With the dramatic developments of the past few months, most saliently the Indian Parliament’s vote of confidence in the Manmohan Singh government and now the India-specific waiver granted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative (or "the nuclear deal") has broken free of the constraints of domestic Indian and international politics. With any luck, it will also vault over the remaining hurdles of domestic US politics and succeed in its aim of integrating India into the global nuclear order. This is a consummation devoutly to be wished, not just for its own sake but because it now clears the way for much broader and deeper strategic cooperation between India and the United States.
Such a partnership is both desirable and realistic -- it reflects a substantial convergence in the broad interests of both nations as well as their shared commitment to the institutions and values of liberal democracy. While that commonality has existed for many years it has not always been sufficient, in itself, to ensure a close relationship between the United States and India. But the last decade and a half have been marked by a burgeoning economic relationship and the emergence of shared concerns about Islamist terrorism, the linked issues of energy security and climate change, and -- last but not least -- the rise of China and the future of the Asian balance of power. These developments have come with a synergistic growth in human links, especially the rise to salience of Indian Americans in American economic and political life. Myopic critics notwithstanding, a true Indo-American partnership has the potential to be a significant force for international stability, prosperity and freedom and it could well become the most important bilateral relationship for either nation in the decades to come.
But, if there is one lesson to take away from the unexpectedly extended saga of the nuclear deal, it is that such an outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Instead, much effort will be needed on both sides to generate a shared agenda that is solicitous of the core interests of both countries and resistant to domestic and international political winds. It is to this work that decisionmakers, opinionmakers and concerned citizens in the two countries must now turn.
As a first step in this process it will be essential to acknowledge, and to discuss with greater candour, several near term challenges that could derail the relationship before it has a chance to gather momentum. The question of how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions is clearly at the top of this list. Latent disagreements between Washington and New Delhi over the coupled problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan could also emerge at virtually any moment. In the somewhat longer term, differences over apportioning the burdens of climate change could become a source of considerable friction. All of these issues would benefit from some serious collaborative thinking by Indian and American experts
There are also, of course, many problems that could benefit from coordinated actions by India and the United States, some of which have not received the attention they deserve. India’s potential to anchor a zone of liberalism and prosperity in South Asia and to help address the sources of instability in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could benefit from more active US support. India and America do share a common commitment to liberal democracy, even though they differ on whether, and if so how, and how fast, it may be possible to persuade others to embrace similar ideals. Dealing effectively with Myanmar will require creative ideas that allow such moral imperatives to be asserted without expanding a strategic deficit. Intertwined with these but on a broader canvas is the challenge of maintaining a balance of power and influence in Asia that is favorable to liberal democracy and the maintenance of peace. On the same, larger, canvas the Indian Ocean and especially the Middle East beckon as regions in India’s proximity that are also of intense strategic concern to the United States.
It is not our contention that India and the United States can generate a single, unified perspective on all of the above questions and others we have not touched. That is surely impossible for a multiplicity of reasons. But we are confident that the two countries have enough overarching aims in common that a deeper engagement can generate collaborative, synergistic courses of action on a wide range of issues.
We referred at the outset to the need to build an agenda and understanding that is resistant to the vicissitudes of domestic politics of both countries. By this we did not mean to slight or minimize the complexity and occasional unpredictability of their common democratic processes. It is these, after all, that lie at the root of their capacity to anchor a liberal world order. What we have in mind instead is a degree of mutual understanding and respect that can only arise from a large and sustained flow of ideas and people between the two societies; between universities and think tanks, as well as governments and corporations. Here the United States and India are somewhat behind where they should be, as compared for example, to the burgeoning ties between the United States and China. After decades of estrangement and mutual misunderstanding, and a comparatively short period of increasing convergence, there is much work yet to be done. However, recent events should make it easier to get on with the business of building a relationship that carries enormous promise for Americans and Indians alike.
Aaron Friedberg is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and Shivaji Sondhi is Professor of Physics at Princeton University.