Can the Great America-India Team-Up Survive Past Obama?

President Barack Obama toasts Prime Minister Naredra Modi. WhiteHouse.gov/Pete Souza

Strategic defense cooperation isn’t enough.

After years of vocal geopolitical neutrality, India has in recent weeks seen firsthand the shortcomings of such neutrality and the promise held by warmer ties between the world’s two largest and loudly pluralist democracies. The traditionally nonaligned South Asian country seems to have been blocked from the Nuclear Suppliers Group by those, like China, who did not want to see India’s status mainstreamed as a responsible nuclear power. In contrast, defense diplomacy and top-level leadership ties between the United States and India have been surging, including a landmark visit by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi earlier this month. This historic warming, and the resulting declaration of a “Major Defense Partnership,” are a moment worth seizing.

Growing interest in shared security is increasingly driving a conversation about cooperation forward. Indeed, Modi’s trip came just under two months after Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s own visit to the subcontinent, where he pronounced the two nations “destined to be strategic partners in this century.” Now that the pomp and circumstance of Modi’s visit are over, however, the real work must begin to lock in the gains of recent months for the next administration.

While ambitious, the two nations’ declared plan for closer ties is—perhaps for the first time in the history of U.S.-Indian relations—an attainable one. Since independence, India’s defense and foreign policy has been governed by an official stance of nonalignment, but unofficially, trend lines are moving in directions encouraging to American policymakers. Though India has long preserved its geopolitical neutrality and insular economic policy (due in part to difficult neighbors like Pakistan and China) despite U.S. entreaties, this time does appear to be different. Modi and his BJP government are meaningfully changing the tone and scope of Indian debates over global engagement. In recent interviews the prime minister has signaled a growing openness to global defense engagement, aligned with U.S. priorities, stating “today, unlike before, India is not standing in a corner. It is the world’s largest democracy and fastest growing economy. We are acutely conscious of our responsibilities both in the region and internationally.”

The meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi also came at a critical time in the debate over the role of the United States in the world, when the basic premise of American alliances, partnerships and international engagement are being fundamentally questioned on the American presidential debate stage. While relations between the two countries currently benefit from the “special friendship” between the two leaders, this dynamic is not guaranteed under a future U.S. administration. President Obama, therefore, should take this opportunity to create structural reinforcements to ensure a functional—if not explicit—partnership between the two nations. Institutionalizing the already warming military-to-military ties will be necessary, but not sufficient; it will also require targeted economic partnerships that, until now, have eluded the two countries.

Given the nature of India’s historic patterns of global engagement, and even under Modi’s more assertive style, it is clear that in order to capitalize on these deeper defense ties with India, the United States is going to have to meet India on its own terms. This means allowing India to “save face” by claiming nonalignment while simultaneously empowering India to be the ally that the United States needs in the region. This will likely require both investment without immediate market access and armament without promise of assistance. America will have to claim short-term tactical wins with the faith that it will yield long-term strategic gains.

There’s good reason for the United States to patiently pursue such an expanded defense relationship with India. The two countries share a number of values and challenges that can serve to unite them. Internally, both nations have engaged in the great experiment of democracy, balancing the dynamics of diverse, messy, boisterous populations. They have each experienced the attendant glories and challenges of how best to absorb disparate constituencies and protect their populations.

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