R Nicholas Burns. Foreign Affairs. Volume 86, Issue 6. November/December 2007.
As we Americans consider our future role in the world, the rise of a democratic and increasingly powerful India represents a singularly positive opportunity to advance our global interests. There is a tremendous strategic upside to our growing engagement with India. That is why building a close U.S.-India partnership should be one of the United States’ highest priorities for the future. It is a unique opportunity with real promise for the global balance of power. We share an abundance of political, economic, and military interests with India today. Our open societies face similar threats from terrorism and organized crime. Our market-based economies embrace trade and commerce as engines of prosperity. Our peoples value education and a strong work ethic. We share an attachment to democracy and individual rights founded on an instinctive mistrust of authoritarianism. And in an age of anti-Americanism, according to the most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, nearly six in ten Indians view the United States favorably.
In the past decade, both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush recognized this opportunity and acted to construct a completely new foundation for U.S. ties with India. Our relationship with India now is our fastest-developing friendship with any major country in the world. I have visited India eight times in the last two years to help construct this partnership. I have seen firsthand the remarkable growth in trust between the leaderships of the two countries. I have also observed the corresponding explosion in private-sector ties, the greatest strength in the relationship. The progress between the United States and India has been remarkable: a new and historic agreement on civil nuclear energy, closer collaboration on scientific and technological innovation, burgeoning trade and commercial links, common efforts to stabilize South Asia, and a growing U.S.-India campaign to promote stable, well-governed democracies around the world. And the United States is only just beginning to realize the benefits of this relationship for its interests in South and East Asia.
Still, there are obstacles that the United States and India need to overcome before they can attain a true global partnership. The two countries need to work more effectively to counter terrorism, drug trafficking, and nuclear proliferation. Progress so far has shown how effectively we can work together to settle past differences and meet future challenges. If it is sustained, we will have an even greater opportunity to put American and Indian principles and power together and shape a more stable, peaceful, and prosperous global community.
The realization of this vision of a broad U.S.-India friendship has long eluded U.S. presidents and Indian prime ministers. When India broke free from the British Raj 60 years ago, it was entirely reasonable to think that the United States would become one of India’s foremost friends and partners. President Franklin Roosevelt had been an ardent champion of India’s cause; many Americans saw the vision of the United States’ separation from the British Empire reflected in the hopes and dreams of Indian freedom fighters.
But despite some successes in those early years, U.S.-India relations during the postwar period consisted largely of missed opportunities. The two countries found a common connection as large multiethnic, multireligious democracies. The United States was India’s largest aid donor in the first decades after its independence; collaborated on India’s extraordinary “green revolution,” which helped end India’s famines; and rushed military assistance to India during its border war with China in 1962. Yet none of this was enough to bridge the chasm of the Cold War. From the American point of view, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s nonalignment policy and warm relations with the Soviet Union made close political cooperation unachievable, and Nehru’s mostly autarkic socialist economic policies limited trade and investment ties. President Richard Nixon’s “tilt” toward Pakistan in 1971 and India’s “Smiling Buddha” nuclear test in 1974 planted the United States and India squarely on opposite sides of the political and nonproliferation barricades. As is so often the case with proud and great countries, this rather bitter history overwhelmed efforts to mend fences and postponed the long-desired partnership between India and the United States. Even as the Cold War came to an end, Washington focused on deepening its alliances with Europe and Japan and engaging a rising China. India was left off the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities. But all that is history. Over the past 15 years, three significant developments have helped bring about the recent dramatic strengthening of U.S.-India ties. First, the end of the Cold War removed the U.S.