The history of India-U.S. relations is excellent proof that most theories of international relations are wrong. These theories hold that nations develop partnerships based on mutual interests and common values. But if these theories were true, America and India – democratic, English speaking, pluralistic nations challenged by unemployment, terrorism, and growing Chinese ascendency – would be far closer.
But common interests aren’t enough to drive history. It is telling and ironic that President Trump’s first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, a country with little in common with the United States compared to India. Yet Trump’s decision is understandable. There were real deals to be done in Riyadh – a Rs 100 billion plus in defence sales among others.
The US-Saudi partnership is nearing its 100-year mark and it remains a remarkably stable arrangement. The original pact – US military protection in exchange for stable oil prices – grew to include foreign policy cooperation and Saudi weapons purchases that lower the cost of America’s military industrial base. It’s precisely this highly transactional quality that sustains this relationship despite conflicting national interests and a vast cultural divide.
The India-US partnership rests on a much firmer foundation but tangible cooperation remains elusive. Maybe these two factors are interconnected. Might India and America’s “natural alliance” – in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s words – have produced an assumption that cooperation would emerge organically and therefore deal making was unnecessary? While a “strategic partnership” has been burgeoning since the 2005 Civil Nuclear deal, neither nation has seen this important goal as an urgent necessity.
Today this partnership has never been more compelling. China’s economic and military growth is pulling countries including Russia and Pakistan into the Chinese diplomatic orbit. This trend will not reverse in the foreseeable future because of systemic Pakistani and Russian economic weakness. Recognising this shift, the Chinese are far more assertive in their military manoeuvering than in the past.
India can respond by pulling the US closer economically, diplomatically, and militarily, but we still hear critics question America’s trustworthiness. But trust, in the sense of a person’s character, is not a reliable concept upon which to make foreign policy decisions. The House of Saud was mistrustful of America in the 1930s and remains so today. Yet, Saudi leaders created conditions that compelled the US to establish a durable partnership.
Second, nothing is more effective in getting America invested in India’s future than by getting Americans invested in India’s economy. The history of American diplomatic and military policy consistently shows that the U.S. government is more inclined to support foreign countries when the economies of those countries are intertwined with that of the US.
Third, the Indian government need not purchase $110 billion worth of US weapons systems, but it should rebalance it foreign defence acquisitions to encourage American defence companies to become India’s champions in Washington. The political incentive is complemented by the practical reality that America has the best defence technology in the world. American companies also have a proven track record of integrating foreign countries into the global aerospace and defence supply chains (see Turkey, South Korea, and Japan). With Indian private companies becoming defence manufacturers, American private sector companies are their natural partners, but Indian government orders need to be made for these relationships to be commercially viable.
Politicians, and political rhetoric, come and go, but tangible cooperation brings nations together. It’s time to see more of this between the US and India.
Benjamin Schwartz is the Director for Defence and Aerospace at the US-India Business Council and former India Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defence