27 January 2015
The US-India relationship is full of potential, but until there is a sustained commitment from the countries’ leaders, it will remain largely unrealized.
Xenia Wickett

Xenia Wickett

Former Head, US and the Americas Programme; Former Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama leave after speaking during the India-US Business Summit in New Delhi on 26 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama leave after speaking during the India-US Business Summit in New Delhi on 26 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.


On 26 January, President Barack Obama joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi as his guest at India’s Republic Day, in a reflection of the huge potential in the US-India relationship. The trip makes Obama the first US president to visit India twice while in office, and comes on the heels of Modi’s visit to Washington last autumn. Nevertheless, the heavily touted ‘transformation’ in bilateral affairs that these summits are supposed to herald is unlikely to materialize soon. Continued, active and deliberate effort by the two leaders could allow the relationship to jump forward, but given competing priorities, this moment seems destined to pass without the major advances many believe are possible.

Since the 2005 breakthrough nuclear deal which brought India into the non-proliferation tent, the opportunities in the bilateral relationship have been loudly extolled. Notably, the countries lack historical closeness − during the Cold War, India led the Non-Aligned Movement but leaned towards the Soviet Union. This means that there is ample opportunity to progress in a number of key areas – but also is indicative of the challenges.


It is often said that India is the largest democracy and the United States the oldest. President George W. Bush saw India as a valuable partner in promoting democracy around the region and the world. India’s loud, raucous political system should be a good example of a vibrant democracy. However, India, like China, holds strongly to the primacy of sovereignty and as such has no wish to lead others to build new political systems or to impose them.

Economics and trade

India has a middle class that is, by some counts, larger than the entire US population. However, India’s regulatory system is complex, and its legal architecture slow and unpredictable. After recent Indian decisions such as the 2012 case where retroactive taxes were imposed on Vodafone, American businesses have been extremely wary. Tensions at a governmental level were also raised in America after India collapsed the WTO negotiations last July.


Major strides have been taken in military cooperation, and there is space for more.  During Obama’s visit, the two leaders revitalized their Defence Framework, building on a 2005 agreement and subsequent progress led by then-US deputy secretary of defense Ash Carter. Carter’s likely confirmation as secretary of defense in the coming weeks is probably the brightest spot for the future bilateral agenda. But Indian acquisition processes do not align well with their American equivalents.  And the US is resistant to providing blueprints to technology, which the Indians want, preferring to build at home and sell the equipment on. These misalignments make progress in this area difficult.


India wants to be considered a regional and global power, and America would dearly like to have India onside, particularly in light of China’s occasional muscle flexing. However, as illustrated by its uncritical stance towards Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its abstention from the 2011 UN Security Council resolution authorizing military action in Libya, India’s view on sovereignty and its historical non-aligned positioning mean that it too often fails to back up the US on divisive issues.


The environmental debates between India (as a representative of the developing world) and the US (representing the developed) have often been acrimonious, as the two sides take opposing views on where the principal responsibility lies in ensuring growth while limiting the environmental fallout. There are however opportunities in this arena to advance together through technology cooperation. India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (behind China and the US) and has significant and growing energy demands as it works to bring its people out of poverty. If the US and India could find a compromise similar to the recent agreement between the US and China, the impact could be significant both in environmental terms and in the demonstration effect to others.

Unrealized potential

Most of these issues are central to President Obama’s legacy and integral to Modi’s goals of restoring growth to India and putting it at the centre of global geopolitics. They should dovetail well with both leaders’ agendas. But in each case, the challenges, including the institutional bureaucracies, are preventing real breakthroughs.

If this bilateral relationship is to be transformed, Obama and Modi need to not just push their systems, but exert sustained pressure on them to overcome the long-standing obstacles. Unfortunately, given other agendas and historical legacies of distrust, such ongoing attention is unlikely. More likely, the relationship will continue to move ahead, but the huge potential will for now remain unrealized.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback