How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
U.S. President Donald Trump traveled to India last month looking for big crowds, a long-awaited trade deal, and a chance to put his stamp on U.S.-Indian ties. He got the crowds—and delivered a surprisingly restrained speech alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before a large audience at a “Namaste Trump” rally in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. But Trump left India without a trade deal; both sides have yet to agree on issues such as tariffs and the opening of India’s dairy sector to U.S. producers. Worse, Trump’s visit coincided with the most brutal communal riots in Delhi since 1950, clashes that killed dozens of people—both Hindus and Muslims—and led to the burning and vandalization of Muslim homes, mosques, and businesses. Without weighing in on sensitive Indian domestic politics, the U.S. president could have offered compassionate words for those killed and their families. He chose not to.
Trump’s muted response to the riots underscored the extent to which realist considerations now govern the U.S.-Indian relationship. A bipartisan U.S. foreign policy consensus has elevated the rise of China to an organizing principle of U.S. grand strategy. And realists on both sides of the political aisle argue that Washington’s and New Delhi’s interests align in seeking a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, with India’s heft and capabilities necessary for reaching that goal.
But realist concerns haven’t always been the only concerns driving U.S.-Indian ties. In the last 20 years, successive U.S. presidents and Indian prime ministers have emphasized shared democratic values. For Washington, the power of India’s democracy—despite all its foibles and failings—stems from what it demonstrates: that a chaotic but free society can deliver prosperity to its citizens. At a time when China’s rapid economic development shows what an authoritarian state can achieve, India’s growth (it pulled 271 million people out of poverty between 2006 and 2016) offers an inherent rebuke of the Chinese model. But this relationship of shared values between India and the United States is now under stress, thanks to developments in both countries and to Trump’s disinterest in affirming the ideals that bind the world’s two largest democracies.
When U.S. President Barack Obama visited India in January 2015, Modi had been in power a little less than a year and had focused on economic growth, good governance, job creation, and sanitation. But Modi’s Hindu nationalist government had still sparked concerns about growing intolerance in India (at that point, over public controversies about religious conversion and religious freedom). Obama used part of his public address in New Delhi to caution that India “will succeed as long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith . . . and is unified as one nation.”
The India that Trump visited last month is substantially different from the one that Obama visited five years earlier. Today, India faces its lowest rate of economic growth in 11 years, coupled with a 45-year high in unemployment. Economic constraints have squeezed defense spending. Modi, who once embraced globalization and warned against protectionism, now champions higher tariffs and recently exited an important regional trade deal. And since his reelection in 2019, Modi and his government have pivoted sharply toward cultural issues.
Since his reelection in 2019, Modi and his government have pivoted sharply toward cultural issues.
Since last summer, Modi has made good on some of his Bharatiya Janata Party’s most ideological promises made to its Hindu nationalist base. In August, his government ended the nominal autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and launched a harsh security crackdown there; later that fall, it floated the idea of a national citizenship exercise that could leave millions stateless; and it pushed through a citizenship law, in December, that critics say discriminates against Muslims. The law sparked sustained—and mostly peaceful—nationwide protests that in turn provoked a backlash from the law’s supporters. In Delhi, tensions culminated in the recent riots.
In seeking a stronger partnership with India for geopolitical reasons, Trump’s policy doesn’t depart from that of his immediate predecessors. At least since President George W. Bush’s administration, U.S. officials have wanted to improve ties with India to secure a future balance of power in the Indo-Pacific in which no single country could dominate. For its part, New Delhi has inched closer to the United States after decades of diplomatic distance—even as China has grown more influential in the region. China has increased its maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea, had a military standoff with India in 2017 over disputed Himalayan territory, and launched the expansive Belt and Road Initiative that has made serious inroads in virtually all of India’s neighbors. In South Asia, the initiative has produced some undesirable outcomes, with Chinese infrastructure loans creating “debt traps” for vulnerable countries, such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s obligations to China for the Hambantota port led to a land-use swap for debt relief, raising the prospect of China using the initiative to erode the territorial sovereignty of other nations.
New Delhi and Washington view China’s expanding influence in much the same way. Although India doesn’t seek conflict with China—and at times cooperates closely with Beijing in multilateral contexts such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping and its New Development Bank—New Delhi remains concerned about its own territorial integrity following unresolved border disputes with China going back to 1962 (when the two countries fought a brief war). Beijing continues to claim the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as its own. And China’s warming relations with Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka—on top of its long-standing, all-weather friendship with Pakistan—have made policymakers in New Delhi wary.
