James Traub tries to make the case that Indian foreign policy under Modi will be “worse” for the U.S. than in the past:
India is an important partner for the United States where the countries’ interests converge, as in Afghanistan, but not in the many places where they don’t, most notably Iran, a major oil supplier to India. And with an aggressive nationalist whose party’s slogan is “India First” in power, New Delhi will, if anything, make fewer concessions to Washington and the West than his predecessor did. Modi feels a much deeper intuitive bond with the disciplined and socially conservative countries of East Asia than he does with the United States and social democratic Europe. Worse, India’s bad habit of aligning with authoritarian states on international questions is likely to increase under Modi, a man considered even by many of his most ardent supporters an autocratic, if benevolent, leader.
Put another way, there will likely be a great deal of continuity in Indian foreign policy, which means that India still won’t support Western military interventions and still won’t be interested in making economic sacrifices for the sake of an American policy towards Iran that it doesn’t fully support. The fact that Traub appears to treat these things as more important than cultivating a better relationship with India speaks volumes about the misguided priorities that he and many others in Washington have. Instead of complaining about Indian positions that aren’t going to change in the foreseeable future, the U.S. ought to be looking for ways to minimize irritants and disagreements between our governments rather than dwell on them.
U.S.-India ties improved significantly under the last BJP-led government because of shared security interests, and there is some reason to think that this could happen again. It’s true that India under Modi isn’t going to go out of its way to harm its relations with other major powers in order to satisfy Washington, but it’s not reasonable to expect this anyway. What little we do know about Modi’s foreign policy views suggests that he will strengthen ties with Japan, and that is something that I should think Washington would welcome. The “bad habit” to which Traub refers is exaggerated, and it mostly concerns Indian opposition to Western interventions. India “aligns” with authoritarian states on these issues in the same way that Brazil and Germany and many other states do: they generally don’t support using force to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. It’s true that Modi isn’t going to throw India’s support behind Western governments when they are attacking other states, but there is no Indian government that would.
There are hints that Modi intends to try improving relations with Pakistan, and he has already made the first gesture by inviting the Pakistani prime minister–along with other regional leaders–to his swearing-in. The latest news is that Sharif has accepted the invitation. That may not lead to a significant change in the relationship, but it is a good beginning on Modi’s part that Traub ignores.
All in all, Traub doesn’t make a persuasive argument that Modi is “likely to be a net negative for the West.” To the extent that we know anything about what he will do, the U.S. can expect Indian foreign policy to remain mostly the same, but there are hints that it could change in some ways that Washington would like. There is the possibility of improving the U.S.-India relationship if the U.S. makes the effort, but at present that doesn’t appear to be an administration priority. Nikolas Gvosdev noted last week that Obama and Modi won’t meet until the autumn, and even then it will happen only during larger summits that won’t afford much time for meaningful discussions.