-Soviet rivalry as the principal focus of U.S. foreign relations and the rationale for India’s nonalignment policy. Second, India’s historic economic reforms of the early 1990s, led by Manmohan Singh, then finance minister and now prime minister, opened India to the global economy for the first time and catalyzed the extraordinary boom in private-sector trade and investment between the United States and India that continues today. Finally, as the twenty-first century began, the global order started to undergo a tectonic shift, and India’s emergence as a global force was obvious for all to see. The arrival of globalization as a defining feature of the age caused Americans to understand that Washington needs like-minded global allies to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world. As Washington thought about how best to contend with the greatest of globalization’s challenges—international drug and other criminal cartels, trafficking in women and children, climate change, and especially the rise of terrorism and its potential intersection with weapons of mass destruction—it became clear to most of us in the U.S. government that we needed to combine forces with powerful emerging countries such as India (Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa are others) to respond to these threats. In this radically changed global landscape, the basic interests of India and the United States—the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest—increasingly converged. That this new U.S.-India partnership is supported by a bipartisan consensus in both countries considerably strengthens the prospects for its success. In India, both the ruling Indian National Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party have worked for over a decade to elevate India’s ties with the United States. In the United States, shortly after the beginning of India’s economic liberalization, President Clinton signaled Washington’s desire to forge a new era of commerce and investment between the two countries. And after India’s May 1998 nuclear tests, then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott engaged India’s then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, in 14 rounds of talks over two and a half years. Talbott’s negotiations with Singh were Washington’s first truly sustained strategic engagement with the Indian leadership. When he entered office in 2001, President Bush recognized early on the power and importance of India’s large and vibrant democracy in global politics. He essentially doubled the United States’ strategic bet on India, pursuing an uncommonly ambitious and wide-ranging opening toward it and displaying the courage and foresight to take on the complex nonproliferation issues that had separated the two countries for three decades. President Bush called for the two countries to jump-start their relationship in four strategic areas: civil nuclear energy, civilian space programs, high-tech commerce, and missile defense.
When Condoleezza Rice visited India in March 2005, shortly after taking office as secretary of state, she set out to lay a new cornerstone for the transformed relationship. She emphasized to Prime Minister Singh that the United States would alter its long-held framework that tied and balanced its relations with “India-Pakistan.” We would effectively “de-hyphenate” our South Asia policy by seeking highly individual relations with both India and Pakistan. That meant an entirely new and comprehensive engagement between the United States and India. Secretary Rice also told Prime Minister Singh that the United States would break with long-standing nonproliferation orthodoxy and work to establish full civil nuclear cooperation with energy-starved India.
At the start of President Bush’s second term, we knew that the nuclear issue was the proverbial elephant in the room in the U.S. relationship with India. We also understood that resolving it would allow us to define a more truly ambitious partnership. India had decided not to participate in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1970s, and the United States and other NPT countries had, for three decades, sanctioned India for developing a nuclear weapons program outside the NPT regime. The result was India’s isolation from the rest of the world on all nuclear issues.
Yet by 2005 it had become clear—especially to those of us who wished to see a more effective nonproliferation regime—that this state of affairs benefited no one. One of the world’s largest and most peaceful states with advanced nuclear technology was outside the regime, whereas countries that cheated, such as Iran and North Korea, had been inside it. Despite India’s outsider nuclear status, it had been a largely responsible steward of its nuclear material and had played by the rules of a system to which it did not belong. By bringing India into the nonproliferation regime, we would modernize and strengthen it while allowing India and the United States to forge a larger and more ambitious partnership. When Prime Minister Singh visited Washington in July 2005, President Bush made this bold proposition: after 30 years, the United States was prepared to offer India the benefits of full civil nuclear energy cooperation. We would not assist India’s nuclear weapons program, but we would help India construct new power plants and would provide it with the latest in nuclear fuel and technology to run them. In New Delhi in March 2006, President Bush and Prime Minister Singh announced the realization of this vision through the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative.
