US-India Dialogue: Great Expectations, Meager Results

The US-India relationship is replete with good feelings and warm imagery but bereft of many substantive achievements. As a result, bilateral affairs have been drifting for the past year and a half. The dichotomy of messages that came out of last week's inaugural session in Washington DC of the US-India Strategic Dialogue is emblematic of the current state of affairs.

Timothy J. Roemer, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, proclaimed that "the future is bright and the sky is the limit" for the bilateral relationship. Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna spoke of "a relationship of limitless opportunities for mutual benefit" and of setting "our sights on new milestones."

At the same time, however, officials from both countries cautioned that the session wouldn't produce much in the way of concrete outcomes, and it didn't. As Robert O. Blake, Jr., the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, stated, "We're really not focused that much on deliverables." True enough, the meeting adjourned with few tangible accomplishments.

A paradox is at work here. India has lost the central place on Washington's priority list that it occupied when George W. Bush occupied the White House. But there is little doubt about President 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 Mr. 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." As one member of the Indian cabinet notes, Mr. Obama "has certainly got the right instincts on India."

Yet the administration has found it difficult to translate feelings of respect and good will into concrete action. Mr. Singh's state visit is memorable for the antics of its party-crashers and eventual ouster of the White House social secretary, rather than for any noteworthy policy initiative. And Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's trip to New Delhi this March, to launch a highly-touted bilateral economic dialogue, likewise produced lackluster results. Ditto for the just-concluded strategic dialogue.

The administration last week even passed up the chance to strike a symbolic note that would really have counted for something– announcing support for India's claim for permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council. The best Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- herself a staunch Indiaphile -- could do was to say that Washington is "very committed to considering the idea."

This should have been an easy gesture to make since few doubt the merits of India's bid. Indeed, recognizing that the global high table would look lacking without an Indian seat, London and Paris have already signed off on the proposition. The gesture is exactly the sort of headline-grabbing initiative that would have re-galvanized bilateral relations and allayed Indian concerns that New Delhi has slipped to the edges of Washington's policy radar.

President Obama has announced that he will travel to New Delhi in November, reciprocating Mr. Singh's state visit of last year. To avoid squandering another opportunity, the president will need to come armed not only with soundbites but visionary ideas as well. A good place to start is by unequivocally endorsing India's claim to a Security Council seat.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, a consultancy based in Los Angeles. He recently served as project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy, jointly sponsored by the Pacific Council on International Policy and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.