Weekly Insights and Analysis

Obama’s Opportunity in India

November 3, 2010

By Karl F. Inderfurth

The last decade witnessed a remarkable transformation in U.S.-India relations, initiated, supported, and advanced by the leadership of both countries. I had the privilege of travelling with President Clinton in March 2000 for his five-day visit to India, a trip many observers consider the “turning point” in our new relationship. Now it will be President Obama’s opportunity to leave his mark on what has become a burgeoning strategic partnership, one that will surely be one of the most important, for both countries, in the 21st century.

During these past ten years the U.S. and Indian governments have greatly expanded economic and commercial relations, agreed to an unprecedented accord on civilian nuclear cooperation, taken our military ties and defence trade to a new level, and launched new initiatives in energy and climate change, agriculture, science and technology development, space exploration, higher education, and efforts to combat HIV-AIDS.

But there is even more we should do together.

With this goal in mind, and in advance of Obama’s visit to India, a bipartisan group of two dozen former U.S. officials and experts, under the co-chairmanship of former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns, recently completed an eight-month review of the main pillars of the U.S. relationship and issued its report.

Entitled “Natural Allies: A Blueprint for the Future of U.S.-India Relations” (with a nod of appreciation to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the phrase), the report contains a comprehensive set of recommendations based on the belief that a stronger and more prosperous India will allow for a more vibrant U.S.-India relationship and that the U.S. “should encourage and facilitate India’s rise as a full stakeholder in the international community.”

To accomplish India’s “full stakeholder” status, the first recommendation found in the report is perhaps its most important: “We believe that the United States should commit, publicly and explicitly, to work with India in support of its permanent membership in an enlarged UN Security Council.”

Neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration backed India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The time is now ripe to do so. The current Security Council, with its five permanent members, is a vestige of the last century, the post-Second World War world. For the United Nations’ most important body to remain credible and legitimate for the 21st century, it must be reformed. And if the Security Council is to be enlarged to reflect the geopolitical realities of the 21st century, how could India not be a permanent member?

Among other key recommendations set forth in the report: the U.S. should seek a broad expansion of trade and investment, beginning with a bilateral investment treaty; greatly expand the security relationship, including counter-terrorism cooperation; support India’s membership in key export control organisations such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime, a step toward further integrating India into global nonproliferation efforts; and liberalise U.S. export controls, thus permitting the increased export of high-technology U.S. goods to India. This liberalisation should also result in the removal of subsidiaries of the Indian Space Research Organisation or ISRO from the U.S. Entity List.

Finally, the working group called on the U.S. and India to lift their “vision” about what our strategic partnership can accomplish – and offered one “Big Idea” for doing so. The two countries should launch a “Global Commons” initiative to protect and preserve access to the threatened common spaces of our planet – the seas, air, outer space, and cyber realms. These realms will be critical to the security and prosperity of the world in the 21st century, and the U.S. and India should take the lead to “encourage all global powers to use the commons responsibly.”

Ten years ago in New Delhi, at the conclusion of their official meetings, President Clinton and Prime Minister Vajpayee issued a joint statement entitled “India-U.S. Relations: A Vision for the 21st Century.” The first sentence read: “At the dawn of a new century, we resolve to create a closer and qualitatively new relationship between India and the United States.”

Their successors – George W. Bush and Barack Obama on the U.S. side and Manmohan Singh on the India side – have certainly lived up to that charge, and more. But, as the “Natural Allies: Blueprint” report states, “this progress is not self-sustaining. It requires bold leadership to expand and deepen the U.S.-India partnership in a spirit commensurate with its vital importance.”

This article originally appeared in Indian Express.

Asia Foundation trustee Karl Inderfurth is the former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs. He was part of a study group that produced the landmark report published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) entitled “Natural Allies: A Blueprint for the Future of U.S.-India Relations,” authored by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, and CNAS Senior Fellow Richard Fontaine, in advance of President Obama’s visit to India. The report includes a series of working papers by Asia Foundation trustees Teresita C. Schaffer, director of CSIS’ South Asia Program, and Kenneth I. Juster, former U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security and founder and co-chair of the U.S.-India High Technology Cooperation Group.

Related locations: India
Related programs: International Cooperation


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