Nine months later, in December 2006, a strong bipartisan majority in Congress passed the Hyde Act, which approved the initiative, permitting American investment in India’s civil nuclear power industry. These steps marked a huge change in U.S. and global thinking about how to work with India. They transformed India overnight from a target of the international nonproliferation regime to a stakeholder in it. Beyond those first moves, the U.S. Atomic Energy Act required a formal agreement to lay the legal basis for bilateral nuclear collaboration. We concluded the “123 agreement” this July, after long and sometimes difficult negotiations. The benefits of these historic agreements are very real for the United States. For the first time in three decades, India will submit its entire civil nuclear program to international inspection by permanently placing 14 of its 22 nuclear power plants and all of its future civil reactors under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Within a generation, nearly 90 percent of India’s reactors will likely be covered by the agreement. Without the arrangement, India’s nuclear power program would have remained a black box. With it, India will be brought into the international nuclear nonproliferation mainstream. Some have criticized this dramatic break from past orthodoxy, especially the decision to grant India consent rights to reprocess spent fuel. But in fact, the United States has granted reprocessing consent before, to Japan and the European Atomic Energy Community. Moreover, these rights will come into effect only once India builds a state-of-the-art reprocessing facility fully monitored by the IAEA and we agree on the specific arrangements and procedures for it. The agreement with India will not assist the country’s nuclear weapons program in any way. And should India decide to conduct a nuclear test in the future, then the United States would have the right under U.S. law to seek the return of all nuclear fuel and technology shipped by U.S. firms.
In short, the civil nuclear agreement serves the national security interests of the United States. It has already become the symbolic centerpiece of the new U.S.-India friendship and is wildly popular among millions of Indians who see it as a mark of U.S. respect for India. Despite the objections voiced by the Communist Party of India in August of this year, the Indian government has stood firm and is meeting its commitments under the agreement. This agreement will deepen the strategic partnership, create new opportunities for U.S. businesses in India, enhance global energy security, and reduce India’s carbon emissions. It will also send a powerful message to nuclear outlaws such as Iran: if you play by the rules, as India has, you will be rewarded; if you do not, you will face sanctions and isolation.
Several further steps remain. India must conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, following which the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group must change its international practice to permit free civil nuclear trade with India. Then Congress will vote a final time to permit, once and for all, U.S. firms to work with India to construct nuclear power plants to meet its need for electricity.
During the two years of this diplomatic marathon of negotiations, my Indian counterparts and I worked more closely and intensively than we ever had before. We were sometimes forced to dig deep into our reserves of creativity and tenacity. But the outcome demonstrates that Americans and Indians can work together to achieve important goals on the most vital international issues—something once thought impossible.
Securing South Asia
Another fundamental change in the United States’ relationship with India has been newfound cooperation in South Asia. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, South Asia has been viewed in Washington as a region of vital importance to our future. It is the region from which the United States was attacked by al Qaeda. It is home to Pakistan, the most important U.S. partner in the struggle against al Qaeda. And it is home to the United States’ friend and partner Afghanistan.
India is, of course, the region’s largest country and its dominant economic and military power. We are now working closely with India for the very first time to limit conflict and build long-term peace throughout South Asia. We see India as a stabilizing force in an often violent and unstable part of the world.
The United States and India share a particular interest in defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in helping to support that country’s fledgling democracy. India has made important contributions there. It has pledged over $750 million for reconstruction, making it the largest South Asian donor to the government of President Hamid Karzai. It has helped renovate and build hospitals, granaries, and schools; it is training Afghan parliamentary officials in governance and parliamentary processes; and it has committed to building dams, roads, power projects, and a new parliament building. India’s continuing involvement in Afghanistan is essential to that country’s stabilization and long-term success, and cooperation between the United States and India in Afghanistan has been close and encouraging.
In Sri Lanka, the United States and India have come together to call for a political settlement with the Tamil minority through a power-sharing agreement so as to end the island’s bloody conflict. Our countries have stood together in denouncing the terrorism and human rights violations that have plagued Sri Lanka during the past year. In Bangladesh, we share both influence and similar concerns over instability. We have encouraged the caretaker government there to restore democracy and fulfill the desire of Bangladeshis to replace corruption with good governance. And to the north, we are shoring up Nepal’s democracy: helping the government restore its reach into the countryside and supporting the efforts of the Election Commission to hold constituent assembly elections. The United States places a very high priority on improving relations between India and Pakistan. It is in the United States’ strong interest to see the two countries develop a lasting and productive peace, including by resolving the conflict over Kashmir—a potential nuclear flashpoint. This is a vital U.S. interest and is essential to securing South Asian stability. Both President Bush and Secretary Rice have made it a high priority to encourage both countries to overcome the historic and deep enmity between them. We will continue to support the promising “composite dialogue” between the two governments as well as efforts to stimulate greater contacts between the people on opposite sides of the Line of Control. Prime Minister Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have achieved more in quiet talks toward resolving their bilateral difficulties than anyone thought possible a few years ago. That the composite dialogue continues as a channel of discussion marks remarkable progress from the 1999 Kargil conflict and from 2002, when the United States feared that India and Pakistan would go to war. In this light, the gradually increasing civil-society contacts between the two countries offer the prospect of a slow but sure development of constituencies for peace on both sides. A considerable peace dividend awaits both India and Pakistan if they can sustain this newfound momentum.
