It’s not transactional, stupid!

Obama’s visit to India is a sign of the symbolism that characterises a strategic relationship

People are missing the point.

It doesn’t require the US president to come all the way to India to sell military equipment, make a case for reforming the UN security council, remove hurdles for high-technology co-operation, or indeed, as White House officials tried to project last week, encourage Indian companies to create jobs in the United States.

Such issues are negotiated by the minions, need bureaucratic and political consensus on both sides and are settled at their own pace. Official visits and summits between heads of state at best impose artificial deadlines and can be used to inject urgency into the negotiating machines. We saw it a few years ago when the India-US nuclear deal was pushed through in time for a Bush-Manmohan Singh summit.

Those who measure the significance and success of Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India through the prism of deals signed and statements made miss the fact that the India-US relationship is strategic, not transactional. Ironically, the strategic nature of the relationship was sealed by a transaction—the nuclear deal—leading many to expect more of the same. Now, there are good reasons for the Indian government to purchase US military aircraft, but not doing so isn’t about to wreck the bilateral relationship. Similarly, there are good reasons for Mr Obama to declare support for India’s place in a reformed UN Security Council, but other than disappointing his hosts, he won’t do much damage if he skips this topic.

For the first time in more than 50 years, the interests of the United States and India are converging geopolitically, geo-economically and, to coin a phrase, geo-democratically. As K Subrahmanyam points out succinctly, the United States needs India to counter China’s rising power. Likewise, India needs a strong United States, not to ally with, but for its own reasons of swing. This is as true from the economic perspective as it is from a political one. [Also see this CNAS report] Most importantly, India and the United States are mutually popular—the bottom-up factor is a powerful driver of closer bilateral relations.

It’s very hard to measure the extent of strategic relationships. Signing of business or arms deals are poor proxies. That’s where symbolism comes in. Obama has no real business to do in India. Yet he is coming. Sure, he’ll do some business when he’s here, but none that absolutely requires his presence. It’s symbolic and it counts.

For that reason Barack Obama will have a very successful trip to India next week. He just has to turn up.

Related Links: Articles in Pragati: Partnerships are made by bureaucracies – by Nicholas Gvosdev; and What’s the big idea? by Dhruva Jaishankar.

4 thoughts on “It’s not transactional, stupid!”

  1. So succinctly put!

    Loved this post- for making such a simple underline that is so significant and meaningful.

  2. Well put, Nitin. Media creates the hype, instead of talking about substance and separating it from symbolism. Number of days he is visiting, the places he is going to, the contingent he is bringing with him etc are all symbolic. Substance is beyond all these. Cooperation in counter-terrorism, sharing strategies for Afghanistan, Containing China etc are all discussed in bilateral negotiations between bureaucrats, ministers in sidelines of summits and bilateral team visits.

  3. Powerful nations conduct their foreign relations in sync with other arms of the government, eg, military, economic, domestic politics; as also to shape public opinions and perceptions. I have argued in my blog that US is losing legitimacy of power with its unilateral (even though clothed as UN) and brazen response to events post 9/11. A visit to India, the alrgest democracy in the world, helps Obama and US to brighten their images. It also helps in the “balancing game”. I am not so sure about the “strategic” part. A relationship is strategic if it withstands change of helm; on the other hand it has all but stalled. That the visit will be “successful”, as you say, is only because there are hardly any expectations from our end. In the run-up to the visit, Adarsh scam is as much important as Abhishek’s wedding was when US CNO visited Mumbai.

  4. I think the problem is that the strategic interests are not matching between India and the US. Agreed that on a macro-level both wants similar things and US and India have similar ideas about security in Asia. But the problem is, as I pointed out somewhere else as well, that the way to execute these strategic visions are different for the two countries. While Washington wants a significant maritime role for India, New Delhi will never make anything other than continental security – its main business.

    Therefore, Obama coming to India, undoubtedly symbolic, is also an effort from the US to match Indian frequencies with theirs.

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