India’s cold shoulder

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

There’s a party in the Asia Pacific, and the United States wants India to be its date. As U.S. foreign policy “pivots” away from the Middle East and Europe and toward Asia, U.S. officials are doing everything they can to cozy up to the nation that Mark Twain once called “the cradle of the human race.”

America’s courtship — a bipartisan effort — has included the great-power equivalent of sending flowers (civil nuclear technology underGeorge W. Bush), chocolates (more than $8 billion in U.S. arms during the last decade) and love letters (India is the only state deemed a “strategic partner” in the Pentagon’s most recent strategy review).

The flirting has lasted so long that U.S. officials are starting to recycle old pickup lines. Quoting former President Clinton, Defense SecretaryLeon E. Panetta said while visiting New Delhi last week: “India and America are natural allies, two nations conceived in liberty, each finding strength in its diversity, each seeing in the other a reflection of its own aspiration for a more humane and just world.”


The attraction is undeniable. India is the world’s largest democracy, a rising economic power and a potential counterweight to Chinese influence in Asia. There’s only one problem with America’s entreaties: India is nowhere near saying yes.

Before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sits down with Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna on Wednesday in Washington for the third meeting of the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, U.S. officials would be wise to take a hard look at the outcome of past overtures.

In our zeal to improve relations with India, we’ve undermined our own nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Giving India nuclear technology without making it a party to the nonproliferation treaty created a double standard that encourages a dangerous, alternative path for aspiring nuclear powers. In April, for example, as U.S. officials were warning North Korea against its planned missile launch and criticizing Iran for its lack of transparency, India launched its own long-range, nuclear-capable missile.

As India’s nuclear capabilities grow, so doesPakistan’sparanoia. In response to India’s April test, Pakistan launched its own nuclear-capable missile six days later and has since conducted four more tests. Worried about falling behind India in nuclear arms, Pakistan is racing toward the completion of its fourth nuclear reactor and has doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal since 2006, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists and the Institute for Science and International Security.

India has also made a habit of abandoning the United States at the international altar. In 2011, the year after President Obama announced support for giving India a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, India voted with the U.S. only about 33% of the time in the United Nations General Assembly. In its temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, India often sides with Russia and China, who dismiss international efforts to protect human rights as meddling in other nations’ domestic affairs.

To be sure, the United States and India have made progress on a number of strategic fronts, expanding joint military exercises and exchanges, for example. But overall, relations consistently fall short of the warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric that U.S. leaders of all political stripes have grown accustom to voicing.

Rather than continue their charm offensive, U.S. officials should push India to articulate its view of the U.S.-India partnership and India’s larger role in the international community. The South Asian power has expressed its intent to become a leading global power, but it has shied from assuming responsibilities that come with the territory.

Getting a clearer picture of India’s intentions will allow U.S. officials to recalibrate expectations about where the relationship stands and where it is heading. Like the overhyped “reset” in relations with Russia, unrealistic expectations about U.S. relations with India only make it harder to manage tensions when they arise. India is not Russia, of course, but neither is it a traditional ally like Britain, and when it comes to the Asia Pacific, it’s also not Australia, Japan or South Korea.

If necessary, U.S. officials should also consider introducing some sticks into what has largely been a carrot buffet of diplomacy. The United States has significant leverage on a number of issues important to India, such as sharing aerospace and defense technology. Further U.S. assistance in these areas should be contingent upon India’s support for top U.S. foreign policy priorities such as tightening sanctions against Iran and funding and training Afghanistan’ssecurity forces.

Approached correctly, India can still become a key ally in advancing U.S. strategy in the Asia Pacific. But forging a stronger partnership requires first admitting that America’s love for India remains largely unrequited.

For the record, 11:50 a.m. June 12: The headline on a previous version of this article said the U.S. gave India $8 billion in arms over 10 years. The United States sold the arms to India.

Jonathan E. Hillman is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.