Leadership in South Asia is, of course, just one part of India’s increasingly important global role. As India is both a rising power and a democracy, we in Washington view its growing influence in the world as broadly congruent with U.S. interests. Both countries seek to promote democratic principles and institutions around the world because we know that stable democracies are largely peaceful and better able to manage the consequences of globalization. Whether it comes to ensuring that China’s rise is peaceful or preventing the Muslim world from turning its back on modernity or stopping rising economies from being ruined by rising temperatures, it is hard to think of two other countries with as much at stake or as much to offer to global stability.
With this in mind, the United States and India have worked hard to come together on global issues in recent years. Prime Minister Singh and President Bush jointly launched the UN Democracy Fund in 2005 and are its largest contributors. The fund is already having a tangible impact, having awarded more than 100 grants to civil-society organizations in countries that are democratizing or strengthening their democracies. Both nations are also active leaders in the Community of Democracies, a group of over 120 nations committed to assisting other countries on their path to democratization.
Together, the United States and India have also made real advances in cooperation on health issues. India is an important participant in the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, which has helped put avian flu on the national agendas of countries around the world. India and the United States are also actively involved in fighting HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. We are working together to eradicate polio and to promote maternal and child health. We are natural global partners joined by a comparative advantage in science, advanced information technologies, and health services.
A Long Journey
Despite the enormous promise of the U.S. relationship with India, there are still considerable hurdles ahead as we seek to form a truly effective global partnership. First, it is critical that Americans consider their future with India realistically, guarding against undue optimism and excessive expectations. Differing histories, cultures, and geographies will make for a healthy but sometimes argumentative friendship. The United States and India will need to work together more effectively in four primary areas: military and intelligence, agriculture and education, energy and the environment, and freedom and democracy. The first challenge will be to counter terrorism, drug trafficking, and nuclear proliferation, and to do so, the two countries will have to strengthen their military, intelligence, and law enforcement relationships. The potential of U.S.-India military cooperation became clear in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami in South and Southeast Asia, when the Indian and U.S. navies and air forces were among the first to rush humanitarian assistance to those in need. Since then, the U.S.-India defense relationship has become much more active, including annual joint air force and naval exercises. Interoperability between the two militaries has also increased, helping to preserve stability in Asia. India’s robust navy travels the sea-lanes linking the Middle East and Africa with East Asia, and we are working with it to expand the surveillance of suspect cargo vessels and real-time communication. Washington is also increasing military education and training exchanges, particularly in peacekeeping, an area in which India is a major global force.
Military cooperation is impeded by the fact that much of the Indian military still uses a considerable amount of Soviet-era equipment. Barriers to closer coordination in training and the sharing of military doctrine remain in both governments. A significant Indian defense purchase from the United States—for example, of the new advanced multirole combat aircraft that the Indian air force seeks—would be a great leap forward and signal a real commitment to long-term military partnership.
Meanwhile, the United States and India must also achieve more advanced cooperation on counterterrorism, intelligence, and law enforcement, based on the recognition that terrorism is a central threat to both countries. This means, among other things, working more closely to disrupt the flow of funds to terrorists. We also urge India to participate in our Container Security Initiative (which, among other things, allows the United States to check suspect U.S.-bound cargo containers at their foreign ports of departure) and to unleash its proven expertise in information technology to meet a new generation of threats from cyberspace.
