Michael KreponThe Big Shift

Since the Cold War ended, no region has experienced more shocks or a more significant reorientation in US foreign policy than South Asia. The big shift was enabled by the demise of the Soviet Union and New Delhi’s turn away from Nehruvian economics to market-oriented entrepreneurship. Then came the 1998 nuclear tests, the Kargil War, and the 9/11 attacks on US soil, which served to clarify Washington’s repositioning.

Two of these bell-ringers occurred during the second term of the Clinton administration, when the big shift gained traction. After the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent US military campaign in Afghanistan and the US-India civil nuclear deal during the Bush administration solidified and accentuated Washington’s reorientation.

The end of the Cold War allowed New Delhi and Washington to view each other in a new light, a necessary but insufficient cause for a re-wiring of this magnitude. More consequential was the decisions by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh to launch their market reforms in the early 1990s. With this opening, powerful US interests could be mobilized to support initiatives to improve bottom lines. The rise of China and a far more politically active Indian-American community clearly reinforced economic impulses to improve ties between Washington and New Delhi.

India’s nuclear weapon programs were a major impediment to improved ties with Washington. Until 1998, India was perpetually caught betwixt and between: it couldn’t join global nuclear compacts, but was reluctant to rock the boat. New Delhi’s default position was to champion nuclear disarmament while wishing to join the nuclear club. The indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995 and the negotiation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty a year later forced a long-delayed choice. A new, determined coalition government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, finally pulled the nuclear trigger. Pakistan followed suit, and Washington had to adapt to new realities.

India remained in limbo after the nuclear tests because it chose not to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and couldn’t rewrite the Nonproliferation Treaty. Washington’s cold shoulder lasted until Pervez Musharraf’s dangerous misadventure in the heights above Kargil. Musharraf may have been seeking to exploit Pakistan’s newly overt nuclear capability as a shield while forcing Indian concessions on Kashmir. Instead, he created a significant opening for US-Indian rapprochement. Desperate for a face-saving exit, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pleaded with President Bill Clinton to take a more direct interest by visiting the subcontinent. By the time he did so, Pakistan was once again under military rule. Clinton spent five days in India and five hours in Pakistan. He then hosted the Indian Prime Minister and his entourage at a huge gala on the White House lawn. The reversal of Indian and Pakistani fortunes was in full swing, and about to be accentuated by the incoming Bush administration, which was looking for a counterweight to China.

The 9/11 attacks offered a short-term fillip to US-Pakistan relations in the form of a lifting of sanctions and the influx of military and economic aid. But US-Pakistan relations have foundered over Afghanistan, where interests merge at a level of generality that is repeatedly undercut by specifics. The familiar Pakistani story of betrayal now has a companion US narrative.

Washington’s reliance on drone attack in order to salvage bad decisions in Afghanistan has badly damaged relations with Pakistan. At the same time, Rawalpindi’s investments in the Afghan Taliban and outfits to serve as its strategic reserves against India have badly frayed ties with Washington. These tactics have also accentuated Pakistan’s economic decline, domestic divisions and diplomatic isolation. Bilateral US-Pakistan relations can still be patched up, but not in meaningful ways as long as Rawalpindi’s policies mortgage Pakistan’s future, use the United States as a scapegoat, and risk new confrontations with India.

In contrast, US-Indian ties will improve, but in measured fashion. Familiar voices in the United States and India will continue to call on Washington to do more and to pick up the pace, even though New Delhi’s performance falls well short of expectations. It’s very hard for two proud and exceptional nations to forge a strategic partnership, especially given the viscosity of Indian bureaucratic and domestic politics. At the end of the day, New Delhi will refuse to be Washington’s junior partner. A coalition of Indian intellectuals has recently proposed a national security policy of “Nonalignment 2.0.”

After a very eventful two decades, Pakistan feels jilted, while the romance of Washington’s new relationship with New Delhi has become routinized. The big shift in US foreign policy toward the subcontinent will not be reversed. But the upswing in US-India ties, like the downward trajectory of US ties with Pakistan, requires managed expectations.


  1. krepon (History)

    Note to readers:
    A slightly different version of this essay appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani daily.

  2. JD (History)

    Nice essay Michael. Some very good points and very timely.

