Pranab Mukherjee and Condoleeza Rice sign the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. US Department of State/ Wikimedia Commons

Relations between India and the United States reached their zenith with the passage of the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008. The Bush administration, in a rare show of geopolitical foresight, decided to work towards full civil nuclear cooperation with India in return for New Delhi separating its civil from its military nuclear facilities and agreeing to submit its civil facilities to IAEA safeguards. Both sides expected that the passage of this deal would catalyze a renaissance in U.S.-India relations after decades of ambiguity. The world’s biggest democracy and the world’s most powerful democracy would craft a meaningful bilateral relationship centered not merely on converging strategic and commercial interests but also on a shared sense of political values.

Much water has flowed under the geopolitical bridge, and despite lofty proclamations from the current president about this relationship being “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” there is a general feeling in New Delhi and Washington that it hasn’t quite lived up to its potential.

It is in this context that the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) hosted a panel discussion on India’s Non-Proliferation and Security Policies last week. For me, it was a fascinating introduction to the national-security nomenclature of the Washington establishment, as high-powered men and women in business suits traded acronyms with each other. Although the formal topic of the panel discussion was non-proliferation and security policy, the discussion invariably shifted towards the value of the U.S.-India relationship and why it was faltering.

George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment, who has produced the defining academic work on India’s nuclear program, attempted to deflate some of the slogans that normally accompany discussion of U.S.-India relations. Perkovich argued that India was not as reliable a partner in the U.S. drive to limit proliferation as some expect, due to the ineffectual capacities of the Indian state. Calling the Indian state dysfunctional, Perkovich argued that even if the central government intended to limit proliferation, the flailing nature of the Indian state would ensure that the government would unable to implement its objectives. He cited the recent blackout in many of North India’s cities which reportedly left millions without power for hours as evidence of the weakness of India’s state infrastructure and as indicative of the gap between New Delhi’s great power aspirations and its day-to-day reality. Finally, he criticized India for failing to institute a truly independent atomic energy regulatory body that would that would oversee the safety of nuclear facilities.

William Cohen, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, took a different approach. Perkovich had argued that America conceived the nuclear deal to”pay off” India for its good behavior after the 1998 nuclear tests. Cohen rubbished this claim. He argued that the deal was seen by the Bush administration as a vehicle to “enlarge” the strategic partnership with India. India was seen not only as a commercial and an ideological ally but also as a crucial strategic partner in the emerging geopolitical chessboard of the 21st century, a century in which India’s geographic position on the crossroads of Central and East Asia would be crucial to Asian power politics. He observed that the Bush administration expected the nuclear deal to be the new “floor” of U.S.-India relations upon which trust could be built. But it now appeared it had become the “ceiling.” Cohen expressed some misgivings about New Delhi’s actions, such as the Indian Defense Ministry’s decision to purchase the French Dassault Rafale aircraft instead of American F-16’s in the $14.84 billion Indian Air Force Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. However, he also struck a note of optimism by stating the little-known fact that the United States military exercises more with its Indian counterparts than any other country and the successful aerospace joint-venture between the TATA Group and Lockheed Martin. Cohen ended by counseling that just as the U.S. and India should have avoided mania during the heady days of the nuclear deal, they should avoid depression in the lull of 2012. Bilateral relations between the U.S. and India are long-term investment and require patience on both sides.

In many ways, the star attraction of the panel was Dr Sanjaya Baru, former spokesman and media advisor to the prime minister of India who chose to speak last. He prefaced his comments by saying that he was speaking wholly as an Indian rather than a scholar employed by the IISS and would give an account of the Indian position as he saw it. He argued that the turning point for the U.S.-India nuclear deal came on March 25th, 2008. He gave an account of a meeting between Senator John Kerry and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at which he was present. Kerry informed the prime minister that he should do all he can to ensure that the deal was signed into law before the inauguration of the next administration, as in his view “We [the Democrats] won’t be in a position to deliver the deal.” This shocked the Indian government into action and by November 2008 India had received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Elaborating on the theme of Democratic skepticism of U.S.-India strategic cooperation, Baru revealed that then-Senator Obama had not voted for the nuclear deal and that Obama’s White House has presided over a general despondency in U.S.-India relations. Specifically, he cited the content of the U.S.-China Joint Statement of 2009 and the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as the U.S. Special Envoy to South Asia as evidence of the new administration’s lack of concern for Indian interests.

More broadly, Baru elaborated an amoral realpolitik conception of foreign affairs which is a relatively novel development in Indian foreign policy, a country historically given to moral grandstanding. On international nuclear norms, he stated, “Only those who don’t have the power accept the rules, if you have power you change the rules.” This was a reference to India’s decision to conduct nuclear tests in 1998 and blast its way into the nuclear weapons club. Defending India’s non-proliferation record, Baru stated that the only “proliferators” of the last 30 years have been the U.S. and China. China supplied nuclear technology to Pakistan and North Korea as the United States turned a blind eye, and he also cited U.S. inaction in the face of Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program. Finally, he mentioned that India is an unlikely candidate for proliferation, as she is its biggest victim — being surrounded by two nuclear weapons states, China and Pakistan.

It is likely that the drift in U.S.-India relations will continue should the American electorate return President Obama to power. Daniel Larison has opined that a Romney administration would be even worse for U.S.-India relations than the Obama administration has been. It is difficult to dispute Larison’s claim that most of the things coming out of Romney’s mouth about foreign policy are nonsense designed to please national security hawks. But, as the foreign policy of the Bush administration showed, hawks can also get a few things right, the prime example being the decision to offer a nuclear fig leaf to India. Thus, the only way an improvement in U.S.-India relations will come about is if the hawks that congregate around the Romney White House are more concerned with China than they are with pressuring India to pressure Iran over its nuclear program. Given the obsessive focus on Iran in the weltanschauung of the American hawk, that is unlikely to happen.