The second major challenge is for the United States to help India address some of its most urgent domestic problems, particularly in agriculture and education. When Prime Minister Singh first met with President Bush in 2005, he expressed a strong desire to work with the United States on a second green revolution to help India’s rural poor. This is an urgent task: despite India’s progress, nearly 700 million of its citizens—25 percent of the world’s poor—live on less than $2 a day. Americans such as the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Norman Borlaug were key actors in India’s first green revolution, and Prime Minister Singh has suggested that the United States’ famous midwestern land-grant institutions could assist India through the implementation of public-private partnerships, market-oriented agriculture, and new agricultural methods. U.S. private-sector expertise and investment could help India create the cold-storage facilities, supply chains, and food-processing technology that form the backbone of a sophisticated agricultural market. The two countries could also collaborate on spreading environmentally sustainable farming methods, such as land conservation and water-resource management.
As India’s rural poor become integrated into global markets, the United States and India must also find a way to bridge differences on global trade. We have differed with India on critical issues during the long Doha Round of trade negotiations. We continue to believe that the completion of the Doha Round talks offers the best hope for expanding global economic growth and prosperity. An Indian global trade policy that increases liberalization and stimulates significant and sustained trade in agriculture and manufactured goods would benefit all, and so would the opening of India’s retail, banking, and insurance sectors. As with agriculture, the United States helped establish some of India’s finest educational institutions, including one of the Indian Institutes of Management and one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. Now an even more ambitious education agenda with India is needed. Education has been and will be a driving engine of U.S.-India relations—it will constitute the foundation of a shared future and be a wellspring of personal relationships and dreams that go far beyond government-to-government cooperation. There are now more students from India at colleges and universities in the United States than there are students from any other country. Graduating Indian students have spawned new businesses, with new technologies and extended families that build new bridges between our countries. As India looks to expand educational opportunity for its citizens, the United States will be ready to cooperate. The announcement that the Georgia Institute of Technology will open a campus in India and the variety of joint ventures being considered are signs of much more to come. On the government side, we have agreed to expand the Fulbright Program in India and the exchange of scholars between the United States and India.
The third major area in which the two countries must work together more effectively is energy and the environment. If global climate change will be the most significant challenge of the future, India and the United States must face it together. The United States and China are currently the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, but India is about to join us in that inauspicious grouping. India has traditionally seen global warming as a developed-world problem and has argued that a country’s responsibility for it ought to be measured in per capita, rather than absolute, terms. That will have to change. How a hugely populous and rapidly growing India addresses its energy needs is a question whose answer will have urgent consequences for the global environment. Even with clean nuclear energy in the future, India will need additional energy sources to fuel its growth.
Part of the solution will come from drawing on the strengths of the United States and India as increasingly dynamic, creative, and high-tech societies. As the United States invests in alternative energy sources, it can partner with India, home to some of the world’s most innovative initiatives: the production of biofuels, the expanded use of compressed natural gas in public transport, and the world’s most profitable wind energy company. Indian and American business leaders, scientists, and engineers must become a major part of the solution to the challenge of global climate change. We have already begun that process through the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which seeks to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies and bring together the public and private sectors to tackle this critical challenge. India is also a charter member of the major economies group that met at the State Department in September 2007 to plan for an effective post-Kyoto global regime on climate change. The fourth major challenge is to work with India more effectively to promote freedom and democracy worldwide. Standing up for people who have not yet secured their right to have a say in their government should be an essential component of the new U.S.-India relationship. Truly moving forward on promoting democracy will require new ways of thinking, and both countries will need to make some tough choices, commensurate with their global responsibilities.
Some of India’s fellow nonaligned countries are among the world’s most oppressive and antidemocratic regimes. India’s defense of those countries in resolutions at the United Nations and its political and military cooperation with some of them—most notably Burma—is anachronistic. Burma is a cruel dictatorship, and its continued detention of the heroic dissident and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who lived in India in her youth and studied at the University of Delhi, serves as a rebuke to all who believe in democratic values. India will also need to be careful about its long-term relationship with Iran. Indians will need to ask themselves if their civilizational link with the Iranian people shall be confused with support for the interests of the irresponsible theocratic regime in Tehran.
