The Magazine

Ink the India Deal

The pact with New Delhi is too important to derail.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By THOMAS DONNELLY and VANCE SERCHUK
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WILL AMERICA'S PARTNERSHIP WITH INDIA fall victim to politics? The Bush administration's proposed agreement on civil nuclear cooperation with New Delhi--once predicted to win approval from Congress as early as June--is under a growing cloud. With the November midterm elections fast approaching, the legislative calendar crowded, and the White House weakened, the happy talk about a new relationship with India so much in evidence during President Bush's trip to South Asia this spring has receded, leaving in its place the realization that we could be in for yet another long, hard slog.

As Congress heads into the summer and the administration works damage control, the time is right to take a fresh look at the case for India--not just the nuclear deal but a strategic partnership generally--reminding ourselves why it is so important to pull off this power play.

The experience of the recent past has shown--even to the allegedly diehard unilateralists of the Bush administration--that the forces struggling against the Pax Americana are stronger and more resourceful than once imagined. In a world where terrorists act like great powers, and great powers are few and far between, the possibility of an alliance with a large, rising, free-market democracy with a serious martial tradition is one that should be seized.

The case for India, in short, is about more than the relationship between two great nations. It is the case for institutionalizing a certain kind of international order: what President Bush has called "a balance of power that favors freedom."

NO MATTER WHEN YOU DATE the beginning of the relationship, America and India got off on the wrong foot. The United States broke away from the British Empire just as South Asia was being conquered by it. A century and a half later, relations between Washington and postpartition Delhi got caught in the chill of the Cold War. Even after the Soviet collapse, relations with Delhi remained stagnant, dominated by the nonproliferation community and advocates of a "hyphenated" approach to India and Pakistan: Rather than engaging with each country on its merits, the United States adopted a relentlessly trilateral attitude toward the subcontinent during the 1990s.

The Clinton administration began to break this logjam in its final years, beginning with a dialogue between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and the Indian minister of external affairs, Jaswant Singh. At the time, Pakistan's burgeoning support for terrorist groups, its nuclear proliferation, abandonment of democracy, and client-patron relationship with the Taliban--the rap sheet of a rogue state--made the old pretense of equivalence harder to sustain.

Enter George W. Bush, whose presidential campaign in 2000 emphasized a renewed focus on great power relations in foreign policy and suggested a particular soft spot for India. Even so, nothing could have prepared Delhi for the charm offensive the new administration unleashed during its first eight months in office.

Robert Blackwill, one of Bush's foreign policy advisers from the campaign, was named ambassador, while a steady stream of senior officials dropped in to Delhi throughout the spring and summer of 2001. Jaswant Singh, who was favored in Washington with a long walk around the Rose Garden with the president, predicted that U.S.-Indian cooperation would result in "a totally new security regime." Bush was expected to visit India in late 2001 or early 2002.

The September 11 attacks disrupted those plans and might well have done deeper damage to the budding relationship, as the old balancing games with Pakistan threatened to reemerge. The mood further cooled after Islamist terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in December 2001, and there ensued several months of intensive, hair-raising diplomacy by the United States and Britain to prevent the outbreak of a nuclear war with Pakistan. Western demands during this period grated on Indian officials, and by the time the crisis had been defused, international attention was turning toward Iraq.

And yet, away from the limelight, patient discussions with the Indians proceeded. And despite the tensions and disruptions, the geopolitical order that began to emerge in their wake actually accelerated the strategic convergence of Washington and Delhi in unexpected ways.

Consider the three overarching security challenges that the United States has stressed in the post-9/11 world: radical Islam, nuclear-armed rogue states, and the rise of China. These dangers also confront America's traditional allies, but in varying, mostly lesser, degrees. India is one of the few states to score the same trifecta as America.