The country was founded as a unique experiment in secular democracy in a world of autocracies. Its pluralism, religious tolerance, and social diversity were unmatched. The new nation maintained special relations with its old colonial master, even as it surpassed it economically. Its culture — exceptionalist but accessible — generated worldwide appeal. As its power grew, its strategic horizons expanded to make it a global player.This is the story of America's rise to world power — and of India's. Their paths have once again converged after following radically different trajectories. Whereas Cold War politics once pushed them apart, today their democratic identities, ties between their peoples, and geopolitical ambitions foster a shared outlook on the dangers and possibilities for progress in a rapidly changing world. President Obama's trip to New Delhi and Mumbai should solidify a partnership that could shape the 21st century the way the Atlantic alliance shaped the 20th. Over the past decade, successive American and Indian administrations of different political persuasions have set aside old conflicts in favour of cooperation on defence, energy, diplomacy, and development. Other countries have taken note. Following the Indo-American rapprochement, the world's nuclear club normalised hi-tech commerce with India; Tokyo signed a security pact with New Delhi; and the European Union launched free trade negotiations with it. Meanwhile, officials in Beijing worried that an Indian-American entente could challenge Chinese dominance in Asia. So far, so good. Why, then, the palpable unease in Washington and New Delhi over the state of bilateral relations? Previously, intensive American engagement had a gravitational effect on India, pulling it into closer alignment and encouraging its leaders to invest political capital in stronger ties. By contrast, President Obama will visit a country that remains friendly but disappointed by perceived American ambivalence. Indian elites are discomfited by an American statecraft that lately has focused more on strengthening ties with Beijing and Islamabad — and on concocting premature exit strategies from Afghanistan — than on the United States' natural allies. Indians also are wary of U.S. priorities, from Kashmir to climate change, that divide the two countries at the expense of the many interests that unite them. Americans are disappointed that legacy agreements to facilitate nuclear and defence cooperation — and economic reforms that would create new opportunities for the United States to invest in India's prosperity — remain stalled by bureaucracy and politicisation.President Obama's visit offers an opportunity to put what he has called an "indispensable partnership" back on track. Yet the emerging summit agenda threatens to underwhelm. Its emphasis on optics and technical cooperation seems unlikely to deliver a strategic breakthrough. A more suitably ambitious agenda for cooperation would invest in and leverage India's growing capacities to jointly shape regional and world affairs in ways that benefit both countries and the wider international system. Such an approach begins with an appreciation that India's success as a market democracy is a core Western interest — and that partnership with America can catalyse India's rise. A strong and prosperous India could help anchor an international system that remains friendly to open societies and free markets. This aspiring democratic superpower should be a vital partner in hedging against protectionism, terrorism, and revisionism by authoritarian challengers.
A common stake in a liberal international order calls for Indo-American cooperation to defend it together. Washington and New Delhi should develop plans to protect universal access to the global commons that underpins their prosperity. With other friendly powers, they could jointly undertake to provide global public goods in an era when internet freedom, maritime security, and an open international economy are increasingly contested.
By removing barriers to hi-tech trade, experts and businessmen from their knowledge economies could collaborate on energy technologies to boost growth and climate solutions, next-generation information technology, productivity-enhancing R&D, and missile defence. The world's largest and soon-to-be third-largest economies could liberalise bilateral trade and investment, as India is doing with Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia. America and India could caucus in the G20, the East Asia Summit, and the UN Security Council — where an active U.S. campaign for India's permanent membership is overdue.
India is encircled by weak states that export terrorism and insecurity, constraining its geopolitical rise and the broader benefits that would accrue from it. Beyond closer cooperation on counterterrorism, Washington and New Delhi should launch a bold new initiative to promote good governance as a source of security and prosperity in India's wider neighbourhood. Differences over Burma and Iran should not obscure the record of Indo-American collaboration to strengthen political institutions in Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and cooperation in forums like the UN Democracy Fund. But officials in both countries remain unduly cautious about "values-based" partnership.
In fact, it is a strategic imperative: just as China used its economic magnetism to stabilise and enrich its neighborhood as a platform for global influence, so must India leverage its comparative advantage to help build a regional infrastructure of democracy and prosperity that frees it to act on the global stage. America can help.
President Obama has pursued an agenda of domestic transformation in the United States as explosive economic growth is transforming India. It is time the leaders of both countries consolidated an equally transformative partnership in world affairs. Forget the Chinese century; an Indo-American century awaits.
The writer is Senior Fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the U S, Washington DC