With President Barack Obama being the first US President to visit India twice and the first to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade, we should expect the hyperbole that normally accompanies such state visits to be a notch higher this time.
Being democracies, both India and the US would prefer to base their foreign policies on something larger and nobler than narrow self-interest. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s developmental agenda means that American investment and smart cities may garner a lot of attention. But without strategic understanding, economic ties itself will also suffer.
Both sides need to get more realistic about their relations so that we move beyond the traditional trap of exaggerated expectations and inevitable disappointments. The two sides could begin by junking all talk about a ‘non-transactional relationship’ because there is no such thing in international politics.
All international cooperation is transactional and therefore limited. Non-transactional relationships suggest relations based on love or kinship, non-existent in international relation. Nation-states cooperate because their interests coincide and they cooperate for as long as those interests are aligned. This is why international politics is full of seemingly strange bedfellows, such as Pakistan and China or the US and Saudi Arabia. This is also why seemingly obvious partners have great difficulty cooperating, whether it is India and the US or various supposedly fraternal groups such as the Cold War socialist bloc or the Arab bloc.
Transactional international relationships are not such a bad thing as long as the two sides are clear about the terms of the transaction. Instead of pursuing the mirage of a non-transactional relationship, India and the US should focus on areas where there is mutual interest and agree not to let areas of disagreement come in the way. This requires clear-eyed realism on both sides: New Delhi needs to overcome the fantasy that Washington needs it more than the other way around, either for economic reasons or for balancing China. Equally, Washington needs to understand that this partnership is not about democracy or common values but about common interests.
Both sides should understand that this common interest does not include Pakistan or Afghanistan. Pakistan is America’s kryptonite, a country they have been wrong about every decade for the last six. India should have no expectation that Washington’s helplessness on Pakistan will change. In any case, despite their minimized Afghan presence, America’s continued efforts to stabilize Afghanistan means that the US still needs to keep the Pakistan army in good humour. If that effort fails, the US can be expected to wash its hands off the whole problem, much like they did in the 1990s. Neither is helpful to India though there is little India can do about this except to adjust its expectations accordingly. The US and India can cooperate on Pakistan on the fringes, especially on intelligence sharing, but outside of this New Delhi should not expect or give much.
If regional concerns cannot be the basis for strong ties, global issues are an unlikely ballast for strong relations even when India and the US share common interests, such as on terrorism, nuclear security and non-proliferation and in the abstract, democracy.
The real strategic glue in the relationship is the common concern in maintaining some sort of balance in the larger Asian region in the context of China’s rise. This is not just an Indian or an American worry but one that is widely shared in the region, a consequence of China’s surprisingly maladroit strategic behaviour the last few years. Preventing China from entirely dominating the Asia-Pacific is in Indian and American interest. That makes a strong India an American interest. Less recognized, especially in New Delhi, is that a strong US is also in India’s interest because India and other Asian powers cannot manage China on their own.
India conducts military exercises with Japan, Vietnam and Australia and others in the region but they cannot expect to match China either alone or together because none have the capacity to reach across the entire region. Only the US can, which is why it has to anchor such efforts at regional security cooperation. This makes a strong US an Indian and Asian interest.
The biggest threat in all this is buck-passing: both sides trying to free-ride, hoping that the other will shoulder the burden of balancing China. Such buck-passing is dangerous. If neither side shoulders the burden, both could suffer. Preventing such buck-passing requires both India and the US to be clear-eyed about their common self-interest.
(The author is a Professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi)
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