Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived at the White House for his first state visit since President Barack Obama took office. The two leaders have already established a good working relationship, but the Obama administration should worry that this week's summit will fail to live up to the expectations set the last time Singh came to the White House, on July 18, 2005, when he and President Bush stunned the world with their agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation. That deal galvanized the U.S.-India relationship, cementing personal ties between the leaders, and focusing global attention on the growing geopolitical convergence between Washington and New Delhi.
Today, however, uncertainties abound. President Obama's recent speech in Tokyo ignored India as part of the emerging Asian order. And the U.S.-China Joint Statement endorsed China's role as an overseer in South Asian affairs. Both developments have unsettled New Delhi, and for good reason. But the Obama team can salvage this imbroglio by a bold initiative to solidify developing relations between the world's oldest democracy and its largest: Mr. Obama should play a trump card, declaring that the United States will support India's permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council.
Even if the recent missteps had not occurred, supporting India for an UNSC seat is strategically sound. As Martin Wolf has trenchantly noted, "Within a decade, a world in which the United Kingdom is on the United Nations Security Council and India is not will seem beyond laughable. The old order passes. The sooner the world adjusts, the better."
London, Paris and Moscow have already been very public in expressing favor for India's membership on the UNSC, and Washington would be well served to get out ahead of the curve. In doing so, Mr. Obama would build on past private conversations and public intimations to this end, and imbue his great personal emphasis on multilateralism with new meaning.
In acceding to a future that looks increasingly inevitable before it becomes a reality, Washington will also gain greater diplomatic advantage in New Delhi, and the leverage necessary to keep rising Asian powers in balance.
Mr. Obama can follow along as the world adjusts to the new Asian center of gravity, but he would no doubt rather lead it there. Although the announcement would produce no immediate results, it would provide positive atmospherics for Mr. Singh's visit, and advance the prospects for further cooperation with India on key U.S. priorities: Afghanistan, nuclear nonproliferation, trade and defense issues, and climate change.
Furthermore, the White House will want Indian support on its position with respect to Iran's nuclear program. India has long historical and cultural ties with Iran, and although the two countries have never been particularly close politically, Iran remains a significant source of energy for it. The two countries also share a common interest with the Uited States in opposing the Taliban in Afghanistan. But India, like Japan and other U.S. allies, walks a tightrope with respect to Tehran: Although it opposes Tehran's illicit nuclear activities, voting twice against Iran in the IAEA's Board of Governors, it has been careful not to provoke a larger meltdown in relations.
Indian officials are skeptical that Iran will agree to any immediate cessation of its uranium enrichment activities, but hope to find alternatives that enable Iran to comply gracefully. In the context of broader engagement between Tehran and Washington, they recognize the need for continued pressure. Washington's immediate goal is to persuade New Delhi to use its influence to convince Tehran to remain engaged with the Obama administration and the international community to reach a peaceful resolution.
India will have no difficulty performing this role, which is eminently compatible with its own interests. Whether it has the persuasive powers attributed to it by some Obama administration officials, however, remains an open question. Longer-term U.S. expectations center on the hope that India will cooperate with the international community in tightening the economic and political noose around Iran if the current dialogue does not produce a diplomatic solution.
Depending on the instruments involved and the international mandate under which they are employed, securing India's cooperation may prove difficult, but it will not be impossible. The history of the Bush presidency demonstrates that India can cooperate with the United States even when the two nations have differing interests, as long as India remains convinced that Washington and New Delhi share a broader strategic outlook, and that its own actions can be implemented inconspicuously. Mr. Obama would be wise to take this into consideration when he and Mr. Singh take up the topic of Iran.
Overall, unlike Mr. Singh's 2005 trip, when he and President Bush removed one of the key structural impediments to improved bilateral ties, his forthcoming visit will highlight the maturation of the relationship. In their remarks, the two heads of state will likely announce new initiatives in areas as diverse as agriculture, counterterrorism, education, energy, healthcare, space, trade and investment.
This is all to the good, but even so Mr. Obama should demonstrate through a singular initiative that a strengthened U.S. partnership with India is grounded in abiding national interests, rather than the preferences of any one president. Like his predecessor, he should do something transformative. India is already a player. Why not make it a member?
Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.