Perhaps not surprisingly, the US-India partnership is losing momentum under President Barack Obama’s stewardship.
Fortifying the alliance was always bound to be a secondary priority for any administration faced with a recession, a flagging war effort in Afghanistan, political stalemate in Iraq, stalled Middle East peace efforts, defiant pariah regimes in Iran and North Korea, and strategic tensions with China. Still, allowing the partnership to falter appears to have come easier to a president who never quite displayed George W. Bush’s zeal for Indian-American ties.
Of course it isn’t just the US that’s at fault—problems also exist on the Indian side as New Delhi has itself fallen into a form of post-honeymoon malaise, as the phase of grand political gestures gives way to tough technical negotiations. But rather than mitigate the downside of this difficult period, the Obama administration is pursuing an agenda that further complicates it. In doing so, it risks some of the tremendous gains made in US-India relations over the past decade.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In some ways, Obama is less guilty of undercutting the foundations of the US-India partnership than he is of failing to meet expectations. Indeed, to its credit, the administration has gone out of its way to stress the importance of the bilateral relationship, praising India as an ‘indispensable partner.’ In June, Undersecretary of State William Burns reaffirmed that the US government was ‘deeply committed to supporting India’s rise and to building the strongest possible partnership between us.’
The remarks came on the eve of the inaugural Strategic Dialogue between the United States and India, a bilateral, top-level dialogue initiated by President Obama to pull India toward diplomatic parity with China. During the same speech, Burns moved the US closer than it’s ever been toward openly supporting a permanent seat at the Security Council for India. Obama also extended Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the honour of his first State Dinner last November. However, this last gesture was widely perceived as compensation for an uninspiring first year in US-Indian relations.
So what went wrong? Obama first raised Indian eyebrows in 2006, back in his days as a junior senator from Illinois, when he introduced two amendments to the landmark US-India nuclear deal tailored to restrict India’s access to nuclear fuel supplies. The move was a bid to bolster his non-proliferation credentials in Washington, but earned him few friends in New Delhi.
Then, as a presidential candidate, Obama earned the ire of the Indian media when he reportedly considered appointing a special envoy to oversee/arbitrate the hyper-sensitive Kashmir dispute. That mandate was eventually withheld from Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but first impressions are hard to reverse. Scepticism about Obama’s agenda was reinforced when, as president, his initial foreign policy priorities—namely non-proliferation and global warming—placed the US and India on opposite sides of the international negotiating table.