Many foreign-policy analysts linked to former president Bush’s administration believe that the elevated and energized partnership with India (what George W. Bush’s first ambassador to India, Amb. Robert Blackwill, proclaimed was the president’s “big idea”) he and his advisors brought about may be his greatest and most enduring legacy. The significant effort they put in to revitalizing the relationship undoubtedly deserves to be acknowledged for what it is, an important redefinition – but that failed to create the political, institutional framework necessary to sustain the considerable momentum generated by the civil nuclear cooperation deal. Moreover, the redefinition came about as a result of a “de-hyphenated policy,” that is to say a, delinking of India & Pakistan in U.S. foreign policy (i.e., building relations with India and relations with Pakistan rather than an India-Pakistan approach).
The problem with their implementation of this idea, a flaw present from the get-go (that is to say the RAND Corporation report which suggested it to the president-elect in 2000), is the lack of strategy towards Pakistan. The absence of any vision for developing and deepening the US-Pakistan relationship was due to the failure to identify any core American interest that Pakistan could serve – an inevitable conclusion when framing the question in such a way. Pakistan is in and of itself important to U.S. national interests, not merely for a conflict in Afghanistan (whether in the 1980s or post-9/11). As reputed South Asian expert Steve Cohen of the Brookings Institution has noted on numerous occasions, the problem is twofold and thereby compounded. Not only does Pakistan warrant American engagement on a significant number of issues, but successive administrations have consistently failed to formulate a coherent strategy that tackles these challenges (democracy, nuclear security, terrorism, education, economic development), that focuses on them while prioritizing them, choosing instead to ignore them in the face of some overriding national security objective.
The Obama administration, to its credit, appears to be the first U.S. administration to understand this fatal flaw, and to seek to address Pakistan in its regional context. However, while this long-overdue revolution is a most welcome development, President Obama risks making the opposite mistake of the Bush administration; that is to say, the U.S. appears to date not to possess any clear vision for relations with India. Granted, this has to do in part with the somewhat uncertain situation India finds itself in (for instance, on a geopolitical level: more than a South Asian power, not fully integrated into Asia-Pacific power dynamics revolving around Japan and China, and aspiring to a preeminent position in the “Indian Ocean Region” which some might argue is a non-region). Some would argue that India’s position is in fact unique rather than uncertain, and hence warrants special treatment, or a yet to be invented global partnership.
I don’t intend to solve this issue, nor do I pretend to be capable of doing so, obviously. What I’d simply like to say is that India can no longer be reduced to narrowly defined regional issue, especially after a decade of sustained growth and the changes wrought by the Bush administration (building on the foundations laid by president Clinton). The “secret” presidential directive of December 2009 ordering intensified U.S. support for Indo-Pakistani détente makes it all the more important for Washington to develop a vision for the Indo-U.S. partnership – but one that is not formulated by Indian lobbyists, nor left to the India Caucus in Congress (the counterproductive meddling by several of its leading members with the carefully crafted Kerry-Lugar bill should serve a as cautionary tale against an unbalanced South Asian policy), nor by analysts fascinated by India. This last requirement is all the more difficult as I, like anyone who has ever been to India, can attest to its mesmerizing appeal.
However, the United States can never forget that while it may no longer view its relations with India and with Pakistan as a zero-sum game, this does not mean that the regional security dynamics have changed – neither does it mean that these regional dynamics should dictate U.S. policy. They must, however, be recognized and actively but not directly (or rather not overtly) dealt with – without defining relations with Pakistan or relations with India. This difficult high wire act requires making clear, through appropriate channels (and at all levels necessary), that the U.S.-India partnership is not intended to “contain” China, nor to “balance” its rise, and a clear effort to dispel perceptions among Chinese officials of building up India as a counterweight to China, if only because China is vital (though not omnipotent) when it comes to Pakistan, and has a clear interest in Indo-Pakistani stability. It goes without saying that a hostile China would be a disastrous and costly outcome for the United States, to say nothing of the consequences of a regime collapse under the weight of internal contradictions that would have been increased by external pressure. This includes but is not limited to the repercussions for the global economy: due to the mere fact that over a billion people would be directly affected, the challenges would dwarf those caused by Russia’s “liberalization” or “transition” in the 1990s.
Defining the Indo-U.S. relationship as one between natural allies, that is to say as a value-based relationship, is too vague and even counterproductive in this light, as it appears to echo calls by Japan for a community of democracies in Asia-Pacific, implicitly but not subtly motivated by fears about China. That India could become an exceptional power and already is an impressive and in many regards admirable actor make it imperative that the partnership be defined by India’s value alone. By this I mean that acknowledging India’s impressive record so far demands an approach that doesn’t determine its value by comparing it with another country (China): its strengths, weaknesses, and most of all interactions with U.S. policy and implications for U.S. interests on many levels and in many fora must be the governing factors – not considerations related to the rise of another country. It is up to India to integrate Asia-Pacific dynamics, such a configuration must come about as a result of India’s growth and adept diplomacy, not an intervention by the United States, something the current administration seems to recognize better than its predecessor.
India can not and must not be reduced to an impediment to achieving American goals or perceived objectives in Afghanistan, or in Pakistan. Its complexity, its diversity and its multidirectional diplomacy make it a potentially key actor for both regional, Asian and global stability, one whose potential is very great indeed. Yet while the Obama administration recognizes India’s exceptional attributes, it may appear unsure of where to situate India – for instance, president Obama did not mention India in his Tokyo speech on Asia, Secretary Clinton did not include India in her first trip abroad as Secretary of State, to Asia, nor in a subsequent speech on Asian dynamics.
I would argue that prudence is a better term to qualify their attitude, or pragmatism; but symbols can only do so much (i.e. the state dinner), and the intensification of regional focus compounds the lack of any global vision governing the U.S.-India partnership. The U.S.-India strategic dialogue to be held in June and the visit that Obama pledged last November to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh he would undertake to India in 2010 represent two important opportunities for the Obama administration to enunciate a clearly formulated policy that integrates India into U.S. strategic thinking. The stakes are high for 2010, but the clear-headed thinking generally shown by the current leadership in both India and the United States is reason enough to be hopeful that people smarter than myself will figure out the delicate balance necessary, which would be a true testimony of mature international leadership