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The Importance of India

Bush deserves credit for boosting relations with New Delhi.

11:00 PM, Jan 14, 2009 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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BILL EMMOTT, a former editor of the Economist magazine, has written that George W. Bush's "bold initiative" to strengthen U.S. relations with India "may eventually be judged by historians as a move of great strategic importance and imagination." It "may turn out to be the most significant foreign policy achievement of the Bush administration," says historian Sugata Bose, an India expert at Harvard. Bilateral ties had improved toward the end of the Clinton administration, thanks largely to the efforts of Strobe Talbott, then serving as deputy secretary of state, and Jaswant Singh, then serving as Indian foreign minister. But "the big jump in relations came under President Bush," says Columbia economist Arvind Panagariya, author of the 2008 book India: The Emerging Giant.

By far the most controversial element of Bush's India policy was the U.S.-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, which Congress approved this past fall. It was announced in 2005 but then delayed for years by opposition from Democrats in Washington, left-wing parties in New Delhi, and an Indian nuclear establishment that was skeptical of U.S. intentions. "The determination of the White House was very important," says Panagariya, who believes the Bush administration played a "crucial" role in convincing the Indian government to fight for the deal.

Critics of the nuclear pact "really exaggerated the risks to the non-proliferation regime," says Stephen Cohen, an India expert at the Brookings Institution. As part of the accord, India has accepted new international safeguards on its nuclear program. In turn, the United States has lifted a longstanding ban on U.S.-India civilian nuclear trade. Cohen predicts that the deal will help New Delhi pursue a more sensible arms control policy.

Beyond the nuclear pact, the United States and India have also upgraded their broader strategic cooperation. After the 2004 Asian tsunami, they launched a joint relief mission with Japan and Australia. In June 2005, they signed a new defense framework which enhanced bilateral military ties and stated that "the United States and India agree on the vital importance of political and economic freedom, democratic institutions, the rule of law, security, and opportunity around the world. The leaders of our two countries are building a U.S.-India strategic partnership in pursuit of these principles and interests." In September 2007, India hosted and participated in multilateral naval exercises that included ships from the United States, Japan, Australia, and Singapore.

To appreciate where U.S.-India relations are today, recall how frosty they were during much of the latter half of the 20th century. The first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who served from 1947 to 1964, was an avowed socialist and champion of the Non-Aligned Movement. Throughout the Cold War, Indian scholar Ramachandra Guha writes in his 2007 book, India After Gandhi, the United States "tilted markedly toward" Pakistan while India "tilted somewhat toward" the Soviet Union. (During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, Richard Nixon groused to Henry Kissinger that "the Indians are no goddamn good.") It was not until the late 1990s, notes Guha, "that the United States moved toward a position of equidistance between India and Pakistan."

Today, the U.S.-India partnership seems to make perfect strategic sense: Both countries are English-speaking democracies; both are wary of a rising China; both are fighting against Islamic terrorism; and both have an interest in promoting bilateral economic cooperation. India wants to secure a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and it needs America's support. Economic links between the two countries are now "so strong that they stabilize the overall relationship," says Cohen.

Then there is the cultural dimension of the relationship. Panagariya points out that most people in India have a relative, friend, or neighbor who is a member of the Indian diaspora. "They see so many Indians being successful in the U.S.," he says. India is a youthful country, and its younger generation has no serious connection to the anti-Americanism of the Cold War era. In a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, 66 percent of Indians expressed a favorable view of the United States.