Why the U.S. and India Need to Have Each Other’s Backs
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a joint meeting of Congress last year, he called the U.S. an “indispensable partner” and referred to the U.S. and India as “natural allies.” But one year later, as Modi prepares to return to Washington on Monday, the partnership confronts uncertainties—including nationalist groundswells in both countries. “America First” is coming head to head with Indian ambitions to be a leading global power.
For two decades, U.S. and Indian leaders from across the political spectrum have embraced a shared vision: that the world would be a safer and more prosperous place if the world’s two largest democracies were the closest of friends, and that the rise of India was in America’s strategic interest.
This vision is no longer so clear: Shared values that used to draw the two nations together are yet to be reaffirmed by the new White House; the U.S. role in Asia is less assertive, leaving India to recalibrate and hedge against a reduced U.S. presence; and America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement is set to kill a burgeoning area of cooperation. Further, economic irritants such as the immigration of Indian tech workers to the U.S., limits on market access for U.S. goods and services in India, and disputes over the adequacy of Indian intellectual property protections have resurfaced and threaten to infect the broader relationship.
Despite these very real headwinds, the foundations of the relationship are strong, and both leaders can and should use the upcoming summit as an opportunity to calm critics, reassure supporters, and capture the imagination of future generations of Indians and Americans whose futures will be increasingly intertwined. The significant advances in the complexity of U.S. and Indian military exercises, intelligence sharing, defense sales, and co-production opportunities, as well as counterterrorism cooperation, point to a deepening of the strategic partnership. Last year, more Indian students studied in the U.S. than ever before, more visas were issued by both countries than at any point in their histories, and two-way trade numbers were the highest ever. And even when the governments falter, the three million Indian Americans serve as a natural bridge, pulling the countries even closer together.
So what can the two leaders do when they meet? First, by signaling that there is no inconsistency between a policy of “America First” and supporting India’s global rise, Trump can strike the high note of strategic reassurance. America needs India, a democratic power in Asia—and soon to be the most populous country with the world’s largest middle class—to succeed. It’s an opportune time for the White House to strengthen this commitment, and to make clear that India’s economic growth and increasing political and strategic influence globally is good for America too.
The president should also make clear that the U.S. has no intention to give up on the longstanding principles that have underpinned the post-World War II order and that it intends to work closely with India on these issues in the years to come. In South Asia, the two countries must work as partners to support peace in Afghanistan and root out terrorism in the region. And across the entire Asia-Pacific, India and the U.S. must stand up for the rule of law, resolving disputes peacefully, protecting freedom of navigation, and combating common threats like nuclear proliferation. Articulating this shared, strategic vision will send a powerful signal to those seeking to upend international norms and institutions in Asia.
For his part, Modi should aim to dispel the anxiety about globalization and its impact on American workers by emphasizing the significance of Indian investments in the U.S. and affirming the role these investments can play in boosting American job creation. We have come a long way from India being considered simply a destination for outsourcing. India is now a critical part of global supply chains, especially for American companies, and India can also be a huge export market for U.S. goods and services.
The prime minister should make clear that India is indeed open for business, and open to free and fair trade with the U.S. The two-way trade numbers between the countries are good, but they could be much better. Supporting the aspirations of the working class in both nations is one way to achieve inclusive economic growth and build a broader constituency of champions for this partnership going forward. They should work on these goals as partners, never as adversaries.
Finally, as the world’s two largest democracies, India and the U.S. have a deep stake in strengthening the vibrancy of their own democratic systems as models to secure equality, freedom, and tolerance. Both are large, diverse, multicultural democracies with commitments to fraternity and human dignity, but they face similar challenges in forging solutions to national problems, and doing so with political systems that are often messy and complex. Each country can do much more right now to make clear that they continue to cherish their founding principles of tolerance and equality at home, including through support for civil society and a free press.
The importance of the U.S.-India partnership is only growing. Modi was right: This is an indispensable partnership and the two are natural allies. That is why no differences or disagreements should impede the two leaders from keeping their eyes on the future and the interests they have in shared success.
Nirupama Rao was the Indian ambassador to the U.S. from 2011 to 2013. Richard Verma was the U.S. ambassador to India from 2015 to 2017. They are co-chairs of a new Center for American Progress Task Force on U.S.-India relations.