Aim High, but Be Realistic
“Much work remains to be done to solidify this relationship — and it can’t all be done during Obama’s visit,” writes Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
January 22, 2015
Michael Kugelman is Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The opinions expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelkugelman.
With the United States and India threatened by many of the same militant organizations, the most immediate order of business should be counterterrorism. President Obama and Prime Minister Modi should underscore their deep, shared concern about Islamic State. This group has killed Americans in the Middle East and is making inroads into South Asia. Jihadist factions in Pakistan, including several previously associated with the Pakistani Taliban, have expressed allegiance to Islamic State. Afghan officials contend the group has a presence in their country. And an Indian was recently revealed to be the owner of a popular pro-Islamic State Twitter account.
Obama and Modi should also build on the joint statement issued after their meeting in Washington last year, which vowed “joint and concerted efforts” to combat the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and other Pakistan-based organizations that target India — as well as U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The two leaders should discuss ways to enhance intelligence-sharing on these groups.
On the non-security front, the two leaders should go beyond the usual talk of deeper trade and investment and pursue a signature agreement that could have a transformative effect on the bilateral relationship. One possibility — reportedly already in the works — is a climate agreement. It wouldn’t be of the same magnitude as the one Washington recently signed with Beijing, but it would still be a major achievement. A decidedly less sexy and admittedly more unlikely, but nonetheless important, outcome would be a totalization agreement. Long sought by New Delhi, such an accord would enable Indian workers in the United States to pay fewer Social Security taxes.
All this said, let’s be realistic in our expectations for Obama’s visit. It will likely yield more concrete achievements than did Modi’s trip to Washington (which was essentially a get-to-know-you-visit), but it will not be a game-changer moment for U.S.-India relations. This is a bilateral relationship that — despite all the heady talk of recent months — remains constrained by policy divides and lingering mistrust from the Cold War era, when relations were abysmal. Much work remains to be done to solidify this relationship — and it can’t all be done during Obama’s visit.
Ultimately, it pays to be optimistic, but not unrealistic. The much-ballyhooed yet largely unimplemented civil nuclear accord — once held up as the cornerstone of a new strategic partnership — offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of outsize expectations for a promising yet still-problematic relationship.