A defining moment

A defining moment

Three enduring myths relate to US presidential visits: First, that the state of relations is directly proportional to the number of visits. Second, that Republican presidents have been better for Indo-US relationship than Democrat presidents. Third, that visits made in the first term of the president are more significant for bilateral relations than second-term visits. The reality, however, is far more nuanced. It is determined by domestic politics, quest for exceptionalism, lack of trust and inherent complexity of any relationship, which is becoming increasingly intertwined.

The myths

If there were any truth in the myths then President Richard M. Nixon would have been the most significant individual responsible for enhancing Indo-US relations. Instead, relations were at their nadir during his tenure. A Republican, he visited India thrice—in 1953, as a powerful US vice-president; in 1967, as a private citizen a year before his successful presidential campaign; and finally, in 1969, as US president— yet each visit only strengthened his anti-India prejudice.

On Nixon’s first visit, according to Conrad Black, (Nixon’s biographer and author of Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full), he regarded Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi “viscerally irritating" and “found it annoying and incongruous that India, a large English-speaking democracy, should affect a posture of neutrality between Western democracies and their enemies". The second visit was equally disastrous. When Nixon called on Gandhi, she appeared bored, distracted and, after 20 minutes, asked her aide in Hindi how much longer the meeting was to last. By the time of Nixon’s third visit in the early months of his presidency, Indo-US relations were glacial and they got worse during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war when the US visibly tilted in favour of Islamabad and tacitly threatened New Delhi by sending Task Force 74 of the Seventh Fleet led by the USS Enterprise streaming into the Bay of Bengal.

In contrast, although Democrat President John F. Kennedy never visited India during his brief tenure, he provided unprecedented level of military assistance during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. Though preoccupied with the Cuban missile crisis at the same time, Kennedy even considered the Indian request to send the Seventh Fleet to show support against China. Similarly, Democrat President Bill Clinton’s visit in the waning years of his second term, preceded by the lifting of sanctions imposed following the 1998 Indian nuclear tests, was a de facto recognition of India’s new status. Finally, it was Clinton’s endorsement and support of the 14-round Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue that paved the way for Republican President George W. Bush to propose the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership with India. While President Bush’s visit in 2006 is regarded as the pinnacle of Indo-US bilateral relations, the relationship was on the ascendency even before the visit and needed serious work after the visit on both sides to overcome the hurdles related to the ambitious Indo-US nuclear deal. In comparison, although President Bush made an unprecedented four visits to China during his two terms, US-China relations did not improve that dramatically.

The reality

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s first visit, India and the US, with due deference to George Bernard Shaw, remain two countries divided by a common political system— democracy. Consider, for instance, the tortuous passage of the nuclear liability Bill through the Indian Parliament, which nearly brought down the government or the plethora of laws imposed by the US Congress, which prohibit export of dual-use technology, much to chagrin of New Delhi.

Similarly, while India practices democracy, New Delhi does not feel compelled to promote it. In contrast, the US feels compelled to promote democracy among the unconverted, although its record of actually establishing or supporting democracies is, at best, mixed. As US diplomat-turned scholar Dennis Kux noted in his aptly titled book India and the US: Estranged Democracies, the very values and institutions that the US and India cherish have also locked them in a conflictual bind.

While the political system is a limiting factor in improving relations, this is not the only reason as evidenced by Washington’s strategic relations with other democracies, notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and Japan. There is a more fundamental trait that keeps what President Obama called “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century" constrained: the mutual embrace of their own exceptionalism.

Indian exceptionalism is based on its rich civilizational past, its freedom movement, its leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and its desire to be an autonomous actor in a world of alliances. This ekla chalo outlook is evident in New Delhi’s decision to stay out of the nuclear non-proliferation regime at the multilateral level and its unilateral military actions in its neighbourhood—notably the 1971 operation to liberate Bangladesh without UN Security Council consent. Similarly, the roots of US exceptionalism lie in its constitution and its unchallenged position as the world’s sole superpower. Washington’s exceptionalism is reflected in its refusal to ratify the Laws of the Seas Treaty because it might constrain its economic liberty and free enterprise and its decision to withdraw its signature from the Rome Statue to establish the International Criminal Court on the grounds that it violates the US constitution. Perhaps the best example of US exceptionalism was the Bush doctrine of preventive war, which was evident in the unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003.

