The U.S.-India Relationship Is Bigger Than Trump and Modi

Will the strategic bet that America and India have made on each other deliver on its full potential?

Narendra Modi and Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

For sheer political spectacle, encounters between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are hard to top. Last fall in Houston, both leaders put on a show for a raucous crowd of 50,000. They clasped hands before the multitude, and lavished praise on each other. Their encore performance in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, India, later this month will be worth the price of admission, with crowds as outsize as the ambitions of the two headliners.

President Trump’s inaugural visit to India comes after two decades of effort by administrations of both major political parties in both countries to shape a partnership between the world’s largest and oldest democracies. The relationship was born of a shared sense of values, a shared economic stake in India’s modernization, a shared (if usually unspoken) concern about China’s rise, and a shared realization that Americans and Indians need to work together to tackle big, overarching challenges like climate change and transnational terrorism.

Yet beneath the public displays of affection and tangible signs of progress lie a pair of crucial questions: Will the strategic bet that America and India have made on each other deliver on its full potential? Or will the turn to narrow, transactional diplomacy and the corrosion of democratic ideals in both societies reduce the return on investment? The answers will have enormous consequences for both countries, the future of the Indo-Pacific, and the geopolitics of the century unfolding before us.

For decades, India’s nuclear program, which stood outside the Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and beyond the reach of international safeguards, proved an immovable practical and symbolic roadblock to closer relations with the United States.

President George W. Bush made a historic decision in his second term to cut through this most difficult knot in our relationship. Recognizing India’s enormous potential as a long-term partner in a region that was destined to become the global center of gravity in the 21st century, Bush believed that bringing India in from the nuclear cold would be a net plus for American strategy. If New Delhi agreed to abide by key nuclear safeguards and commitments, the United States would lean on the international community to bend nonproliferation rules and accept India’s nuclear program.

I was the diplomat charged with completing the U.S.-India civil-nuclear deal in the summer and fall of 2008. Selling the agreement in international forums was mostly an exercise in blunt-force diplomacy, with little of the practiced finesse that so often consumes the profession. I have sheepish memories of waking senior European officials in the middle of the night to obtain an exception for India from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. I didn’t belabor the technical arguments, nor did I really try to do much convincing. This was about power, and we were exercising it—hardly endearing ourselves to groggy partners, but impressing our Indian counterparts with the strength of America’s commitment to get this done.

The whole initiative was not an easy call—not for foreign capitals and not for the U.S. Congress. Questions remained about just how aligned India would be with us, how significant the costs of the India exception would be to nuclear diplomacy and the broader nuclear-nonproliferation regime, and whether the economic benefits for the American nuclear industry would ever live up to the hype. Proponents of the civil-nuclear deal tended to overstate the promise and understate the risk. Critics did the opposite, and were then lambasted by Indian officials as “nuclear ayatollahs” whose nonproliferation zeal blinded them to wider possibilities. Bush’s decision, nevertheless, was bold and smart.

Barack Obama agreed and was equally invested in what he called “a defining partnership for the 21st century.” And while it proved impossible to replicate the dramatic breakthrough of the nuclear deal, and while rhetoric on both sides often outstripped delivery, we made steady progress, especially in military cooperation, riding the momentum of ever-more convergent interests and values.

That momentum accelerated when Modi was first elected prime minister, in the spring of 2014. He embraced a more confident role for India on the world stage and the revitalization of its domestic modernization—convinced that a deepening partnership with the United States would serve those twin goals.

I was the first senior American official to visit Modi in New Delhi, shortly after his inauguration. Modi acknowledged his complicated history with the U.S. (he was denied a visa for a decade over concerns about his involvement in anti-Muslim violence when he was chief minister in Gujarat), but he was looking forward, self-assured about his leadership of India and the possibilities of U.S-India relations. He and Obama developed a cordial rapport. Security cooperation grew impressively; trade and investment, not so much. A rising China underscored the quiet logic of partnership between Washington and New Delhi.

Although “quiet logic” is not his forte on any issue, President Trump has continued the American investment in relations with India, significantly broadened defense partnership, and even rebranded the Obama-era rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region with a new “Indo-Pacific” strategy. His pugnacious approach to trade and immigration issues irritates Indians, but has not interrupted the broadly positive arc of the relationship.

Trump and Modi have gradually developed their own rapport, superficially similar in their grasp of political branding and strongman habits. Both are skilled in the business of political showmanship, with a keen eye for the vulnerabilities of established elites, and for the dark art of stoking nativist fires.

Beneath those surface similarities, however, they are very different people, leading two very different societies. Modi grew up in modest economic circumstances, helping his father sell tea on a railway platform in Gujarat. Trump was a child of economic privilege, his early business career propelled by his father’s wealth and connections. Modi rose through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the wellspring of India’s Hindu majoritarian ethos, and later its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), developing an insider’s ideological convictions. Trump stormed the Republican Party from the outside, less attached to political principle or ideology than to the rawer politics of grievance and resentment.

In their impact on their own societies, and on the future direction of U.S.-Indian partnership, Trump and Modi are raising some disquieting questions. After a resounding reelection last spring, Modi has struggled with India’s most severe economic slowdown in three decades. Lacking a compelling strategy for the economy, he has doubled down on the one set of issues for which the BJP has a very clear and unified vision: Hindu majoritarianism. With coercive force and scant regard for constitutional limits, Modi’s government has put its Hindu chauvinism on full display.

Soon after his reelection, Modi revoked the constitutionally protected autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and its top political leadership remains under house arrest more than six months later. His government has pushed a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims seeking refuge in India, and has fed tensions over disputed religious sites. Pressures against critical journalists and academics have increased. The BJP has run into political difficulties in state and local elections, but its national opposition, the Congress Party, is a shell of its former self, and the courts and civil society are on the defensive. The political turmoil has only added to India’s economic difficulties—and put a strain on the country’s relationship with the U.S.

A battle for the idea of India is under way, between the tolerant constitutional convictions of its founders and the harsher Hindu majoritarianism that has lurked beneath the surface. This tension predates Modi and will outlive his leadership, testing India’s democratic guardrails in much the same way that the Trump era is testing America’s. Neither struggle will be settled by outsiders—but both will shape the nature of Indian-American partnership in the years ahead.

Both leaders will no doubt accentuate the positives during Trump’s visit. Increasing defense and intelligence cooperation is an asset for both countries. Some nominal progress on persistent problems in trade and market access is likely, but without the structural transformations that neither side has the will or attention span to accomplish right now. Both Trump and Modi will laud each other’s leadership, and the health of the partnership under their watch.

The deeper issue, however, is what kind of relationship we are building.

As intolerance and division in both societies erode their democracies, I fear that the leaders may reinforce each other’s worst instincts. Trump’s fixation on the capillaries of trade balances may only enable Modi to avoid arterial reforms, and the president’s erratic unilateralism will only feed Indian wariness about his judgment on the most consequential regional dilemmas, such as Afghanistan and China’s growing assertiveness.

I continue to believe strongly in the wisdom of the strategic investment that America and India have made in each other’s success over the past two decades. However, amid the spectacle of the visit, it’s important to remind ourselves that the relationship is bigger than these two leaders. For India and the U.S. to maximize the return on their investments, we must take a long view, keeping in mind why this strategic bet was made in the first place: our common democratic values, a long-term vision of economic openness, and a growing confidence in each other’s reliability.

Right now, both Washington and New Delhi, in their own ways, are part of the problem in a world where democracies are busy undoing themselves, economic nationalism is unbridled, and geopolitical competition is unbounded by rules or predictability. The sooner both countries recommit themselves, and their partnership, to being part of the solution, the better.