The South Asia Channel

U.S.-India Strategic Partnership: Shared Vision, Different Prescription

The U.S.-India strategic partnership is often discussed in lofty terms. Both countries, in their own words, are “natural allies” bound by shared values and a broad-brush convergence of strategic visions. Bilateral relations have been on a steady upswing over the last 15 years. But the greatest champions of a deepened embrace remain frustrated by an ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S.-India strategic partnership is often discussed in lofty terms. Both countries, in their own words, are “natural allies” bound by shared values and a broad-brush convergence of strategic visions. Bilateral relations have been on a steady upswing over the last 15 years. But the greatest champions of a deepened embrace remain frustrated by an enduring challenge: India and the United States agree in large part on desirable foreign policy ends, but fail to see eye-to-eye on the appropriate means to achieve those outcomes.

To maximize the partnership’s potential, both countries must continue to adjust to each other’s fundamentally different operational philosophies and identify new areas of convergence. With the Modi government just past the six-month mark in power, there are both encouraging signs and indications that philosophical differences will not be quick to disappear.

The view from 10,000 feet looks similar in both capitals. The world’s oldest and largest democracies share a deeply rooted love for republican government and a conviction that societies thrive on openness and cultural commingling. Both are preoccupied with “Islamic” terrorists and wish to see such groups weakened militarily and discredited ideologically. Both governments value a global economy built on open markets and interdependence. Both claim to seek multilateral solutions to global problems. And both see in the other an important security partner that can help to manage China’s rise.

Indian foreign policy, as is true in most countries, reflects a mix of philosophical traditions. International relations scholar Kanti Bajpai identifies three broad ideological camps – the Nehruvians, the neoliberals, and the hyper-realists. After Prime Minister Modi’s election, the realists (emphasizing hard power) and the neoliberals (emphasizing economic growth and interdependence) have grown stronger, while the Nehruvian influence (promoting dialogue and communication) has somewhat waned.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has consistently styled itself as more pro-growth and tougher on national security than the Congress Party. Modi’s government favors more visible projections of India’s military power, including during border disputes with China and Pakistan. Modi has also demonstrated his intent to build closer economic and security relationships with a long list of countries – including Japan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Vietnam – that can help India balance China’s rise and limit its sphere of influence around India. The United States should be encouraged by India’s desire to challenge Chinese primacy in Asia.

But it is no secret that New Delhi and Washington differ on many other issues. New Delhi’s foreign policy has long embraced three operational principles that place India in tension with the United States. First, India is staunchly anti-interventionist outside the subcontinent. Second, India is skeptical of multilateral institutions that reflect grand bargains privileging Western powers. Third, India is cautious about veering too close to strategic dependence on any one country.  These precepts have created important disagreements on issues the United States considers urgent.

Little Convergence in the Middle East

No region better illustrates the operational differences between New Delhi and Washington than the Middle East. India shied away from U.S. initiatives to promote democracy long before such efforts reached a crescendo during the George W. Bush administration. In India’s view, the non-intervention principle should be relaxed only in rare cases of overwhelming U.N. approval. Modern India inherited a strongly anti-imperial tradition and remains deeply skeptical of the notion that nations can transform political realities beyond their own borders.

In the Middle East, where India’s energy interests are at least as compelling as its ideology, New Delhi has shown little inclination to echo Washington’s public pronouncements against dictators or meaningfully support counterterrorism efforts. Democratic India has emerged as a seemingly incongruous supporter of the Assad regime, a fact that has been appreciated by Syria’s ambassador to India.

ISIS has also failed to inspire close convergence. While India worries about the advance of ISIS into South Asia and has been vocal about counterterrorism cooperation, India is notably absent from a list of sixty-odd countries working with the United States in Iraq and Syria. New Delhi is unwilling to project military power in the Middle East because it believes that intervention produces uncertain results apart from an increased likelihood of terrorist backlash.