India was the only major country not to attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in 2017, expressing objections that track closely with Washington’s many concerns about the initiative, including its governance structures, lack of transparency, debt traps, and environmental ramifications. In public remarks at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi offered his vision for the region, speaking of India’s commitment to a free, open, and inclusive Asia; of norms “based on the consent of all”; and of faith in dialogue, not force. He repeatedly signaled his support for protecting a rules-based order and the sovereignty of nations.
India was the only major country not to attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in 2017.
India’s robust and increasingly reliable military capabilities back up that talk. With the world’s second-largest military in terms of personnel and fourth-highest defense budget, India is a hefty power in its own right. Countries in Asia and around the Indian Ocean now look to New Delhi as a provider of security; in February alone, India evacuated foreign nationals as well as its own citizens from Wuhan, China, and offered first-responder assistance to Madagascar after a cyclone. Recent naval cooperation between India and the United States underlines both countries’ commitment to maintaining freedom of navigation in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean.
On security matters, the U.S.-Indian relationship continues to advance, however incrementally. Trump’s failure to reach a trade deal during his visit was softened by the announcement of major arms sales to India, including two different U.S. helicopter platforms for a total of more than $3 billion. And the Trump administration’s emphasis on great-power competition—and on fostering a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” in the words of the National Security Strategy—brings U.S. and Indian security interests closer into alignment.
But as competition with China yokes Washington and New Delhi closer together, the two countries’ shared emphasis on democratic values is waning. A turn away from upholding those values will make it harder to position India as an alternative to Beijing’s authoritarian model.
Of course, during the decades of the Cold War, shared values weren’t enough to bring New Delhi and Washington together—the United States was wary of India’s ties to the Soviet Union, while India resented Washington’s alliance with its rival and neighbor Pakistan. But in 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton visited India and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to the United States, democracy finally received top billing as the major force linking the two nations. Vajpayee spoke of the relations between the two countries as those of “natural allies,” and Clinton lauded India as a reminder that “freedom is not a Western value but a universal one.” However “natural” the alliance, it didn’t include a great deal of security cooperation in that era, and New Delhi and Washington remained divided over nuclear nonproliferation. Today, in addition to a much tighter security relationship, U.S. policy toward the region emphasizes cooperation among democracies, including the revival of "Quadrilateral consultations" comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
The United States must remain committed to reinforcing Indian democracy. For all its domestic challenges—including economic inequality, caste and gender discrimination, and persistent religious tensions—India has continued to demonstrate the power of the vote. Unlike many other democracies, Indian voters regularly kick out incumbents. And India’s constitution, with its ambitious guarantees of fundamental rights and its insistence on equality before the law for all citizens, recalls the United States’ own experiment with democracy.
The United States must remain committed to reinforcing Indian democracy.
The communal riots that burned during Trump’s visit exposed the failure of the Indian state to provide even the most basic protections to its citizens. The delayed response cost lives, with more than 50 dead so far, all while television cameras captured Trump and Modi together. Neither leader expressed a word of grief or called for calm from their powerful platforms. In his own separate press conference, Trump said little about the violence—“That’s up to India,” he offered—and endorsed the Modi government’s commitment to religious freedom. Modi tweeted an appeal for calm the day after Trump left.
The actions of the U.S. president signal U.S. priorities. While Trump stuck to his prepared remarks at the rally in Gujarat—including an appreciation of India’s emergence as a peaceful, tolerant, and free country with “respect for the dignity of every person”—his unscripted remarks on the tarmac prior to leaving India and at a rally in South Carolina days after returning home revealed a fixation with crowd numbers at the expense of any larger vision. Such a foreign policy approach risks turning the United States’ relationship with India into one similar to the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia: a partnership of narrow interests rather than broader principles. And it underscores a shift away from prioritizing liberal democratic values both abroad and at home. After all, some of Trump’s policies—toward refugees, the southern border, and protectionism—look a lot like Modi’s.
The events of the past few months in India have troubled U.S. lawmakers. Statements from the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have emphasized the importance of protecting equal rights in India. Following Trump’s visit, the co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus said they were “alarmed” by the violence in New Delhi. A congressional resolution calling on the Indian government to lift restrictions on Kashmiris, end mass detentions, and protect religious freedom now has 65 cosponsors. Many of the most concerned legislators are Democrats, highlighting emerging partisan differences in what was earlier a fully bipartisan consensus on India.
India is a significant power, with a major economy and the most capable military in South Asia. It was on that basis that the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations advanced ties with the world’s largest democracy. But over the long term, these ties will prove much more durable if they rest not just on interests but on values, as well. In 2000, Indian and U.S. officials issued a joint statement that affirmed that freedom and democracy were universal aspirations, that those values formed the basis for “peace and prosperity,” and that both countries would commit to the promotion of those values. Both governments would do well to remember that crucial understanding.