When I first became familiar with India in 1997, the United States treated India with contempt (at worst) and neglect (at best). But starting that summer, the two giants would gradually approach each other, embrace, and emerge on better terms – just as Modi did with Trump on the White House lawn, writes Stanley A. Weiss for South Asia Monitor.
By Stanley A. Weiss
As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump stood together on the White House lawn last month, observers waited on edge for what has become the moment of truth in Trump presidential summits: the handshake. Much ink has been spilled describing the President’s unique game of one-upmanship, a handshake that has been described as “the Presidential grab and yank.”
Former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, recently compared it to getting things done in government: “It’s long, it’s painful, and there’s a whole lot of back and forth.” Foreign leaders from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to French President Emmanuel Macron have been judged on their ability to master the handshake. But Modi may have the best approach yet: turn it into a hug.
Modi, whom the BBC called “an experienced hugger” -- or, in classic British fashion, “the most physically demonstrative Indian leader in years” -- stole the headlines during his visit for expertly taking Trump’s hand and bringing him into a hug. It’s a good symbol for the development of the U.S.-India relationship – a broader embrace over the last 20 years, starting with tension and ending with a partnership that’s far more on India’s terms today.
First, there was the Cold Shoulder. Twenty years ago this past spring, together with Raphael Benaroya, I led a delegation of high-profile business leaders involved in an organization I had founded called Business Executives for National Security, or BENS, to India. At the time, I knew very little about the country, and neither did policymakers in Washington.
The two countries kept a wary distance during the Cold War, when India was perceived by the West to lean toward the Soviet Union. The last US President to have visited India was Jimmy Carter two decades earlier. If Americans recognized India’s importance, it was always in the context of something else: China, Pakistan, or nuclear proliferation. Hung up on these areas, we offered India an unfriendly, Trumpian handshake -- purely on our terms.
What I learned on that 1997 BENS trip, after a week speaking with key political and military officials, convinced me we were neglecting a vital partner. “To ignore India is a slap in the face to nearly a billion people,” I wrote shortly after the trip in the International Herald Tribune, “India has an annual gross domestic product of $300 billion, significant natural wealth, and as many highly educated middle-class citizens as the total US population. It sits next to or near China, the Indian Ocean, and the huge oil and gas reserves of the Gulf and the Caspian basin.”
Next, came the Tense Handshake. Immediately after the BENS trip, I started to publish pieces explaining India to American audiences and recommending opportunities for then President Bill Clinton to engage with India. Like Modi’s calm, barely perceptible movement toward Trump for the hug, India and the United States took baby steps. In September 1997, President Clinton met with Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral in New York during the UN General Assembly. But that nascent friendship was nearly derailed a year later, when the U.S. sanctioned India for conducting nuclear tests, leading to a tense stand-off with Pakistan.
Then came the era of the Double-Clasped Handshake. The real embrace would finally begin in March 2000 when Clinton and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated a new chapter of US.-Indian relations when Clinton visited India in 2000. “Clinton Fever: A Delighted India Has All the Symptoms,” one headline read. After Clinton’s speech in India’s Parliament House, parliamentarians were “jumping on chairs and over benches to shake his hand.”
The next president, George W. Bush, continued the embrace. The United States wisely dropped the hyphen between “India” and “Pakistan” in its foreign policy. No longer would US relations with India, the world’s largest democracy and a valuable partner, be linked with relations with Pakistan -- the most destabilizing force and biggest threat to US interests in the region, bar none. Most significantly, in 2005, President Bush signed a landmark agreement to share civilian nuclear technology, signaling that America was ready to put aside India’s nuclear program as a source of tension and pursue a mature, economically beneficial partnership.
We then retreated to a back-of-the-hand Slap. As happened with so many of our friends and allies during the administration of Barack Obama, a promising start that saw Obama visit India, where he touted the relationship as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” quickly drifted and cooled.
Indian officials claimed that the US had “taken its eye off the ball” in Southeast Asia, making strategic mistakes across the subcontinent. The US opened several trade cases against India in the World Trade Organization, complained about its limited access to the Indian energy market, expressed outrage that India sided with Russia over its invasion of Crimea, and seemed shocked that Moscow supplied 70 percent of Indian arms.
Surprisingly, the relationship improved when the arch-conservative Modi was elected prime minister. Obama became the first US leader to visit India a second time, forging what The New York Times called an “unlikely friendship” with Modi – or, as Indian media took to calling it, a “bromance.” In turn, Modi accepted Obama’s invitation to address the US Congress and worked to strengthen defense ties.
And now comes The Hug. As the Obama administration drew to a close, observers in India worried about incoming president Donald Trump’s commitment to US-India ties. In a December courtesy phone call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump heightened concerns in Delhi by reportedly calling Sharif “a terrific guy,” telling him that “your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities,” and offering to “play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to outstanding problems.”
Trump’s criticism of US trade deficits – the deficit with India was nearly $31 billion last year – as well as his inaction in filling key diplomatic posts added to worries that the U.S.-India embrace would peter out.
But as Trump welcomed Modi to Washington June 26, it was clear those concerns were overblown. “The future of our partnership has never looked brighter,” Trump crowed. The joint statement for the visit called for increased defense and economic cooperation, and most significantly, included much tougher language on Pakistan. Modi had taken Trump’s handshake and surprised him with an embrace, one that came on his own terms.
So where does this leave US-India relations?
Even as we continue our warm embrace, we need to get serious about pushing India to do what it takes to become a real global power.
We have to nudge India to make domestic reforms that, though uncomfortable, will make it a stronger economy and a more effective player on the world stage.
One indicator of how far India has left to go: the spending on state-owned firms in India is second only to China. The Economist last week accused the politically strong Modi of “squandering a golden opportunity” for needed reforms, calling him “more an administrator than a reformer.” The cover image was of Modi wielding a whip, looking aimless atop a paper tiger.
US diplomacy should leverage our warm relationship to nudge Modi to turn his reformist promise into practice. We should also pursue bilateral investment treaty negotiations to encourage reforms while strengthening a mutually beneficial economic partnership.
India ought to nudge us, too. Indian diplomats should hold the US accountable for the promises we have made to prioritize the US-India relationship by taking concrete actions – increasing defense sales; pursuing economic agreements; and above all, quickly filling senior US positions with responsibility for India.
That includes the US Ambassador to India and the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Over the long-term, India should also push us to re-evaluate our unhealthy partnership with Pakistan. We must stop rewarding Pakistan’s nuclear and missile proliferation, extremism, and support for the Taliban.
When I first became familiar with India in 1997, the United States treated India with contempt (at worst) and neglect (at best). But starting that summer, the two giants would gradually approach each other, embrace, and emerge on better terms – just as Modi did with Trump on the White House lawn.
We are all better off for that embrace today. With a few Modi-fications, the next embrace can be better than ever.
(The writer is a widely published global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security. He can be reached at email@example.com. His recently published memoir, "Being Dead is Bad for Business," is available in bookstores around the United States and online at https://www.amazon.com/Being-Dead-Business-Stanley-Weiss/dp/1633310124 A collection of his selected writings titled "Where Have You Gone, Harry Truman?" will be published by Disruption Books on July 31.)