The confidence of the Indian establishment that India–US relations were set on a steep upward trajectory has eroded noticeably with President Obama replacing President Bush. Even though personalities can make a difference, it is a mistake to give exaggerated importance to their role in forging longer-term relationships between countries.
In open, democratic societies a broader consensus involving political institutions, the corporate sector, interest groups, the media, etc is necessary to give durability to the quality and direction of an external relationship. In the case of India and the US, some structural factors influence the relationship, transcending the political changes that occur periodically in the two countries at election time.
The US eyes a share of the very sizeable Indian defense market as a trust dividend from the nuclear deal. Despite concerns about the unreliability of the US as defense supplier because of the ever present risk of sanctions “¦
The US is a global power whereas India is not, which makes the relationship inherently unequal. This is a sensitive issue, as India is a big country, physically and demographically, and wants to retain its independence in the foreign policy domain. Its “nonaligned” spirit, as distinct from adherence to a grouping that has lost much of its relevance in the changed international context, remains alive. This limits the degree to which it can align itself with US foreign policy interests and achieve that level of congruence the US would expect between the policies of the two countries.
The US has no experience in dealing with countries as equals. Its military power is overwhelming and its economic power remains central to world economy. This largely enables it to set the terms of its relationship with others. It has abiding belief in the superiority of its political and economic values and their eventual universalization. It frequently extends the applicability of its domestic laws to foreign countries. For the US, its ultimate security lies in others accepting its leadership, its values and the international order that it has established.
Those opposed are pressurized, contained, sanctioned in various ways, or, in worst cases, subjected to military force. Even the policy of engagement with adversarial or recalcitrant powers is predicated on making them interested stakeholders in the US dominated global system.
India is a rising power, seeking a change in the status quo. It wants to be accommodated on equitable terms into the international system, without contesting US pre-eminence. Its decision to go nuclear has given it international stature, but not enough, as its comprehensive national power still lacks a critical mass. With its sustained high economic growth making it a credible market for international business, India, for the first time in its independent history, is becoming a serious economic player internationally. This should help it eventually to enter the big league.