As President Obama prepares to visit India next month, he faces criticism that his administration has done too little to enhance U.S.-India relations. George Perkovich argues that expectations for a partnership between the two countries in the near term are unrealistically high and overlook how their interests, policies, and diplomatic style will often diverge. U.S. policy cannot do much to help India’s rise, but it can inflict major damage on global problem-solving efforts if it defers too readily to the narrow, often mercantile demands of the current relationship. 

Key Conclusions

  • Interests are divergent. Careful analysis of U.S. and Indian interests does not show a close convergence in some key areas, and in cases such as China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, they differ in how to pursue shared interests even when both states benefit from each other’s successes.
  • Democracy can divide. Shared democracy is said to make the United States and India “natural allies,” but domestic politics and economics often keep each state from adopting policies that would befit a partnership. 
  • Bilateral relations should not be used to contain China. Emphasizing military competition with China, as some do, is counterproductive. For the foreseeable future, the United States, India, and China will operate in a triangular relationship that mixes cooperation with competition and pressure and none will be close partners of the others. Economic development and effective governance are the keys to countering China’s rising strength. 
  • Nuclear energy cannot transform the relationship. The civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries has not turned the relationship into a partnership, as envisioned. But it has undermined U.S. leadership credibility in trying to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime.
  • Global problem solving is the priority. The United States can contribute only marginally to India’s success or failure. Washington should focus on global issues—such as trade, nuclear security, peace in Asia, and climate change—that will also affect India’s longer-term interests.

“Rather than maintaining the pretense of partnership, a truly pro-India policy would acknowledge that India has different near-term needs and interests as a developing country than does the United States, even as it recognizes that each will benefit in the long run from the success of the other,” writes Perkovich. “Most of what the U.S. government can do for India lies in the broader global arena, and most of what India needs at home it must do for itself.”