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U.S.-India: A Soft Power Tie That Binds

Aparna Pande

While the Atlantic partnership will always remain important for the United States, it is the United States’ ties with India that will be the “defining partnership” of the twenty-first century. Ties with India are the result of more than two decades of efforts by Indian and American leaders, and they will remain steady despite ups and downs because they rest on an underpinning not only of hard power but of soft power.

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world today, and American companies aim to benefit from the Indian economic boom. Bilateral trade today stands at over $50 billion and American foreign investment in India is approximately $16 billion. The potential for collaboration in the fields of science and technology between the U.S. and India has grown exponentially. The removal of Indian defense and space organizations from the “entity list” will help forge partnerships between companies in both countries. The security dimension of the U.S.-India partnership is equally critical with deepening military-to-military ties, counter-terrorism cooperation, defense sales and a common desire to defend the domains of cyber and outer space.

American policymakers tend to view their ties with India not just in the bilateral context but in the broader global context. India and the U.S. are both status quo powers that seek inclusive security architecture not only for Asia, but beyond. During their visits to India, both President Barack Obama and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton have repeatedly emphasized their desire that India build deeper strategic and economic ties with its East and South East Asian neighbors.

The two countries share a similar outlook with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indian discussions of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan have helped crystallize a certain school of Indian thinking which views robust U.S. engagement in the region as conducive to Indian security. Also, while skeptical of American support for Pakistan, most Indian strategists agree that American absence from Afghanistan and Pakistan is harmful to Indian interests.

While hard power is critical in international relations, it is soft power that ensures relationships between countries withstand the vagaries of politics and crises. During the Cold War, India had a hard power-based relationship with the Soviet Union. While there will always be a hard power component to India’s relationship with the U.S., it is the strengthening of the soft power relationship that is critical.

In a recent book titled China’s Nightmare, America’s Dream: India as the Next Global Power, a former American diplomat, William Avery, argues that like the United Kingdom, the United States and India too share the ideals of democracy, human rights, rule of law and free markets. To this we should add pluralism and an open society.

That the United States seeks a long-term, people-to-people relationship is demonstrated in the way high-level visits are structured. Secretary Clinton’s trips have included visits to non-governmental organizations as well as interactive media appearances. President Obama held a town hall meeting with students during his 2010 visit to India.

During the 1950s and 60s, when American leaders and policymakers visited India, the focus of attention was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his cabinet colleagues; the opposition parties were rarely paid much attention. With the rise of coalition politics during the 1990s and the importance of political parties, including those in opposition, American officials and leaders made it a point to broaden their interaction. Not only does this reflect a desire to reach out to the larger population, but it reflects an understanding of internal media dynamics.

There has been an attempt to go beyond the federal government with the rise in power and importance of regional players in Indian politics. In each of her last three trips to India, Secretary Clinton has made it a point to visit a key regional capital in addition to New Delhi—Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

The visit to Mumbai was important not only because the city is India’s financial capital, but also to express solidarity with the residents of the city who have suffered repeatedly at the hands of terrorists. The United States consulate in Chennai has the distinction of issuing the largest numbers of American visas of all the consulates in India. Both Chennai and Kolkata are important for domestic politics: the parties in power in these states are mercurial allies of the Congress party—and for foreign policy—politics in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal affects India’s ties to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. There is a similar regionalization on the American side—an increasing number of American states are building independent economic ties with their counterparts in India.

A consistently favorable rating of the other country in polling data demonstrates that there is a genuine desire in both countries for better ties. According to the Gallup American Favorability Toward Countries poll, India has had a consistently high ranking—72 percent (2011) and 75 percent (2012)—which places it just below allies like Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Japan and Germany. According to Pew Global Attitudes Project 2011, the number of Indians (41 percent) and Americans (49 percent) who have a favorable view of the other country is very similar. Also, 10 percent of Indians and 14 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the other. The two countries seem to have come a long way from the Cold War era and the days of President Nixon.

In early May 2012, Secretary Clinton went on what is most likely her last trip to India as secretary of state. In her four years as secretary, Ms. Clinton has traveled to India almost every year. The last three American presidents have also made it a point to visit India once during the course of their presidency. While there is a still a long way to go, the relationship between the United States and India has the potential of becoming another Entente Cordiale, a special relationship.

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