Ashton Carter Knows India Well

Carter’s nomination bodes well for India-U.S. relations, but India will need to be proactive.

By Seema Sirohi for
Ashton Carter Knows India Well
Credit: Frank Grass via Flickr.com

President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, Ashton Carter, inspires confidence in India as an expert who knows the relationship well and has effectively steered it in the past.

In fact, such is the respect for Carter in New Delhi that after U.S. ambassador Nancy Powell resigned earlier this year in the wake of a diplomatic spat over Devyani Khobragade, many in Washington consciously floated his name as Powell’s replacement, in the hope that the White House might get the hint.

Carter politely declined when approached for the job of U.S. envoy to India, citing his private sector commitments. But when Obama shortlisted him for the position of defense secretary, he accepted the challenge.

Praise for Carter is bipartisan in Washington, even if it isn’t so for his boss. The Republicans, who now control both houses of the U.S. Congress, have been falling over themselves to show support – a happy situation for the nominee after the bruising his predecessor Chuck Hagel received during his senate confirmation hearing.

Senator John McCain, the incoming chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, called Carter “a highly competent, experienced, hard-working, and committed public servant.”

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With McCain, an open champion of the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership sitting on key senate committees, and Carter at the helm in the Pentagon, it can only be good news for India. They can push elements of the defense relationship through a dysfunctional Washington dominated by extreme partisan politics.

Carter is credited with reviving and injecting new blood in Indo-U.S. defense ties with the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative or DTTI, a program he led when he was deputy secretary of defense in the Obama Administration October 2011 to December 2013.

The story of how DTTI came into existence is illustrative of how the two countries accommodated each other in the spirit of partnership. In July 2012, Carter began consultations with senior Indian officials on taking Indo-U.S. defense ties to the next level from a purely buyer-seller relationship. He met India’s then national security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, for consultations. The U.S. side referred to the new initiative as the Defense Trade Initiative to highlight attempts to increase bilateral trade; Indian officials called it the Defence Technology Initiative to emphasize technology transfer and the goal of indigenization.

The different names showed differences in emphasis until Carter incorporated both and started calling it DTTI. The careful terminology was a way for an established power to adjust to the desires of a rising power in the interest of a long-term relationship. With DTTI, the United States effectively agreed to treat India as an alliance partner on crucial technology issues without requiring New Delhi to sign a formal treaty.

The Indo-U.S. defense partnership was key to helping America understand a changed world where it no longer has the capacity to call all the shots.

Under Carter’s leadership, the U.S. submitted a list of ten technology projects to India for co-development and co-production, including the Javelin, an anti-tank missile. India is still mulling over the options; its issues are that of capacity, maintenance and absorption of technology.

As Defense Secretary, Carter is expected to push not just his own bureaucracy whose interplay and complex inter-agency processes can be Byzantine, but also India’s security establishment, to get moving on these initiatives. He is not known for a soft touch, especially when frustrated. But his deep and nuanced understanding of India-U.S. defense issues puts him several notches above his predecessors. His keen grasp of the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement, will be helpful as Washington prods New Delhi to fix the nuclear liability law to allow the deal to fructify.

In 2006, Carter came out in support of the nuclear agreement as a precursor to a “broad strategic realignment.” He said the U.S. critics “overstate the damage” it will cause and that the deal’s negative impact on the non-proliferation regime was “manageable”– an assertion that has proved correct.

Carter, a Rhodes scholar, has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Oxford University and holds undergraduate degrees in physics and medieval history from Yale. He taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government for several years before starting at Stanford as a visiting scholar this year. He is a technocrat and an academic, but he never served in the military. While in the Clinton Administration, he oversaw the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. In his last stint under Obama, he worked to end dozens of weapons programs because of budget cuts.

To say that a defense secretary’s job is tough is an understatement – Obama has already been through three men, two of whom wrote disparagingly about the White House’s tendency to micromanage. The fact that Hagel was asked to leave, makes Carter’s entry that much more delicate.

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If Hagel was out of his depth in White House meetings, Carter is expected to more than hold his own. Confident – some say he has a touch of arrogance – and in command of his brief, Carter can argue his case effectively.

He is one who can promote the India relationship in White House meetings, against others who may either not be interested or opposed. That should come as a relief to India watchers since Secretary of State John Kerry is not particularly known for his inclination towards India and more for pushing Pakistan’s case.

The question is this: Will Carter have the time to get into the weeds of the India file? He will have to deal with the urgent – ISIS, Syria, Iraq, the drawdown from Afghanistan, apart from overseeing the vast bureaucracy of the Defence Department. That is a lot.

The smartest thing for the Indian side to do is to get its ducks in a row, study and short-list its demands – a scenario more likely to get Carter’s attention.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi. This article was originally published at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, a foreign policy think tank in Mumbai, India, established to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and the nation’s role in global affairs.