What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
At a time when the American image has turned negative in much of the world, even in countries that have long been U.S. allies, India is a surprising exception. A favorable view of the United States has steadily risen in India in the first decade of the 21st century. This trend had established itself even before President George W. Bush offered in July 2005 an historic and attractive civil nuclear deal to India. According to the Pew Global Attributes Survey, between 2002 and 2005 India’s positive sentiment toward the United States grew from 54 percent to 71 percent.
By any historical measure, these opinion trends are surprising. For decades, India’s international orientation was consistently anti-American. Its presumed leadership of the non-aligned movement and its informal alliance with the Soviet Union during the Cold War were rooted in a broad democratic consensus within the nation. South Asian experts from the United States often said anti-Americanism was ‘a part of the Indian elite’s DNA.’ So how has it come to be that India gives such ratings to the United States and that President Bush enjoys more support in India than in any other country in the world? And what does this historic turnaround in India’s worldview mean for the future of Indo-U.S. relations?
As the world’s largest democracy when it became independent in 1947, India was built on a strong commitment to ‘Western’ political values. Yet as the only democracy outside the pale of the Western alliance system during the Cold War, India emerged as the most articulate and enduring opponent of the American worldview. Indeed, India joined the losing side of the civil war within the West immediately upon emergence on the world stage. In both economic and strategic realms, it then drew steadily closer to the East even as it upheld the democratic framework within. By the 1980s, India was voting against the United States in the United Nations more often than even the Soviet Union.
Within the Indian political class, too, rejection of the Western economic model as well as Western foreign policy objectives became the norm. The logical and laudable anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism that had animated the Indian national movement had degenerated over the years into a knee-jerk anti-Americanism.
The elements of this seemingly odd mix of democracy within and anti-Americanism without were several. India’s emphasis on Fabian Socialism and a conscious choice in favor of import-substitution strategies naturally presaged the steady erosion of economic links with the United States and the West. The Cold War alignment of the United States with India’s regional adversaries, Pakistan and China, led to an enduring distrust of America in India’s security establishment and sharply diminished the significance of shared democratic values. The Indian intelligentsia was deeply influenced by British left-liberalism and took to a relentless critique of Western policies. There were also the nativists who, as elsewhere in the non-Western world, were uncomfortable with what they saw as the corrupting social and cultural influences of Western civilization. Together these forces made anti-Americanism an iron law of Indian politics.
In the 1990s a range of processes in India began to overturn the strong anti-American consensus. The shift from state socialism to an outward-looking economic orientation led to the rapid establishment of Indian commercial ties with the West. As the long-protected Indian capitalist class began to adapt to the demands of globalization, the missing link of trade was restored between India and the United States. As a major beneficiary of globalization, India began slowly to shed its traditional fears about the outside world, especially the United States.
Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War triggered the easing, if only slightly, of the old anti-American framework that dominated the Indian security establishment. India’s defiance of the United States in 1998 by conducting nuclear tests—and then surviving the sanctions imposed by the United States and Japan—reinforced India’s new national self-confidence rooted in a rapidly growing economy. India’s success as an innovator and entrepreneur in information technology added to its surging self-image. The successful Indian diaspora in the United States also began to acquire a critical mass of influence in both countries, thus providing new bridges between the two nations. More important, the post-colonial chip on India’s shoulder slowly began to disappear. As economic reforms pushed aside traditional Indo-pessimism, India became less furtive about the world. Rather than ascribe all its frustrations to the American failure to respect India’s aspirations, Delhi began to sense that its own manifest destiny was at hand.
As these internal changes in India moved ahead, the Bush Administration drove U.S. policy toward India in new directions. Although President Bill Clinton’s support for India during the ‘small war’ with Pakistan over a part of Kashmir in the summer of 1999 and his visit to India in March 2000 had begun to change the tone of the Indo-U.S. relationship, American liberals found it difficult to change fundamentals. Whether it was the Kashmir dispute or Pakistan’s support for terrorism in India, Clinton’s South Asia policies accentuated New Delhi’s distrust of Washington despite the end of the Cold War. The narrow focus of the Clinton Administration on non-proliferation issues, and the tendency to view India as part of a South Asian framework, implied Washington’s dismissal of New Delhi’s claim, in the wake of its nuclear tests, that India and the United States were natural allies. The Clinton Administration’s reluctance to treat India as a great power—the idea of a balance of power does not register in the worldview of most liberal Democrats—prevented the long-awaited post-Cold War rapprochement between the two nations.
