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Great Expectations, But Can They Deliver?

The Obama administration proffered a two-part message at last week’s U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue meeting in Washington.  The first part is that, after more than a year of treading water in bilateral affairs, the administration is re-focusing its attention on New Delhi.  This signal, which was repeated loudly by U.S. officials starting with President Obama, received a great deal of press attention and favorable Indian reaction.  In contrast, the second part of the message was more nuanced and has drawn far less comment.  It is that New Delhi’s dysfunctional politics are also to blame for the inertia that has recently gripped the U.S.-India relationship.  Few Indian leaders care to acknowledge this part of the dispatch, but they will need to pay heed to it if bilateral ties are ever to reach their full potential.


An “Obama disses Delhi” narrative has been a central theme in U.S.-India relations ever since the president took office.  Indeed, it is striking that India is only one of two countries – Turkey is the other – where positive views of the United States have actually fallen over the past year. (See the April 2010 Globescan survey.)  Although Indian grievances have merit, they are also overplayed since there is little doubt about Mr. Obama’s high level of esteem toward the country and its leaders.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was accorded the honor of the first official state visit of the Obama presidency, and in the run-up to the visit last fall Obama let it be known that he considers Singh and India part of his family.   The president is effusive in his public praise of Mr. Singh and has even taken to calling him his “guru.”  Moreover, as Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh points out, George Bush courted New Delhi so ardently that any successor would naturally suffer from the comparison.


Mr. Obama has also entrusted management of the India portfolio to two senior Cabinet members with special bonds to the country: Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton, who is a staunch India-phile and speaks often of taking relations to a higher plane, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who spent five years of his childhood in India.


All the same, the administration has found it difficult to translate warm sentiment into concrete policy actions and certainly nothing resembling its predecessor’s high-profile engagement of New Delhi.  A number of factors explain this diffidence.  One is a disinclination toward the balance-of-power thinking that drove the Bush administration’s approach.  Another is an understandable emphasis on engaging Beijing on an array of global governance issues, including the world economy and climate change.  (For more analysis on these points, see the good assessments provided by Daniel Twining and Evan Feigenbaum.)  But the weigh of these two specific factors is diminishing as U.S.-China relations have become more strained in recent months.


As was evident at last week’s confab, Washington’s disenchantment with China is causing it to renew its engagement with India.  Status-conscious Indians took note of the rare symbolic gesture President Obama made when he put in a personal appearance at the State Department’s reception in honor of Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna.  Besides announcing plans for a state visit to India in November, Obama emphasized that the bilateral partnership was one of his “highest priorities.”  And in a public address on the eve of the Dialogue, Under Secretary of State William J. Burns reaffirmed the fundamental premise of the Bush approach, proclaiming that “India’s strength and progress on the world stage is deeply in the strategic interest of the United States.”  The Indian reaction to this message was quite positive.  Foreign Minister Krishna declared that bilateral partnership had become “inevitable,” while The Times of India editorialized that the Dialogue session “reinvigorated the bilateral engagement process.”  


But Burns also touched on another theme that deserves greater exploration than it has received.  Spelling out Washington’s own frustrations with New Delhi, he noted that India continues to be ambivalent about its role on the world stage and has allowed domestic political divisions to impede closer economic interaction with the United States.  The comment, which reveals nagging doubts about New Delhi’s readiness to undertake ambitious bilateral undertakings, illuminates another (largely unnoticed) factor for the Obama administration’s languid engagement.


Not many of New Delhi’s elites would admit that there might be an India-innate reason for why the country’s strategic allure in Washington is not as great as they would like to think.  Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of the few who does, notes however that “the near-paralytic fragmentation” of the Indian political system projects to the outside world “the air of being non-serious and whimsical.”  Other countries, he argues, have “a sense that political drift, state incapacity and intellectual impoverishment still cast a long shadow over India’s credibility [as a great power].”  (For a related view regarding the dysfunctional nature of Indian political institutions, see yesterday’s post on the Wall Street Journal’s web site.)


The notion in Washington that New Delhi might lack the political will necessary for a dramatic deepening of bilateral ties actually predates the Obama administration.  From the U.S. perspective, the melodrama two years ago that attended New Delhi’s ratification of the U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear accord, which was intended to be a cornerstone of the new era of relations, was dismaying.  As the Washington Post noted during the ratification debate, “if New Delhi’s politicians cannot find a way to say yes to such a clearly advantageous agreement with a natural ally, the next U.S. administration no doubt will think twice before trying anything like it.”  Of course, Prime Minister Singh finally did prevail in the debate, but the messy episode hardly inspired confidence in New Delhi’s capacity to deliver on bold initiatives.  That domestic political factors caused India to play such a prominent role in the collapse of the Doha Round world trade talks, just as debate over the nuclear accord heated up, only added to this unfavorable perception.


For all of last week’s high-flying rhetoric about imparting new momentum to relations, the key question is whether both capitals will be able to deliver on their ends of the equation.  For Washington, this means generating the vision and creativity to advance substantive initiatives, which even if they cannot be implemented immediately will at least re-galvanize bilateral relations.  And for New Delhi, this means mustering the political leadership to respond constructively to U.S. overtures.  President Obama’s upcoming trip to India will furnish important clues as to whether each side is up to the challenge.


(For an additional view on the Strategic Dialogue meeting, see the post below by Aarti Ramachandran.)



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.