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Diplomatic Negligence

The Obama administration fumbles relations with India

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By DANIEL TWINING
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In 1998, President Bill Clinton flew over Japan without stopping on his way to spend nine days in China. This led to acute concern in Tokyo over “Japan passing”—the belief that Washington was neglecting a key Asian ally in favor of the region’s rising star, China. Twelve years later, Indians worry that the same thing may be happening to them, despite the transformation in U.S. relations symbolized by the 2008 nuclear deal.

Diplomatic Negligence


A decade ago, new hopes for the relationship were embodied by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s declaration that India and America were “natural allies”—a formulation embraced by President Clinton in 2000 when he became the first American head of state to visit India since Jimmy Carter. President George W. Bush assumed office with a view of India as a future world power, a frontline Asian balancer, and a pluralistic democracy with which America should naturally cooperate in world affairs. But New Delhi’s exclusion from an international nuclear order constructed by Washington and its allies stood in the way of normal relations.

Hence the Bush administration’s revolutionary campaign starting in 2005 to integrate India into the global nuclear club. India proved itself worthy of this sea change in its relations with America and the world. To overcome parliamentary opposition to the nuclear deal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh submitted his government to a high-stakes confidence vote—the first time an Indian government had put its survival on the line over a question of foreign policy, no less one involving strategic partnership with India’s longtime nemesis, the United States. 

By enacting the nuclear deal, Singh argued, India would finally assume its seat at the top table of world politics​—with American sponsorship. Nuclear cooperation opened vast new areas for collaboration between India and the United States in defense, civilian space, high-tech trade, and other areas. This was the transformational legacy that President Bush, with strong bipartisan support, bequeathed to President Obama.

But signs of trouble in U.S.-India relations emerged early on Barack Obama’s road to the White House. As a senator, he offered a killer amendment to restrict nuclear fuel supply to India during consideration of the civilian-nuclear agreement, which India’s friends in Congress had to work hard to defeat. During the campaign, Obama toyed with appointing Bill Clinton as special envoy for Kashmir—alarming Indians in the way that Americans might be alarmed if the European Union offered to send a former head of state to mediate between Mexico and the United States over the status of Texas. Following Obama’s election, Indian officials lobbied hard to exclude India from Richard Holbrooke’s Afghanistan-Pakistan portfolio, anticipating inevitable U.S. pressure on India to make concessions to Pakistan—even as elements of Islamabad’s security apparatus were deemed complicit in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

Obama had also pledged, if elected, to push for U.S. ratification and global entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This issue divided Washington and New Delhi in the 1990s, especially when the United States and China ganged up on India at the United Nations to press it to accept a test ban that would guarantee its permanent inferiority to its larger neighbor. India’s worries were intensified when the Obama administration excluded India from its inaugural list of foreign policy partners and priorities, despite references to six other Asian powers. Indian diplomats were dumbfounded when Prime Minister Singh was not among the first two-dozen world leaders to receive an introductory phone call from President Obama. India did not feature in the inaugural trips to Asia by either President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

In the ancien régime, President Bush himself was sometimes called the desk officer for India, which gave an array of senior officials good reason to prioritize the relationship. Today, no senior official holds a particular brief for India; Secretary Clinton’s clear affinity for the country and strong political support from Indian Americans have not been matched by a strategic vision for upgraded relations. At the National Security Council, a China hand oversees all Asia relations; at the State Department, the ranking South Asia official is a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka. Indian elites recall the days when their country was at the top of Washington’s agenda with the lament, “We miss Bush.” 

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