India and the US: Liberated from the Past?
Address to the annual IIT Alumni meeting, Chennai, December 20, 2008

Stephen Philip Cohen, the Brookings Institution

It is an honor to be invited to speak to this annual world-wide gathering of IIT alumni and students. The success of the IIT community is legendary, even in America, because of your strong presence there, let alone the recent 60 Minutes television special. My present boss, Strobe Talbott, Brookings' President, has asked me to send his greetings. Strobe expects to be back in India some time soon next year.

I want to address three issues in this talk. They all pertain to trends in US-Indian relations. (in a session on Sunday Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani and I will examine India's prospects of becoming a superpower)

  • First, what are the long-term trends in US-Indian relations? What is likely to happen to the new economic and political ties between America and India?
  • Second, what will the Obama administration's approach to India be-will it abandon the very pro-India policy of the Bush administration? Will it press India hard on Kashmir? Will it shift its attention to Pakistan or some other region or issue?
  • Finally, a few words on the Mumbai catastrophe, and how it might affect US-India ties across the board. The immediate American reaction was shock, but will it lead to a distancing from India?

Long Term Trends
Ten years ago there were three comprehensive assessments of India-US relations by the Asia Society, the Council on Foreign Relations, and my own book, India: Emerging Power. The consensus was that we were on the verge of a new era. In the past, cliché substituted for substance, it was very difficult for Americans to talk to Indians, and vice versa, a Cold War mentality hovered in whatever room we gathered-meetings always began with a few hours of an "alaap", rehearsing past grievances, imagining new ones.

The argument of these studies was that the Cold War context would fade, and that the two countries could add new substance to the relationship. In particular we talked about a new economic relationship serving as a "ballast." My book was qualified but optimistic-it did away with the question mark that was part of the title of my previous study, "India: Emergent Power?"

This audience knows better than I do what happened: economic reforms took place in India, India's image as a poor backward country was displaced by that of the country where the techies came from, and "Get me an Indian" was the battle-cry of American CEOs and CTOs. I would make special note of Dr. Sanjay Gupta-CNN's medical editor was the most visible of the Indian-American doctors, teachers and engineers.

Now that India has become a major manufacturing center, as well as a center for research and development, not just BPOs, and an outpost for many American firms, we will have to address criticisms regarding outsourcing, cheap Indian manpower, and so forth, but the situation is transformed, we are learning how to manage success, not failure.

So, the new complementarity of our economies, the intermingling of our cultures and perspectives, and the gradual dissipation of stereotypes left over from the Cold War and even earlier, mean, for me, that the long-term trend in US-Indian relations will be upward. We may see a lessening of the growth rate, but I doubt if the curve will decline, or even level off.

Clinton, Bush and Obama
Independent of these economic, cultural and social trends a new strategic relationship has begun to emerge. Clinton liked India very much but he had to sanction it because of the 1998 nuclear tests-he lifted the sanctions as soon as he could. George Bush, however, came to office with the goal of actually building up India's strategic position, and the Bushies may have welcomed the fact that India was going to be a nuclear weapons power. Indeed, they stated that the goal of America was to build India into a major Asian strategic power, a not very subtle way of saying that India would balance what they thought was America's major strategic rival in the 21st century, China.

I have reservations about the wisdom of such statements, but none about the US-India nuclear agreement, which certified India as a de facto nuclear weapons state. Bush doggedly supported the agreement, ordering the American negotiating team to agree to the last Indian position.

However, and this brings us to the Obama election. There were several Obama advisors who opposed the US-Indian nuclear agreement as damaging the international non-proliferation regime. I won't go into the gory details, but this is likely to be at least a minor point of contention between America and India in the next administration. India understands this, and has moved to forestall any American retreat from the nuclear agreement. (A number of prominent Indian strategists and retired diplomats have signed on the Zero-option or Global nuclear disarmament movements, which has gained traction with the support of Schultz, Kissinger, Nunn and Perry).

I would observe, however, that even the bitterest critics of the nuclear deal like India-the days of India-bashing are over, and all of the Obama advisors, regardless of their position on the nuclear deal, believe that a strong US-Indian relationship makes sense.

However, strategy is important, especially when you are trying to address issues of world disorder, peace, and war. Just as the Bush administration approached India through the China problem, Obama seems to be approaching India via what he calls the most important conflict in the world today, Afghanistan. A concern about losing Afghanistan to the Taliban led him to worry about Pakistan-the two cannot be separated strategically.

As I wrote four years ago, Pakistan has now become one of America's most important foreign policy problems: first because of its involvement in Afghanistan, second, because of its own nuclear program and its bad record regarding proliferation to unstable and unfriendly states, third because of its domestic incoherence, and recently, because of its apparent involvement in the Mumbai attack.

Mumbai's Impact
This brings us to recent developments. The Lashkar-e-Taiba through its brilliant stupidity has managed to do what the Indian government has been unable to do: internationalize Pakistan's tacit or explicit support for terrorists.

