The United States and India: The Vital Importance of a Natural Partnership

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses Indian expatriates at a cricket stadium, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Dubai, Unite
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses Indian expatriates at a cricket stadium, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The UAE is home to over two million Indian expatriates and this is the first visit by an Indian premier in over three decades. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

The relationship between the United States and India, the world's largest two democracies collectively housing over a billion and a half people, may turn out to be the world's most important bilateral relationship in the 21st century. They share strategic interests but, more significantly, they share deep-seeded values underpinning their common experience of democratic governance amidst multihued social and cultural diversity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the United States this week will continue the growing positive and proactive engagement between these "natural allies," a label first raised by President Barack Obama in 2009. In the last couple of decades, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have all endorsed that sentiment in one form or another, and it has been regularly used by analysts.

Detached from optimistic pronouncements of national leaders, however, is such a description of the U.S.-India relationship sufficiently grounded in reality? And is it an appropriately pragmatic description of the relationship? A cautious answer would be no, but perhaps yes sometime in the future. Meanwhile, it might be more useful functionally for proponents of better relations in both countries to aspire to then-Senator Joe Biden's desire, expressed in 2006, to see the two nations as the closest on earth working as "natural partners."

Indeed, the continuing success of India's efforts to eradicate poverty and sustain high rates of economic growth while strengthening governance within its impressive democratic framework is of great importance for the future of global stability and expanding prosperity. While there are other models of governance vying for influence in the world today, India's success -- in close partnership with the United States -- is a strong demonstration that a democracy entrenched in liberal universal values can be a global recipe for developmental success. India and the U.S. as natural partners can make that happen, and that is why the U.S.-India relationship is critically significant for the world at large and for promoting America's cherished democratic values.

But India and the U.S. are not 'allies' in the definitional sense of the term and are unlikely to become so any time soon. In international relations, an alliance involves ties and bonds formalized into detailed agreements between nations that are not just friends but are codependents in security. NATO is an alliance of nations bound by shared security perceptions. The U.S. and India share threat perceptions but they also have divergences of strategic view.

The two nations can cooperate in strategic areas where their interests coincide, such as in the complex field of counter-terrorism, where much progress is under way. But they can do so, situation-wise, as strategic partners, utilizing mutual cooperation depending on evolving circumstances, and not as allies in any formal sense of the term.

The key to unlocking the potential of this relationship lies more in the adjective 'natural' than in the word 'allies.' It is natural for the world's largest two democracies to draw close to each other. They each have a written constitution that promises rights to citizens, like freedom of expression and religion, the right of habeas corpus, and a right to vote in free and regular elections. And they share far more in value preferences than just social diversity and tolerance of internal dissent.

Those aspirational promises are fulfilled to varying degrees depending on the messy politics of democracy -- such as congressional and parliamentary gridlock -- and constraints on resources, including human and financial capital. But they are shared values, which form a body of belief in individual freedom that is qualitatively different from models of governance which promise social well-being without accompanying citizens' rights.

Modi's visit will focus on innovation, entrepreneurship, renewable energy, and the digital economy, especially in his meetings with Silicon Valley chief executives. Modi can use these opportunities to draw attention to India's challenges on public health; energy and water and food security; develop strategies on how technological partnerships can boost women's empowerment; and continue to expand the dialogue on trade and economic ties which must deepen qualitatively and quantitatively for the partnership to prosper.

This is precisely the area where the natural affinity of the U.S. and India can work best. India today is engaged in the world's most extraordinary democratic experiment. If the Indian adventure in democracy, with its burden of grinding poverty and illiteracy and fractiousness, succeeds in producing stable, widespread and more or less equitable prosperity in the next decade or two, it will be a spectacular triumph for the values that India and the U.S. share. That is where the U.S. could become a true natural ally by throwing its mighty support behind efforts to strengthen India's democratic system even as it learns lessons in democratic governance from a billion-strong nation at a very different level of socio-economic development.

Gautam Adhikari is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.