(The article was originally published by Indian Express on June 17, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s bi-weekly column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
There is palpable excitement on both sides over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US next week. He will be among the few dignitaries to get the rare honour of addressing a joint session of the US Congress more than once. President Joe Biden is hosting a dinner on the White House lawns that will see the attendance of thousands of people, a gathering only comparable to the visit of Pope Francis during the Obama regime in 2015.
There is expectant ecstasy on one side that India shall soon become an “ally” — if it’s not already so — of the great power, while there is cautious realism on the other side that it shall continue to tread the tightrope as an important “strategic partner,” short of any formal alliance. All acknowledge, though, that the partnership between the two major powers — the world’s first and fifth largest economies — shall be the most defining one in the 21st century.
There was a time when Otto von Bismarck, the famous German Chancellor, dismissed America as an “isolationist”, and bemoaned Abraham Lincoln’s death as a “disaster for Christendom” and thought that there was no man great enough to “wear his boots”. But America did produce great leaders in the last century, like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. They catapulted America from the leader of “Christendom” to the leader of the West. Woodrow Wilson delivered the US’s first major global victory in World War I and then played a significant role in the creation of the League of Nations. Roosevelt jumped into World War II at the prodding of then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941 and got America laurels for defeating the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini.
At the end of the War, America emerged as the leader of the free world and played a pivotal role in creating the United Nations and its organisations. The Marshall Plan of the 1950s, besides helping war-torn European economies limp back to stability and progress, also led to the emergence of an “American club” of nations that were opposed to Communist Soviet Union.
It was around this time that the idea of “American exceptionalism” was also born.
When leaders of newly independent nations like India decided to remain neutral in the unfolding Cold War, the American leadership resented it. Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence that “We are not pro-Russian, nor for that matter are we pro-American. We are pro-Indian. I am on my own side and nobody else’s” was seen as a direct snub. In retaliation, they cultivated India’s arch-rivals like Pakistan and China. The lowest point came when India was subjected to harsh sanctions after the Vajpayee-led government conducted nuclear tests in 1998.
Exceptionalist superiority on one side and romantic neutrality on the other had kept the world’s oldest and largest democracies at arm’s length from each other in the second half of the last century. Historic mistrust dominated the strategic calculus.
Luckily, the new century brought new realisations on both sides. At an address to the Asia Society in New York in September 2000, Vajpayee described India and America as “natural allies”.
President George W Bush reciprocated by infusing much-needed pragmatism into the relationship. What Bush and Obama did differently in the last two decades was to shift gears from the geo-strategic to the geo-economic. India continued to refuse endorsement of the wars that the US waged in the Middle East after 9/11. Yet, Bush concluded a nuclear deal in 2008 that gave India access to nuclear markets of the world.
The fruits of this new-found partnership can be witnessed in the bilateral trade in goods and services crossing $190 billion in 2022 making the US the largest trade partner with India. Modi’s US visit next week is likely to give further impetus to trade with a focus on defence industrial infrastructure and critical and emerging technologies like semiconductors and quantum computing.
Leaders of both countries understand that the relationship in this century is dominated by geo-economic imperatives while there could be some dissonance in geo-strategic objectives. One qualitative difference on the strategic front for India is that the Nehruvian era romanticism of non-alliance of the weak has given way to the Narendra Modi era realism of strategic autonomy driven by strength and self-assertion.
This realism should not be marred by the unrealistic expectations that either country would shed its blood for the sake of the other country’s priorities. Even long-term American allies like France may not be inclined to do that.
In the post-War period, the US cultivated Western European and Asian powers through the Marshall Plan and military alliances like NATO, SEATO and CENTO. That served America’s strategic interests well during the Cold War era. However, outside of those formal alliances, America developed strong bilateral ties with countries like Israel and China in the 1980s and 1990s. Neither country became an alliance partner ever. Yet, ties with America helped those countries emerge on the world stage as important powers.
It was Deng Xiaoping’s cold-blooded realism that led to a major thaw in the relations between arch-ideological enemies, China and US. China reaped massive benefits from that and managed to sneak into the WTO ecosystem in 2001.
India is not comparable to China in its vision. But it too has the ambition to grow as an influential and responsible global power. When Vajpayee talked about “natural allies”, he did not mean any formal military alliance. The operative word “natural” highlighted the centuries-old tradition of freedom, openness, pluralism, inclusivity and liberal political ideas that both countries, on two different continents, steadfastly upheld.
The world order based on those principles faces a challenge today. The growing closeness between India and the US will help strengthen those principles in the world.
The significance of the US-India partnership should be seen not from the prism of India joining a particular conflict or not, but from the perspective that it could be the best bet for both countries to achieve the objective of building a free and open Indo-Pacific without resorting to any conflict. Because India would any day prefer to be a net peace provider than a net security provider.