October 1, 2009

Partners and their Naturalness

The following book review appeared in the October 2009 edition of Pragati.

While it has received extraordinary attention, especially in recent years, the bilateral relationship between India and the United States has been the subject of surprisingly few book-length studies by Americans. While a handful have been well-researched and well-informed, fewer still can be considered definitive, in the sense of having been widely read and somewhat influential in shaping policymakers’ perceptions. The absence of authoritative policy-oriented studies is surprising at several levels. The traditional arguments concerning India’s importance to the United States are well known, but several factors that might otherwise impede researchers, such as language, are certainly not applicable. Rather, two other factors appear to have led to this state of affairs: inaccessibility and the unfortunate lack of demand.

Among earlier works, Dennis Kux’s India and the United States: Estranged Democracies 1941-1991 remains the most significant American account of the bilateral relationship and continues to cast an imposing shadow over the policy landscape. Yet the subsequent sea changes in India’s economic performance, its nuclear policy and its overall political orientation after 1991 render his book of little value to the contemporary policymaker beyond the historic, although it remains remarkably useful in that regard.

Several other studies by leading American experts have limited themselves to narrow foci, such as nuclear matters. These include George Perkovich’s magnificent India’s Nuclear Bomb, and Strobe Talbott’s engaging memoir, appropriately titled Engaging India. Yet it is lamentable that the most influential book-length studies on the bilateral relationship linger on uncomfortable periods in the increasingly remote past, or on trenchant but one-dimensional differences.

This literary backdrop makes Teresita Schaffer’s recently-released book India and the United States in the 21st Century: Reinventing Partnership, all the more necessary. Ms Schaffer, who served for three decades in the US Foreign Service, including for a time as the senior-most State Department official dealing with South Asia, is particularly well-placed to provide a comprehensive and unbiased overview of the subject. Clearly capturing the many different aspects of the evolving relationship, Ms Schaffer portrays both the United States and India from the other’s vantage point, a commendable and not entirely easy task. Rising above common misperceptions in Washington and New Delhi concerning the other’s national objectives, her study provides a lucid and pithy overview of each country’s worldview, and where the other fits in to it. Topically, Ms Schaffer’s strength is in incorporating economic factors into the political and military facets of the relationship, something the traditionally security-focused American expert community often overlooks.

Apart from seizing upon the centrality of economic considerations in India’s national interests, Ms Schaffer clearly appreciates India’s sense of autonomy, security and position in the global order. Central to US calculations, she argues, are India’s growing clout in Asian affairs, its attraction as a viable economic and commercial partner, and its effective veto power on a host of global issues. But while she is correct to downplay the effect of democracy as a binding factor (“[T]he United States and India should not assume that their common commitment to democracy automatically leads to a foreign policy partnership”) Ms Schaffer does appear to overstate both India’s perceived reluctance to engage in meaningful security cooperation (“Indian policymakers [have] difficulty in deciding how publicly they are willing to be associated with the United States on regional security issues”) and the promise of traditional energy security—that is, involving fossil fuels—furthering the partnership (“India’s energy needs lie at the heart of some of the most important interests it shares with the United States”).

Beyond the major thematic aspects of Indo-US ties, Ms Schaffer dedicates a good portion of her book to a tour d’horizon of third parties as varied as Japan, Russia, Israel, China, Afghanistan and Europe, all of whom have the potential to play either facilitator or spoilsport to the relationship between her two primary subjects. Among other things, she puts to rest the notion—still widely accepted in Washington—of deep and broad Indian support for the current regime in Tehran. As she observes, Indian and US attitudes towards Iran’s nuclear program mark “an important point of strategic convergence” but the two governments “do not agree on what to do about it.” That assessment, or a variant, crops up repeatedly in the course of her study.

The greatest assets of Ms Schaffer’s book are arguably its balance and level-headedness. Emphasising those qualities may sound uncharitable, but they are in fact less common than one might suppose, given the tendency of policy-oriented writers to exaggerate the importance of their subjects for rhetorical purposes. Critics may deride balanced and evenhanded books as simply encapsulating conventional thinking, but in the days when popular discourse is regularly hijacked by conspiracy theories in New Delhi about US intentions and gross mischaracterisations in Washington of India, a comprehensive assessment of the two countries’ relationship presented in a clear and concise manner deserves a warm welcome.