A Defining Moment: The U.S.-India Bilateral Relationship

Commentary | November 08, 2010

Writing for livemint.com, W. Pal Sidhu explores the challenges and possibilities of the U.S.-India relationship, in light of Obama’s long-awaited visit to India.

Sidhu begins by unraveling commonly-held myths correlating presidential visits to the bilateral relationship, including the idea that Republican presidents have stronger relationships with Indian leaders than Democrat presidents. Sidhu writes, “The reality, however, is far more nuanced. It is determined by domestic politics, quest for exceptionalism, lack of trust and inherent complexity of any relationship, which is becoming increasingly intertwined.”

Sidhu writes that, at its root, discord between India and the United States lies in the countries’ differing approaches to democracy and innate sense of exceptionalism – or belief that they are somehow exempt from playing by the rules.

“Indian exceptionalism is based on its rich civilizational past, its freedom movement, its leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and its desire to be an autonomous actor in a world of alliances,” Sidhu explains. For the United States, Sidhu cites the “Bush doctrine of preventive war, which was evident in the unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003.” 

For Sidhu, this sense of exceptionalism ultimately hinders the bilateral relationship, as it can preclude constructive international military and defense decisions. He points out, “India and the U.S. have chosen to test the limits of their exceptionalism on some of the most contentious military, nuclear and security issues on which they have had little or no interaction or serious differences. For instance, New Delhi was reluctant to accept the end-user monitoring arrangement with the U.S. (a standard even for Washington’s closest and oldest allies), which is essential for any transfer or military equipment to take place.” 

Sidhu concludes that on both sides, diplomatic efforts should extend beyond Obama’s visit to such forums as India-US Strategic Dialogue and the UN Security Council.

How will we know if Obama’s visit has been a success? “The litmus test will be the joint declaration that will follow from the visit,” Sidhu writes. “If it candidly acknowledges the challenges and opportunities, then the relationships will benefit.  Otherwise, it will be a clear signal that the relationship will descend into familiar and meaningless platitudes.”

Click here to read Sidhu's article on livemint.com