The Bush Administration determined at the outset to transform bilateral relations by treating India as an emerging great power. Despite the renewed strategic dependence on Pakistan after 9/11, the Bush Administration persisted in its attempt to enlarge and deepen ties with India. By promising to ‘de-hyphenate’ its relations with India and Pakistan, the Bush Administration achieved what had been thought impossible: a simultaneous improvement of relations with both India and Pakistan. For America, the international relations of the subcontinent were no longer a zero-sum game. By downgrading its political activism on Kashmir and insisting that Pakistan cease support for terrorism in India, Bush began to win the trust of the Indian establishment as well as the Indian people. The Bush Administration also devoted considerable diplomatic energies to defuse an Indo-Pak military confrontation during 2002 following a spectacular terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. Through its intervention the Administration got the first ever formal commitments from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to stop supporting cross-border terrorism against India.
Just as important was the Bush Administration’s attempt to resolve nuclear differences with India in the first term. Reversing the Clinton Administration’s unimaginative and punitive non-proliferation policies, Bush explored the prospects for nuclear and other high-technology cooperation with India within the framework of U.S. domestic non-proliferation law. The Bush Administration’s support for offshore outsourcing also contrasted with the Democrats’ protectionist concerns about the new economic ‘threat from India.’ By ending constant and public recriminations with India on Kashmir and nuclear proliferation, Bush prompted India to respond in equal measure. New Delhi offered the use of its military facilities in the U.S. war against the Taliban, avoided criticism of Bush’s Middle East policies, and came close to sending a division of troops to Iraq. While there were disappointments in both Washington (on Iraq) and New Delhi (on qualifying Pakistan as an ally in the War on Terror), both sides chose to maintain the new momentum in bilateral relations.
Bush went even further at the beginning of his second term. Recognizing India’s potential to emerge as a ‘swing state’ in a global balance of power, and seeing the benefits of a long-term strategic partnership with India, President Bush sought a modification of domestic non-proliferation law and global nuclear rules to facilitate full civilian nuclear energy cooperation with New Delhi. For Bush the nuclear deal was not an end in itself,Ê but a public dimension of a broader effort to transform the relationship with India. New Delhi, in turn, made decisive moves away from what remained of its non-aligned policy and voted twice against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency during 2005-06.
President Bush’s warm embrace of India during his visit to New Delhi in March has been compared to the Nixon-Kissinger initiative toward China in the early 1970s both in terms of the audacity of the diplomatic conception and the consequences for the global balance of power. There might be more to it. Beneath the new and unprecedented warmth between India and the United States is a strange pairing of the much derided Bush ‘unilateralism’ and an under-examined Indian revisionism.
Recognizing the limitations of the postwar global order in coping with the new challenges to international peace and security, George W. Bush has been prepared to act unconventionally to restructure the global order, even to act unilaterally if necessary. India, which had been left out in the cold by the settlement to World War II, has long sought a fundamental revision of the global order to ensure a seat for itself at the high table of global power and diplomacy. This accounts for an unprecedented convergence of interests between India’s revisionism and American unilateralism under Bush. The Bush Administration’s decision to bet on India is not a shot in the dark, but stems from a careful assessment of the potential changes in the global balance of power arising from the prospective redistribution of global economic power, changing global demographics and the rise of India and China. Thus, structural changes within India and the boldness of the Bush policy toward New Delhi are the main causes of the robustness of the favorable views of America in India.
Improving Indian perceptions of America, however, should not lead U.S. policymakers to conclude that India will become a junior partner to the United States—a Britain or a Japan. India is too big for that. It will not lend undifferentiated support to the United States at all times and in all places. Nor will India be an Asian France, projecting independent policies within the rubric of an alliance with the United States. While support for American policies is strong in India, there is an equally strong desire to see the emergence of alternative power centers.
At the same time, India is divided on whether China’s rise and parity with the United States is good or bad for New Delhi. While India is unlikely to enter a formal alliance, it might be ready for the first time in its history to build an alliance-like relationship with the United States. Such a relationship could involve strategic coordination on a range of issues based on a menu of shared interests, and it could conduce to the construction of a stable balance of power in Asia.
The radical changes in India’s attitudes toward the United States suggest that current anti-American feelings in many parts of the world are not immutable. The Indian case demonstrates that the American image is indeed sensitive to the nature of U.S. foreign policy. But what is not certain is whether the other important requirement, optimism about one’s own future, is as readily manifest in other parts of the world. Even when a country—China, for example—believes in its own rise, the interests of Beijing and Washington may not often coincide. In India, though, we are in the midst of a happy convergence of all three.