For two decades, Washington has had high hopes for India on the global stage. Gigantic, populous, and resource rich, India is, by all appearances, a superpower in waiting. And as the world’s largest democracy, it promises—according to those hopes—to be a crucial U.S. partner at a time of rising competition from authoritarian challengers.
Almost 20 years ago, acting on such expectations, Washington began resolving the disagreements that had held U.S.-Indian relations back through the Cold War and into the 1990s. During George W. Bush’s presidency, U.S. officials gave up their long-standing insistence that India relinquish its nuclear weapons, allowing Washington and New Delhi to sign a landmark nuclear accord and opening the way to heavy U.S. investments—diplomatic, economic, and military—to facilitate India’s rise. Successive U.S. administrations provided liberal access to military technologies and promoted India’s role in international institutions, culminating in President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Indian aspirations to permanent membership in the UN Security Council. Albeit imperiled by the Trump administration’s disregard for allies and partners, this basic U.S. approach continues to this day.
Yet the logic of the U.S.-Indian partnership remains misunderstood by many, especially in the United States. The transformation of U.S.-Indian ties since the early years of this century has given rise to expectations that, sooner or later, the two countries would become allies in all but name, closely aligned on virtually every major foreign policy issue. That such an accord has not materialized has brought creeping disappointment and doubt about the relationship’s long-term viability.
Critics carp that the United States has overinvested in India—that the favors accorded to New Delhi have not been worth the return. They point, for instance, to India’s failure to select a U.S. fighter for its air force or to its inability to conclude the nuclear reactor purchases promised under the breakthrough nuclear agreement. Even supporters of the
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