For its part, the United States must adjust to a friendship with India that will feature a wider margin of disagreement than we are accustomed to—but a friendship in which the extra effort will be made up for by rich long-term rewards.
Finally, the United States and India should work together more effectively in the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, which I believe will play a larger role in our interdependent world in the future. It remains a curious irony that our ability to work together bilaterally has far outdistanced our sometimes contrary and disputatious work together at the UN. We must find a way to trust each other more and work in common cause in the world’s global forums, and to do so with other rising democracies, such as Brazil and Indonesia. The United States welcomes the rise of a responsible, active India that engages on these issues. We urge the world to understand that international institutions, including the UN, will need to adapt to permit a greater leadership role for a rising India.
As the United States and India look ahead to a new kind of partnership, we in the U.S. government should not forget that the big breakthrough in U.S.-India relations was achieved originally by the private sector. The strength of that private-sector engagement ensures that the change now under way is real—and will last. In many respects, both governments are playing catch-up with the extraordinary business-led trade and investment growth of the last two decades. Since 1991—the year of the launch of the economic reforms in India—trade between the United States and India has grown more than sixfold, reaching $32 billion in 2006. Boeing alone sold $11 billion worth of aircraft last year to India, one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets. General Electric houses its second-largest research center in Bangalore. A number of India’s blue-chip companies—in banking, pharmaceuticals, and information technology—are listed on U.S. stock exchanges.
I saw this phenomenal growth firsthand on a visit to Hyderabad last autumn. Standing in the lobby of the city’s state-of-the-art business school, I caught a glimpse of a vast and sparkling office complex in the distance—Microsoft’s largest such enterprise outside of Redmond, Washington. On the same trip, I visited a high-tech Indian firm founded by Indian Americans who got their start in California. The virtual bridge between U.S. high-tech centers and the Hyderabad-Bangalore corridor in India is the most obvious example of the high-tech future. According to a recent Duke University study, more than one in seven start-ups in Silicon Valley is founded by an immigrant from India.
As businesses multiply, our societies are increasingly being woven together, thanks in part to the 2.5 million Indian Americans in the United States, the wealthiest and best-educated immigrant community in the country. People-to-people contacts—for work, education, and tourism—have reached new heights. The U.S. embassy and consulates in India are on track to process a staggering 720,000 Indian U.S. visa applications this year; the U.S. consulate in Chennai issues more U.S. visas for skilled workers (43,000 last year) than any other U.S. diplomatic post in the world. Each year, the United States accepts more students from India—76,000 this year—than from any other country. Many of them have gone on to make substantial contributions in both countries and across diverse fields. The Stanford graduates Sabeer Bhatia and Vinod Khosla founded Hotmail and Sun Microsystems, respectively; the Yale graduate Indra Nooyi became the CEO of PepsiCo last year; the Harvard Business School graduate Rajat Gupta went on to head McKinsey worldwide. The late heroic astronaut Kalpana Chawla left Punjab for the University of Texas, parlaying her aeronautical engineering degree into a distinguished career with NASA.
The rise of a new U.S.-India strategic partnership over the last two decades is one of the most significant and positive developments in international politics. If the old U.S.-India relationship could barely lift anchor, the new one has clearly set sail. Today there is more of a strategic upside to our relationship with India than there is with any other major power. Our great opportunity and challenge is what we do with it and how we put it to work to serve our hopes for global security and peace. Indians and Americans have a unique opportunity over the next generation to rewrite history as it ought to have been written in the first place: the world’s oldest democracy will finally count the world’s largest as one of its closest partners. By reaching out to India, we have made the bet that the planet’s future lies in pluralism, democracy, and market economics rather than in intolerance, despotism, and state planning. Sixty years ago, our countries failed to chart a common course. Sixty years from now, no one will be able to accuse us of making the same mistake twice.