For years, the Indian government has been unable to persuade the United States (or other countries) to crack down on Pakistan. The evidence was always ambiguous, or India was partly to blame, or there was a fear that if Pakistan were declared a state supporting terrorism that a moderate government might fall, opening the road to power for the Islamic radicals.

More to the point, foreign officials, especially in Washington and Britain, believed that they still needed Pakistani cooperation if they were to fight in Afghanistan, and there was always the nightmare of heightening tension between the two nuclear armed South Asian states-a threat that played a role in all the India-Pakistan crises since 1990. Indeed, both India and Pakistan have played this card with American officials.

Mumbai was something awful but something special. Citizens from twenty-two countries were murdered, so this was not a butchery of Indians alone. Further, many foreigners knew the Taj and the Oberoi, they could imagine themselves there. Finally, despite what appears to be bad police work, the evidence of Pakistani seems very strong, and I suspect that the US itself has independent sources about those who planned and perpetrated this event.

For the US, the facts on the ground have led to a long-delayed reconsideration of policy. Mumbai and the LET have been internationalized, while everyone knows that the senior levels of the Pakistan government are not responsible, there is a new awareness that states must be held accountable for actions such as this that are launched from its territory. America applies this policy to Pakistan's FATA and North West Frontier province, it is beginning to apply it to attacks on India and perhaps Kashmir.

This leads me to a final remark on an issue of enormous sensitivity to India. President-Elect Obama was quoted as having suggested that Kashmir needs to be solved, since it was a matter of great concern for Pakistan, and we needed Pakistan in Afghanistan.

There has also been talk of a "special emissary" for Kashmir, with Bill Clinton's and Richard Holbrooke's names being thrown out.

Those of us who have looked at this problem have mostly come to the conclusion that this approach is wrong-Kashmir does remain a problem, it is still on the UN's books, and it is something that India should try to put behind it. India needs to normalize relations with Pakistan-better sooner than later, but there is still massive indecision here about the best strategy to follow, let alone the prospective role of outsiders. I am certain, however, that making Kashmir the centerpiece of American diplomacy in South Asia would be a mistake.

Parenthetically, Brookings has published several studies on Kashmir-its strategic importance, its social and political intricacies, and next May we will publish a masterful history by Amb. Howard Schaffer of past American efforts to resolve Kashmir. Before either Clinton or Holbrooke contemplate the position of special emissary for Kashmir they should first read this book.

Looking back and Looking ahead
Forty years ago when I first lived in India it was a strange and exotic land, known only for its poverty and Mahatma Gandhi, if it was known at all. Thirty years ago India was seen as an economic basket case, and an ally of the Soviet Union; twenty years ago it was not seen at all, it had dropped out of American consciousness-although the foundation for a new relationship had been poured. Ten years ago the changes were apparent, and they have turned out to be enduring.

US-Indian relations will of course have their ups and downs-but the oscillations will be less abrupt, more on the up side than the down side, and there are new areas where we can work together.

Given Obama's own background, and that of Senator Biden and others who will make India and South Asia policy, I am optimistic that the nuclear issue can be navigated, that military to military cooperation will continue, and that the economic ties will be strengthened. Of course, there is also the "human bridge" between the two countries-the many Americans of Indian origin who are ambassadors of each country to the other.

More broadly, I expect India and the US to work more closely together on issues that transcend bilateral concerns: I would like to see a concerted effort to deal with the looming water and environmental crises, greater economic integration among the South Asian states, and much closer cooperation on terrorism. These are problems that affect many states, and some of them, such as stamping out terrorism, are of direct and vital concern to America.

Let me thank you again for this opportunity and your patience. I look forward to your questions and comments.

About Stephen Cohen
Stephen Cohen joined the Brookings Institution as Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies in 1998 after a career as a professor of Political Science and History at the University of Illinois.

Dr. Cohen is the author, co-author or editor of over twelve books, mostly on South Asian security issues, the most recent being Four Crises and a Peace Process: American Engagement in South Asia (2007), The Idea of Pakistan (2004), and an edited volume that explores the application of technology to the prediction, prevention or amelioration of terrorist acts. A book on the future of the Indian military is now in progress.

In 2008 Dr. Cohen was Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School in Singapore, where he taught a course on the politics of manmade and natural disaster; he has also taught in Japan (Keio University) and India (Andhra University). He has consulted for numerous foundations and government agencies and was a member of the Policy Planning Staff (Department of State) from 1985-87. Dr. Cohen is currently a member of the National Academy of Science's Committee on International Security and Arms Control, and was the founder of several arms control and security-related institutions in the U.S. and South Asia. He received undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Chicago, and the PhD in Political Science and Indian Studies from the University of Wisconsin.

Dr. Cohen is married to Roberta Brosilow, and they have six children and seven grandchildren.