Slow-Motion Fall Into a U.S. Embrace

Walter Russell Mead, contributing editor to Opinion and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author most recently of "Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk."

It was a dizzying week of Indian politics. The ruling Hindu nationalist party lost power, and the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi turned down the chance to be prime minister.

Short-term, these events were more bad news for the Bush administration.

Traditionally, India’s Congress Party and its left-of-center allies are suspicious of American power. While the former Indian government at least flirted with the idea of sending forces to help the United States in Iraq, a Congress government will probably side with efforts in Russia, France and China to create a multipolar world to check U.S. hegemony.

In this respect, the voting in India was the latest in a series of foreign elections -- starting with Gerhard Schroeder’s 2002 victory in Germany, up through presidential races in Spain and South Korea -- in which voters supported the more anti-Bush choice.


Longer-term, however, the drift toward a closer relationship between the world’s two largest democracies seems likely to continue. India and the United States share so many economic and strategic interests that New Delhi could one day replace the European Union as Washington’s most important gobal partner.

Geopolitics is part of the story. India has two strategic nightmares. To the east is the threat that China could become the dominant power in Asia; to the west is the threat that radical terrorist movements in the Muslim world could destabilize the region and export terror and conflict to India. Since Middle Eastern Islamic radicalism and China most worry U.S. strategic planners, it is easy to see how India and the United States could build an important security partnership.

Economically, the two countries complement each other. Although some critics in the U.S. attack outsourcing of software jobs, call centers and other functions to India, the reality is that Indian employees make American companies more profitable, more flexible and better able to provide American consumers with the products and services they need at the prices they want.

Both sides need to smooth kinks in their relationship, but closer economic ties would help India join the ranks of the world’s most dynamic economies while enhancing U.S. economic performance.

A vigorous and growing population of highly educated and successful Indian immigrants in the United States, now estimated at 2 million, will, as in the cases of other immigrant groups in the past, contribute to a better understanding between the two countries.

According to some estimates, Indian Americans are the most affluent ethnic group in the United States, with a higher household income than either Jews or WASPs. As their numbers and wealth continue to grow, Indian immigrants will play a larger role in finding ways to channel common interests into common policies.

Yet, despite overlapping interests, the United States and India have historically not been close. During the Cold War, India was a leader of the nonaligned movement, and Indian leaders frequently spoke as if the failings of the West and the Soviet Union were morally equivalent. The country’s collision with British imperialism makes Indians profoundly suspicious of Anglo American influence, alliances and economic relations.

“Remember,” an Indian intellectual once told me, “the British first told us that they had only come to trade.”


At both the popular and elite levels, Indians worry about foreign influence. Foreigners see India as an emerging nuclear superpower that will soon overtake China as the world’s most populous country. Indians see their country as less developed than the West, poor, vulnerable to stronger powers like the United States and China, threatened by terrorism from Pakistan and always facing the danger that its many religious minorities and ethnic groups will unravel the country’s unity.

This sense of India’s weakness is the basis of many tensions between the U.S. and India. Laws in several Indian states are designed to stop what some Indians see as a rash of conversions to Christianity among weak or poor people unduly influenced by zealous Western missionaries.

The Hindu nationalism of the outgoing Indian government is partly rooted in this sense of India’s vulnerability; so too is some of the protectionist and anti-free market sentiment that has historically dominated the Congress Party and India’s left.

Fears that international competition and free trade will devastate India’s economy strengthen protectionism in India, even as Americans worry that cheaper Indian workers will lead to new waves of outsourcing.


Fortunately, Indian politics seem to be working against both kinds of Indian extremists.

The diversity of India’s political scene means that only broad coalitions can govern. The mostly pragmatic policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party disappointed Hindu extremists. But the BJP needed the support of 23 parties to stay in power, and many of these would have left the coalition if the party had listened to its extremists.

Similarly, the new Congress government cannot turn its back on globalization and economic reform. Too many of India’s large companies and too much of its vast urban middle class want the opportunities that flow from participating in the world economy.

Manmohan Singh, the economist poised to become the new prime minister after Italian-born Sonia Gandhi decided against leading the country, is widely credited with kicking off India’s reforms during the last Congress government. News of his appointment came after record falls on the Indian stock markets caused by investor fears that the Congress government would turn its back on reform.


Pushed toward the center, pulled toward the fringe, both of India’s major parties have deep ambivalence about India-U.S. relations. From the American point of view, this can be frustrating; Washington would like nothing better than to cement a strategic partnership with India as quickly as possible. But pushing India too fast and too hard would be a mistake. As India prospers and succeeds in the world, it gains self-confidence, and the interests that India and the United States share are too important for either country to ignore.

By giving India’s complex democracy and culture time to move at its own pace and in its own way toward a greater consensus about relations with America -- and by taking India’s sensitivities into account in making U.S. policy -- the United States will hasten the day when cooperation between the two countries can be an effective force for world peace.