American policymakers have maintained that a strong India – working in close cooperation with the United States – is good for America and the world. Yet, divergent approaches to some key international issues have risen to the fore. New Delhi and Washington have differed, for instance, over whether to apply additional sanctions on Iran in response to Tehran’s nuclear program. Following the Assad regime’s chemical attack in Syria, Singh emphasized that there is “no military solution” to the situation there. There are questions about precisely what kind of global role Indians envision for themselves.
The truth is that today many American observers see in India a reflection of the problems that plague their own system. Indian politics is fragmented, and any government’s ability to push through needed reforms – especially in the economic sphere – is under serious question. All of this puts a premium on the outcome of the country’s elections, which are to be held by next May. The BJP, led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narenda Modi, appears at this distance to have a solid shot at forming the next government. Modi is a controversial figure, dating to the 2002 riots in his home state; how effective he – or a new Congress Party leader – would be in bringing about reform and working with the United States remains unknown.
While Americans express doubts about the trajectory of Indian power, and about the nature of the Indian relationship with the United States, Washington itself has handed New Delhi no shortage of issues to worry about.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
With the government shuttered and Washington deeply divided over basic governance, many in India wonder aloud whether this is any way to run a superpower. The possibility of debt default has prompted concern in financial quarters about America’s economic reliability. Indian high-tech companies worry about provisions in the immigration bill under debate in the U.S. Congress that would tighten H1-B visa rules, to Indian firms’ possible detriment, and wonder whether the United States is turning inward.
These doubts layer over previous worries about American policies in Asia. Open musing about the possibility that the United States would withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan after 2014 has rattled policymakers in New Delhi, who fear the return of the Taliban and a safe haven for terrorists who would attack Indian soil. The Obama administration’s vaunted pivot to Asia is increasingly questioned in light of Washington’s focus on diplomacy with Iran and chemical weapons in Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s significant investment in the Middle East peace process. And some wonder about the U.S. willingness and capacity to balance China in light of a struggling economy and declining defense budgets.
As these doubts pile up on each side, anyone looking for near-term challenges in the U.S.-India relationship needn’t search long. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that the game isn’t worth the candle. The existing doubts do not negate the underlying strategic logic of Indo-American ties; they merely leaven what had too often been a romantic approach to this relationship with a dose of necessary realism.
The United States and India share interests, such as ensuring a stable Asian balance of power, expanding economic relations, preserving access to the global commons, countering terrorism, expanding access to energy sources and promoting human rights. Despite India’s currently fading economic growth rates, it is enjoying a tremendous demographic dividend and will become a central driver of middle-class growth. New Delhi is the world’s largest arms importer and the United States is its top military training partner. And India and the United States view similarly the challenge posted by China’s rise, seeking strong economic ties with China and good diplomatic relations with Beijing while hedging by strengthening relations with other Asian powers – including each other.
Over the past decade, the United States has made a long-term bet on closer partnership with India, a wager rooted in shared values but based on a calculation of strategic interest. Drawing closer together will not be easy for Washington and New Delhi, but it will be all but necessary. Despite the challenges – indeed, in some cases because of them – the United States and India are better off together rather than apart. Realism, not romanticism, should guide these two ships of state closer in the coming months and years.
Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security.