The India the President Must Know

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The India the President Must Know

India is an obvious partner for the United States. But whoever the next U.S. president is will likely find a reluctant and skeptical ally.

As the United States “pivots” toward the Asia-Pacific in the coming years, policymakers in Washington will find themselves faced with a much more complex set of challenges than those of a continent – Europe – that shares the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the United States. While China has already taken center stage as the United States’ next adversary, there’s broad bi-partisan hope that the United States can secure India as a regional economic actor and provider of security across the broader Indian Ocean region so that New Delhi can become the United States’ key security partner in the region.

But for the next president – whether it be Barack Obama embarking on a term or the Republican’s presumptive front runner Mitt Romney taking the White House – India will prove both frustrating, yet too important to ignore.

We have some observations and advice on this complex relationship, which are actually rather straightforward.

First, based in part on the experience of a recent trip to the sub-continent, it’s clear that many Indian academics and commentators oppose any sort of formal alliance between India and the United States. This is because Indian intellectuals remain deeply skeptical of the United States and its intentions in the region. Some of it is healthy skepticism, but some is based on a view of this country that is inconsistent with the way Americans and their leaders think about themselves – and how they act. One American priority should be to shape India’s perception that the United States isn’t a Hollywood version of a Tom Clancy novel. Instead, the United States is a reliable partner that often allows its own interests to take second place.

Second, Jawaharlal Nehru’s seemingly anti-American views and “non-alignment” still carry significant weight in Indian academia. In real terms, India is a young democracy. Thus, the legacy of Nehru is fresh in the minds of many. While this view is slowly changing, the next president can follow the example begun by George W. Bush and continued by President Obama, namely the fundamental reshaping of the Indo-American relationship by treating India as a central partner in the future of Asia.

Third, although somewhat of a contradiction, Indian academics understand Americans better than we understand Indians. With the exception of a few Indian-American professors, government officials, and a few Anglo “India hands,” Americans’ understanding of India is woefully inadequate. Absent a vast improvement in expanding the education of analysts in critical languages and cultural contexts, U.S. policymakers will never be able to successfully leverage the relationship with India in ways that appeal to Indian interests and benefit the United States. 

Fourth, Indian academics don’t trust the United States. They view this country as often having ulterior motives. While there was repeated mention of U.S. food aid and assistance in the years following independence, the Indo-American relationship remains on shaky ground. (That said, Indian academics are less hostile to the United States than American academics are to their own country. This is a hopeful sign).

Shifting from pure academics to policy analysts and decision makers; it’s clear that India’s policy wonks have a distinctly different perspective when thinking about the United States.

First, the single most important item on the Indian military’s agenda (vis-a-vis the United States) is broad technology transfers. They don’t just want to buy advanced systems – they want to jointly develop and indigenously manufacture them. Our unwillingness to transfer advanced military technologies, without strings attached such as end-user agreements, is a major irritant and potential threat to the further development of our relationship.

This isn’t to say the United States is wrong in its position. There are good reasons for the restrictions. It is, however, a stumbling block in a relationship that has been on the upswing for a decade or more.

Second, no NATO style alliance in Asia is possible – at least not in the foreseeable future. Asia is just different. Partnering is likely, but only where mutual interests make working together advantageous for both countries. Appealing to our “shared democratic values” as reason for close ties will fall on deaf ears.

Third, India has border disputes with all of its neighbors – none of which are democracies. To make things more complicated, Indian domestic politics are chaotic, as was seen in the last week’s state assembly elections. A tough neighborhood and domestic politics will play a central role in India’s foreign policy decision making and its relationship with the United States.

Fourth, the United States’ long “preference” for Pakistan is a major problem in our relationship with India, but it’s something Indians reluctantly accept and, when Pakistan is on the verge of collapse, are glad to see a stabilizing force influencing Pakistani leaders. India fears violent Islamic fundamentalists as much as we do. New Delhi is much closer to the Northwest Frontier Province than Washington, DC.

Fifth, India wakes up worried about China and goes to bed worried about China. While India wants good relations with the United States and China, they are trying to play a challenging balancing game in their relations with both countries.

So what next?

For the next president, whether it’s Obama or Romney, India will play a central role in the United States’ success in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Given India’s large population and 7 percent to 9 percent sustained growth rate, India believes it’s a great power and wants to be treated like one. Reality, however, can offer a mixed picture of India’s economic and military power. Given its highly inefficient bureaucracy that can be anti-American out of tradition more than a real antipathy towards the United States, Americans who come to New Delhi with grand ideas and elaborate plans will often leave disappointed. Still. It’s worth noting that the bureaucracy is slowly changing as Cold War era bureaucrats retire and a younger generation takes their place.

India is a natural ally of the United States, but Americans need to better understand India’s interests and concerns if we are going to work with India in a way that is mutually beneficial. Improving our understandingof the conditions under which Indian leaders operate will go a long way to improving our interaction. When we reach a point when we can read the Hindustan Times and really make sense of what is taking place across the country, we will be on the right track.

But the United States must also accept the limits of our relationship. Pushing too hard will only drive India away. Whether India actually is the great power it sees in the mirror is irrelevant. So long as its self-perception is such, American leaders can make greater headway in achieving stability across the region by according it the respect of a large and prosperous nation.

In the end, the United States should aim low and over deliver in its relationship with India. Both countries will go home satisfied.  

Adam B. Lowther is a member of the faculty at the U.S. Air Force's Air University. Panayotis A. Yannakogeorgos is a cyber defense analyst with the U.S. Air Force Research Institute. The views expressed are their own.