US-India Leaders’ Agenda: Aligning Their Visions for the 21st Century


President Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Modi next week could turn out to be a pivotal moment in US-India relations. While the two countries have often been called “natural partners” due to complementary strategic interests and the fact that they are both large, diverse capitalist democracies, the relationship has never quite lived up to its potential. Progress on US-India relations made little progress in the wake of the financial crisis when the leadership in both countries focused inward to address urgent economic issues, and in recent years the relationship has been further strained by a series of diplomatic mishaps (see inset below for the history of the strained US-India relationship). After five years of slowing growth in India, and without any material reform progress under the previous Congress government, Mr. Modi’s recent emphatic election and the promised change in direction for India’s political and economic outlook represents a potential inflection point for the two countries’ relationship. There are a number of critical issues on the bilateral agenda including, among others, boosting trade and investment, defence cooperation, and political and multilateral issues where there is significant scope to deepen cooperation. Indeed, securing meaningful progress on many of these issues will be the only way to ensure a successful summit between the countries. To go beyond the usual discussion on a long list of issues, and for the meeting to be pivotal, Prime Minister Modi and President Obama would need to define a new strategic relationship that has the potential to define the geo-political balance of power for this century. The bet to define the global balance of power would recognise that America does not have to be what most political analysts have assumed is a power in transition to the East. The lens through which both parties would need to see the world would first and foremost recognise America as the enduring world superpower on the verge of becoming energy independent, with a resurgence in its industrial base and a knowledge economy which will retain primacy overall other countries. Secondly, both would need to see that India’s massive challenges combined with its huge untapped potential given its political system, resources and people assets and Mr. Modi’s huge ambition make India a land of great opportunity. Lastly both would recognise that China is now internally focused on consolidating power, cleaning up the working of its economy by purging corruption, and that this is leading it to reverse the trend towards a more open information society which will put on hold any material progress in creating the next wave of growth. However, the clock is ticking on Mr. Modi’s window of opportunity and as President Obama knows well, huge expectations can create their own problems and may well have some very personal insights to share on the challenges of translating an historic electoral victory into actual change. If there is a meeting of minds between the two nations on these three key geopolitical realties, the India-US relationship could well define our times.

The US-India Agenda: Renewing The Rise of America and Securing India’s Rise

Reconciling Missions

Rather than defining the bilateral relationship as the sum of several interlinked but ultimately tactical economic and political initiatives, President Obama and Mr Modi have the opportunity to create the foundation for a strategic partnership that will unfold and develop for decades to come. Doing so will require the leaders to acknowledge each other’s fundamental priorities (and limitations) and build a relationship around the achievement of their respective goals with the other’s support. In such a strategic partnership, India and the US would have the ability address issues in a holistic and long-term manner rather than in a simply transactional fashion. For President Obama, the ultimate mission for the meeting is to secure India’s support in ensuring that the 21st century remains an American one. For Mr Modi, the mission should be to secure India’s economic and political rise by effectively leveraging, if not tying it, to the most dynamic engine of growth in the world and thereby placing a bet on the continuing rise of America. By recognising and reconciling each other’s missions, India and the US can establish common ground and the framework required to structure their partnership priorities effectively.

The basis of the potential strategic partnership also implies agreement on a number of additional terms of engagement: firstly, while the partnership will seek to be comprehensive, it will not be ubiquitous in the sense that there will be areas where the partners agree to disagree rather than work together. Second, the partnership will of course not be exclusive and both countries will continue to work with all available nations to progress their respective aims. And thirdly, that the intensity of collaboration may ebb and flow over time given events, but that the strategic framework of the partnership is enduring.

US-India Relations Since Indian Independence – A History of Missed Opportunities, In Very Brief

The importance of the meeting next week is to establish one of the critical elements in making the 21st Century the ‘American Century’ which also requires it to also be the century of India’s economic and political rise into the league of world modern superpowers. Nothing in the last two decades has set the agenda for this to be possible. Notwithstanding the long history of mistrust of each other’s intentions (see above) and the recent stagnation, the last two decades have seen a steady advance of US-India relations through the efforts of successive administrations on both sides, culminating in the landmark 2005 Civilian Nuclear Deal, which promised to end the embargo on nuclear fuel for India’s energy program and brought the country into the fold of “responsible” nuclear powers. The Nuclear Deal became the platform on which the countries announced a strategic partnership that “The India-US civil nuclear bill] was the poster boy of bilateral relations; it was expected to mark an end to the decades-old strategic mistrust between the two countries. Today, however, the agreement looks more like the terrifying portrait of Dorian Gray.” sought to significantly broaden the scope of their bilateral cooperation. Indeed, in 2008, the newly-elected President Obama hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his first state dinner and on his visit to India in 2009 announced to the Indian parliament his support for a permanent seat for India at the UN Security Council, something New Delhi has long coveted. Since then, however, implementation of the Nuclear Deal has been slow due to legislative challenges on both sides and important related measures such as Security Council reform have not been executed. These challenges (as well as domestic issues on both sides) have distracted senior political attention and prevented meaningful progress in several key areas such as trade, defence cooperation, and multilateral coordination on big geopolitical issues (such as sanctions on Iran or Russia)with the US and India increasingly finding themselves at odds. The change of leadership in India provides a unique opportunity to re-energise these bilateral relations. As Bill Antholis of Brookings says, “Where real legislation is required, Modi still will have to come to terms with the upper house of parliament, which represents the enduring authority of states” (Inside Out, India and China (Brookings Institution Press, 2014), something President Obama knows too well.

Key Issues for the Leadership Agenda

While the countries have over time proposed collaboration on a large number of issues (which have been discussed and dissected by experts), we focus on ten priorities across economic issues, defence and security issues and political issues, as well proposing potential goals for the countries’ leadership to work towards to define the strategic nature of the bilateral relationship.

Economic Issues

Defence and Security Issues

Politics and Diplomacy