    I think the US Paki relationship should get more attention. Although a layman, I understand Pakistan’s ISI group to dominate their Army in some regards and to have poisoned the pot (Afghanistan) for the last 30 years. I don’t know why the US had waited so long to warm to India. A nice read is Ghost Wars by Steve Coll. http://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Wars-Afghanistan-Invasion-September/dp/1594200076



  3. Adil (History)

    Micahel! Thanks for bringing this up.

    Jaswant Singh in his book “A Call To Honour” (p.122) writes that India attempted to test in 80s and “all preparations had been made, the bore shaft had been dug, fully wired and prepared… But then Indira Gandhi changed her mind and called the whole exercise off.”
    So indefinite extension of NPT in 1995 and conclusion of CTBT in 1996 may not necessarily be the major triggers for the 1998 tests. India would have done it anyway at an opportune moment.
    Strobe Talbot in his book “Engaging India”(p.5), brings out an interesting justification for the Indian tests. According to him; Indians conducted their tests,knowing that “it would force the United States to pay them serious, sustained, and respectful attention of a kind that Indians felt they had never received before.”

    India, in fact may have forced the US to enter into a romance, and is receiving more than what it had expected.

  4. Dforscey (History)

    No discussion of India-Iran ties?

  5. Anjaan (History)

    “The Big Shift” is actually not so big after all.

    The US have simply shifted from an outright pro-Pakistan tilt to an apparent middle position, which has been described in so many ways as the “de-hyphenation”. And this has happened due to understandable reasons, China’s rise, India’s deep pocket, future potentials to rival China, and India’s willingness to play ball are the primary ones.

    However, many American commentators have already been complaining about Obama ignoring India, and the much vaunted partnership of the 21st century losing momentum.

    Against this back-drop, regardless of the optics of the US-Pakistan spat in Afghanistan, which by the way is well choreographed, American military and economic aid to Pakistan in the name of war on terror, is going to increase manyfolds in the years to come.

    while the US-India partnership will continue to flounder in the short to medium term, with little substance to show for, Pakistan will eventually grudgingly accept the US-India engagement as a fact of life it has to live with.

  6. mantej (History)

    I’m not convienced that U.S has tilted towards india,
    pakistan is the pet of U.S. As long as U.S has the ability
    to control an entity, U.S won’t leave it. pakistan is still willing to listen to the U.S and be controlled by it. also arms supply to pakistan on the name of war on terror doesn’t go down well in India. India is very cautious and will remain cautious from the U.S for the next at least 30 years.

  7. narender sangwan (History)

    Strobe Talbot is right in his assessment of Indian Dream in his book as he was chief negotiator with India and interacted with Jaswant Singh.China,India and Pakistan are Nuclear armed and with difficult history,making them potential threats to the World.America should in collaboration with European powers try to force them to retract their steps through some treaty as USA and USSR have done making the World a safer place.Instead of playing power games,serious efforts should be initiated.

  8. Neel288 (History)

    By opening a partnership with India, the US now have an extra leverage on Pakistan by exploiting its fear and hatred of India. At the same time it also opens a bargaining power with India about managing Pakistan’s terror infrastructure directed against India.

    It is therefore a brilliant win-win proposition for the US…. !

    The author however has finally spoken the truth by characterising US-India engagement in one sentence quote -” At the end of the day, New Delhi will refuse to be Washington’s junior partner.” – unquote.

    He is also correct in his concluding observation that ” expectations have to be realistic”.

    No wonder, American greed is causing a lot of frustration for them. India, after all, is a country of a billion plus people with a thousanad year old history, a growing economy with a potential to rival China. You can not expect a country of this size and potential to mortgage its strategic autonomy and put America’s interests ahead of its own.

    And you ignore a country like India to your own peril.

  9. mantej (History)

    I think overall the partnership is good in long term,
    may be I’m too narrow minded, that I always think about U.S supply of weapons to pakistan as the ultimate test to the partnership. U.S is still the biggest number 1 economy, so India might just have to live with the fact that free supply of weapons would continue for some time. But overall people of india hold U.S in good esteam.

  10. mantej (History)

    I have a question for all, what are the chances of nuclear material getting in the hands of some radical elements. I mean what percentage %. In the past china and Russia have also proleferated, no sanctions of any sort happened to them, just because they were too powerful to go after. Since NSG is not a club of non proleferators, then why not give pakistan the membership of this club as well. I guess I just can’t grasp the concept of criteria for NSG membership. is it non-proleferation, to powerful to go after or a combination of both, or just cold strategic interest, like giving India nuclear deal just to counter china.