America-India – Did the Bush Administration Oversell or Did the Obama Administration Botch It?

This week Michael Green and Daniel Twining wrote an opinion article in the Washington Post titled Why aren’t we working with Japan and India? It is an attempt to discuss the reasons for, what they call, the current “listlessness in our two biggest strategic partnerships in Asia.” This is a serious article but deeply flawed.

The article’s key paragraph on India begins with “India has also disappointed.”. It ends with the statement “The refrain in Washington is that the Bush Administration oversold the potential for strategic partnership with New Delhi.”

We disagree. The Bush Administration established the Strategic Partnership with India. It was the most far-reaching step taken by any American President regarding India. President Bush viewed China and India as two huge countries that would play a global role in the 21st century. In his simple yet profound way, he asked which of these two countries would be a better partner for America? The answer was simple, India.

So President Bush in his direct, decisive manner made India a Strategic Partner of the USA. The Bush Administration threw away the old, failed strategy of trying to balance India with Pakistan and looked at India as a key ally, an emerging power on par with China and the only counterweight of size to China.

This is exactly how India perceives itself. This congruence of vision was the sound long term basis for the America-India Strategic Partnership implemented by President Bush. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, expressed the view of the Bush Administration at that time: “
Within 20 years, the rise of the new U.S.-India partnership will be considered among the most important developments in U.S. foreign policy in our time.

Then came President Obama. His framework for the world was completely different than that of President Bush. The Obama Administration spent its first year in trying to woo China. The Obama Administration was convinced that President Bush had gone too far in favoring India and they restored the old policy of maintaining a balance of power between Pakistan & India.

This was not just rhetoric. This has been the consistent policy of the Obama Administration since the inauguration. Witness the clear statement from Secretary Hillary Clinton in April 2010 that the manner in which India & Pakistan have pursued atomic weapons has “upset the balance of nuclear deterrence“. The Bush Administration had realized and accepted the fact that India was going to build a nuclear deterrence against China. The Clinton statement showed that the Obama Administration considered India only from the old Pakistan-India balance of power framework.

In short, the Obama Administration unilaterally destroyed the very foundation on which President Bush had built his America-India strategic partnership. But neither Government was willing to publicly accept this reality.  So both America and India continued to pay lip service to the concept of the America-India strategic partnership.

The sudden u-turn in America’s framework stunned the Indian Government and the entire Indian Establishment. In their naivete, they had assumed that America as a whole had finally understood India and embraced India’s vision of its role in the world. But where foreign policy is concerned, there may be only one India but there are two Americas. It took the Indian Government a year to realize that the America-India strategic partnership they had accepted was only with Bush’s America and not with Obama’s America. Then the Indian Government began hedging its bets and moving away from the Obama Administration. Since then, the relations between America and India have remained “listless”.

Another factor in the decay of India-US relations has been Washington’s definition of “partnership”. This is borne out by the Washington Post article which assumes a partner of America should not oppose American initiatives but align with them regardless of how the initiatives impact the partner:

  • Yet, in the first two years of the Obama Administration, the Indians have opposed the United States on climate and trade initiatives (the initiatives were in direct conflict with Indian objectives), failed to enact liability legislation needed for American companies to develop India’s nuclear industry (a political and ethical impossibility in democratic India), resisted meaningful economic reforms (true), cozied up to Burma’s junta with gas and arms deals (a strategic necessity for India just like cozying up to Saudi Arabia is a strategic necessity for America) and rejected U.S. combat aircraft in India’s biggest defense deal to date (the last generation aircraft offered by the U.S. were judged as inferior by the Indian Military).
President Bush had astounded the Indian Government by treating India as a real partner. He understood what India could and could not do. He focused on what was achievable which was plenty. India responded in return and we are convinced that every major Indian deal would have been won by the Bush Administration. In contrast, the Obama Administration kept imposing its own initiatives on India and expected India to to follow. This pressure backfired.

Today, the Obama Administration is facing the virtual collapse of its framework. They have realized that China is a major strategic competitor and perhaps an adversary. So the Obama Administration has gone from wooing China to building a network of allies to contain China. This is the main purpose of Secretary Clinton’s trip to India and Asia.

The Obama Administration’s cherished policy of making Pakistan stronger and more stable has collapsed. But the Administration’s tactical objective has not changed. The Obama Administration still considers Pakistan as their most reliable ticket to exit Afghanistan.

America’s rapid exit from Afghanistan and the Obama plan to give Pakistan all the aid necessary to facilitate this exit remains the most difficult barrier between America and India. Secretary Clinton is trying to get India to steer away from Af-Pak and to get more active against China in the Pacific. The immediate strategic objective of India is to maintain and increase its presence in Afghanistan.

When strategic objectives are in such conflict, how can a strategic partnership make sense? This is the main reason for the current “listlessness” in America-India relations.

Editor’s Note: We urge you to read the Washington Post article titled Cooperation comes slowly for U.S., India. It might help you understand how “soft” factors and attitudes create real obstacles for what could be a win-win collaboration between U.S. & India.   

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