On Iran, India faces an interesting opportunity. The Obama administration has persistently engaged Tehran in negotiations, hoping that gradually improved ties will provide greater leverage over Iran’s nuclear program. In recent years, India has voted with the United States at the IAEA. But India has historically enjoyed good relations with Iran, wants access to Iranian oil, and has thus been cautious about aggressively siding with the West. The United States and Iran have increasingly identified areas of convergence, inspiring optimism among some U.S. officials. This greater alignment in U.S.-Iranian interests provides India with an opportunity to position itself as a natural convener (not a formal mediator) of deeper dialogue among all three countries. Such an initiative could improve India’s influence with both countries and demonstrate a distinctly Indian brand of global leadership.

Global Economic and Environmental Challenges

When it comes to developing multilateral solutions to global challenges, the United States and India often have different short-term priorities and operational philosophies. India has long rejected multilateral efforts that it believes are built on assumptions that favor developed Western powers. For this reason, India and the United States clash at the WTO and on issues like climate change.

India’s messages on climate change, in particular, have seemed unnecessarily obstructionist. Under President Obama, the United States has emerged as a vocal advocate of tackling common environmental challenges. Washington is well aware that India wants minimal constraints as it industrializes many years after the West. But last month, India seemed to brush aside the issue entirely, with Modi opting out of a global climate change summit and India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar almost proudly declaring that India’s emissions would continue to rise.

India has continued in this vein, emphasizing that developed countries should bear greater costs and explaining that India prefers to discuss adapting to climate change rather than mitigating emissions. India would lose nothing by adopting a different tone, if not substantially different positions. Climate change will hit the subcontinent particularly hard, and India’s defiance seems at odds with its core interests.

An Asymmetric Commitment?

Persistent operational disagreements and India’s wariness of entering the U.S. strategic orbit have sometimes contributed to an American perception that India is less invested than the United States in the bilateral relationship. This sense of imbalance is rooted in structural realities.

Weary after thirteen years of war, the United States seeks strategic partners that can share its global security and economic burdens. India, meanwhile, enjoys strong relationships with the United States, the European Union, Russia, Japan, and, in many ways, China. Under Modi, India is basking in the renewed courtship of a long line of economic suitors. All of this leaves New Delhi as confident as ever that its foreign policy need not skew toward serving any one country.

American leaders appreciate India’s aversion to playing the role of a “junior partner.”  But the United States has been frustrated by India’s unwillingness to engage in geopolitical quid pro quo. Some in Washington might feel that U.S. advocacy for India on big issues – support for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat and the conclusion of a landmark civilian nuclear deal – has not been reciprocated in kind.

But India is prepared to drive a hard bargain. It will not shoulder global burdens for the United States unless the gains are clear. American observers have often found India’s reluctance unbecoming a global leader. India might respond that its restraint is rooted in self-interest and a pragmatism of which George Washington himself would approve.

It is thus unsurprising that Modi’s recent visit to the United States focused more on commercial ties than geopolitics. This emphasis reflects both the continued ascendance of neoliberalism in New Delhi and a sense that the scope of non-economic partnership is limited to modest increases in areas like security cooperation and intelligence sharing. Washington, it seems, has also resigned itself to incremental strategic progress with India. To some extent, setting a gradual pace makes sense.  As India grows economically and militarily stronger, and as the United States continues to adjust to a multipolar world, zones of convergence are likely to increase.

But there are opportunities to deepen engagement now – on Iran and climate change, for example – where relatively low-risk Indian efforts could yield substantial returns. India could do more to demonstrate a conviction that the partnership can sometimes tackle urgent global challenges. Modi’s bolder brand of leadership might yet create opportunities to align grand shared values with correspondingly grand actions.


Prem M. Trivedi is an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University and a former Fulbright Scholar to India.

Prem M. Trivedi is a lecturer at Georgetown University and a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he researched student political culture. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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