US-India The Way Forward
INDIA ABROAD - In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously staked the future of his government on improved relations with the United States. But his visit to Washington — on what may well be his final trip to the United States as prime minister — will be clouded in a certain unshakeable sense of disappointment. Given the promising trajectory of US-India relations from May 1998 to December 2008, there has been a comparable lack of forward movement over the past five years. Not that there haven’t been any positive developments. US exports to India are booming. Defense commerce has grown and no longer elicits surprise or much comment in either country. Working level contacts between the two governments have improved, as have direct links between the Indian and American people. USo, why the concern?
Today, the bilateral relationship faces two big problems. The first is expectations. The relationship now characterized by numerous dialogues, regular cooperation, and frequent official contact is unrecognizable from that of the 1990s, when India was a low strategic and economic priority for Washington and an outsider to the global non-proliferation order. But work clearly needs to be done as long as New Delhi takes umbrage at every perceived slight by the US government and Washington expresses it frustration whenever an Indian decision appears at odds with its wishes.
The second — and equally vexing — problem is complacency. In many quarters, there is now a sense that bilateral cooperation between India and the United States has reached its natural limits and that no further effort needs to be exerted on either side to improve ties. Those who call for more ‘realistic’ relations downplay the potential value of both countries to the other and underestimate the areas of true alignment. A basis of any strategy is a clear understanding of one’s goals. But better relations in and of themselves do not constitute a goal. So, within reason, what exactly are both sides’s objectives with regards to one another?
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Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, where he manages the India Trilateral Forum, a twice-yearly strategic dialogue between India, the US, and Europe.