US-India Relations: It's a Two-Way Street

The Obama administration has drawn much criticism for its perceived indifference to America's allies and friends in Asia and Europe. A good deal of this criticism has focused on the specific case of India. In the view of quite a number of U.S. observers, President Obama is taking New Delhi for granted, squandering the deep reservoir of diplomatic goodwill that his predecessor so assiduously built up.

Some have even sounded the alarm that Obama is "losing India," while others caution that the negligent treatment is pushing New Delhi closer to Moscow and Beijing. But part of the reason for Washington's languid engagement with New Delhi has to do with nagging doubts that India can deliver on dramatic initiatives, and there is good reason for this doubt

In India, elites had grown accustomed to the pride of place the country enjoyed just so recently in Washington's strategic calculus. Obama's honeymoon with India was virtually non-existent. Even before he took office, one could hear rumblings of unease about his commitment to the civilian nuclear agreement, his stance on corporate out-sourcing, or his willingness to re-hyphenate India and Pakistan in U.S. policy calculations.

As Obama was being inaugurated, then-Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon (and current national security advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) was even reported as having publicly expressed his apprehensions about the new administration.

Things have not improved since. The Indian commentariat took umbrage when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton decided not to include India in her inaugural tour of Asia in February 2009. (This despite the fact New Delhi's leaders were about to plunge into parliamentary elections and it is unclear whether her visit would have served any substantive purpose.) By May 2009, one analyst concluded that "there [is] no mistaking the thrill in gone" in bilateral relations. More recently, others have exclaimed that mistrust of President Obama "pervades the Indian establishment" or have warned of foreboding "storms ahead in the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership." Observing that Indian memories are long and snubs never forgotten, a leading journalist warns of rising public resentment against the United States.

As far as it goes, much in the critique about the Obama approach rings true. To date, the administration has been long on rhetoric about bilateral affairs but short on concrete deliverables. There is no question that the President is sincere about cultivating Indian friendship. At last November's summit meeting with Prime Minister Singh, the White House, for example, pulled out all the stops in hosting an elegant state dinner in Mr. Singh's honor. But the summit is remembered more for the antics of its party-crashers than for any substantive outcome.

To be sure, President Obama has entrusted management of the India portfolio to two senior Cabinet members with special bonds to the country: Secretary Clinton, who is a staunch India-phile and speaks often of taking relations to a higher plane, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who spent five years of his childhood in India.

But it remains to be seen whether Clinton has the heft inside the administration and Geithner enough room on his crowded agenda to move headline-grabbing initiatives forward. The meager outcome of Geithner's trip to India last month only underscores this concern.

All in all, it is a fair judgment that the Obama administration has not yet displayed much interest in continuing its predecessor's high-profile engagement with New Delhi. Even the just-concluded agreement on nuclear fuel reprocessing is more about tending to unfinished business than striking out in creative new directions.

While much of the critique against Obama is valid, it also misses the other side of the equation. New Delhi, too, bears part of the blame for the inertia in bilateral affairs. One cannot have a private discussion these days with US officials responsible for India policy without detecting nagging doubts about New Delhi's eagerness to take on bold bilateral projects. Indeed, it seems that the unexpectedly arduous debate in New Delhi two years ago about the civilian nuclear accord, intended to be a cornerstone of the new era of relations, has had the ironic effect of sapping the readiness of officials in both capitals to invest political capital in ambitious bilateral undertakings.

As the Washington Post noted during the debate, "if New Delhi's politicians cannot find a way to say yes to such a clearly advantageous agreement with a natural ally, the next US administration no doubt will think twice before trying anything like it."

Of course, Prime Minister Singh finally did manage to push the nuclear accord through the Indian parliament, but only after a long and bruising debate that revealed the depth of opposition to greater interaction with the United States. It was especially disconcerting that the debate devolved into an unprecedented parliamentary vote of confidence on a foreign policy issue. Singh's narrowly-won victory was possible only through resort to extraordinary maneuvers, including the temporary furloughing from jail of members of parliament who had been convicted of crimes.

The entire episode was hardly one to inspire confidence in New Delhi's capacity to deliver on galvanizing initiatives. That India played such a prominent role in the collapse of the Doha Round world trade talks, just as debate over the nuclear accord heated up only added to this perception.

More recent events have reinforced this impression. Despite the large parliamentary support Singh currently enjoys, he has yet to initiate the domestic reforms that would allow for closer economic engagement with the United States. In the face of fierce opposition last month, his government had to backtrack from submitting key legislation that would enable the involvement of US companies in India's nuclear energy sector – one of the very things that the nuclear cooperation accord was suppose to bring about.

Despite Singh's renewed determination to promote needed involvement in India by foreign educational institutions, similar legislation has come to naught in the past due to parliamentary concerns about protecting the country's cultural sovereignty. His government has also gone slow on two agreements designed to strengthen military links with the United States.

Even granting the complex, cacophonous nature of Indian democracy, New Delhi still seems to lack the political will necessary for a dramatic deepening of bilateral ties.

With the diplomatic endgame in Afghanistan coming into sight and US-Pakistan relations improving, the coming months will undoubtedly witness new broadsides in the "Obama disses India" narrative. There is good reason to criticize Washington's administration's languid engagement with India, though New Delhi's own level of enthusiasm deserves scrutiny as well. Creating new momentum in relations will have to be a two-way street.

David J. Karl (dkarl@usc.edu) 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.