Ironically, under Bush, this exceptionalism provided an unprecedented fillip to the bilateral relationship, when Washington chose to reward India’s exceptionalism through the so-called Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiative with a focus on civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programmes, and high-technology trade. Sadly, India and its establishment have failed to recognize that this great leap forward is the aberration and not the rule. As George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes in a new report, Towards Realistic US-India Relations, “the special treatment of India [under the Bush administration] was unrealistic and therefore unsustainable". Such a “tilted relationship" is possible only if the national interest of both countries were in perfect harmony, which is certainly not the case.

Worse, India and the US have chosen to test the limits of their exceptionalism on some of the most contentious military, nuclear and security issues on which they have had little or no interaction or serious differences. For instance, New Delhi was reluctant to accept the end-user monitoring arrangement with the US (a standard even for Washington’s closest and oldest allies), which is essential for any transfer of military equipment to take place.

Similarly, India is still holding out against the Logistics Support Agreement, which relates to providing military logistics; the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement, which would allow the supply of state-of-the-art communications technology in return for technology safeguards; and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation, which would allow the two sides to share mapping technology and data, possibly on the fear that this might lead to a back-door alliance with the US. However, without these agreements it would be well nigh impossible for Washington to supply equipment, such as the Boeing P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft desperately needed for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance roles along the vast coastline, which India has already bought. Even with these agreements signed, given the absence of any experience of sophisticated military hardware sales to India, there is likely to be a reluctance on the part of the US military suppliers to provide the necessary technology transfer for fear that it might land up in the hands of hostile countries. For instance, apart from the 1950s vintage Fairchild C-119 “Packet" transport aircraft, the Indian Air Force has never bought a US-built military aircraft, until the recent purchase of the C-17 and C-130J transport aircraft. Were New Delhi to decide to buy either the F-16 or the F-18 Super Hornet, it would be the first ever US combat aircraft to fly the Indian flag and that experience would be crucial to determine the future course of technology transfer between them.

This is the primary reason that the Indian Space Research Organisation, Defence Research and Development Organisation and some units of the department of atomic energy remain on the US list of entities requiring case-by-case clearance for supply of dual-use technology. The unique nuclear liability Bill also has the potential of blocking further cooperation on nuclear energy. Similarly, the lack of access of US multi-brand retailers to Indian markets and the cap on US investment at 26%, particularly in the insurance sector are other stumbling blocks. In addition, different interests and perspectives on Pakistan and Afghanistan are specifically problematic. Finally, India’s demand for a carte-blanche US endorsement of New Delhi’s bid for the permanent membership of the UN Security Council is also a non-starter.

To take the relationship to the next level, both sides will have to work beyond the Obama visit to ensure that their differences can be narrowed. The India-US Strategic Dialogue provides the ideal forum to discuss these fundamental differences without getting bogged down in the transactional bazaar bargaining.

In addition, it would pay to focus on areas of convergence. These include the unprecedented number of naval exercises, which also serve as a cover for joint patrolling of sea lanes, and the counterpiracy operations, counterterrorism and China. This could be complemented by opening up new dialogues, particularly on the global commons of cyberspace and cyber security and outer space. Similarly, India’s bold proposal to join some of the informal arrangements of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar arrangement, and the Missile Technology Control Regime, has the potential to see New Delhi play a greater role in preventing proliferation. Finally, India’s 2011-2012 membership of the UN Security Council provides an ideal opportunity for New Delhi and Washington to work together on some of the most contentious international peace and security challenges in which both might also have vital national interest.

The litmus test will be the joint declaration that will follow from the visit. If it candidly acknowledges the challenges and opportunities, then the relationship will benefit. Otherwise, it will be a clear signal that the relationship will descend into familiar and meaningless platitudes.

W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York.