnership needs to be tempered with a dose of realism. The heady romance is taking a pause, but the companionship will endure, loveless as it could be.


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