India at the Global High Table: Remarks at Richmond


May 10, 2016: Introducing India at the Global High Table at the Richmond World Affairs Council, we discussed emerging India’s international role, focusing on the main themes of its foreign policy, the competing visions of India’s role in the world, and some examples of India’s negotiating Style. Books are available at Brookings (, at Amazon, and in book stores. The text of our remarks follows:

Good evening.  It’s a great pleasure for my wife and me to come here to Richmond to talk with you about India and the book we’ve written about the drivers of its foreign policy and diplomatic practices. The two of us have spent a good deal of time as State Department officials working in India and dealing in Washington with Indian matters. After we retired from the Foreign Service we kept up our connection with India through our activities in academia and the consulting and think-tank worlds. We’ve always found the country and its aspirations a fascinating subject, perhaps never more so than they have become in recent years.


Any serious discussion of India these days focuses on how this country of 1.2 billion people, its economy, and its international role have been transformed, especially in ways important for U.S. foreign policy, security, and economic interests. These dramatic – largely unexpected — changes date back to the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War and the failure of its own autarkic, government-dominated economic system virtually forced the Indian government then in power to make big changes. In the ensuing quarter century India has revamped its foreign policy – and notably its relations with the United States – in ways that no one could have anticipated in those earlier times when it pursued and preached what it called nonalignment but more often than not tilted toward the Soviet Union. In the last two years, that transformation of U.S.-India relations has been stepped up by India’s present prime minister, the dynamic Narendra Modi. Modi’s official visit to the United States next month will no doubt offer fresh evidence of how India intends to make its mark in the world under his leadership.


The product of these changes has been a stronger, more vibrant country eager and increasingly able to play the major role in world affairs it had long aspired to perform but could not because it lacked the military and economic strength to be seriously considered a leading contender for power. The dramatic changes, and the promise of further strengthening of India’s international reach in coming years, have made India a very different player from the second-tier actor we had worked with during our careers in government. They have also inspired us to write about its new and future role.


Tonight, we want to give you a sense of the Indian international role that is emerging, what has changed, and what features have been enduring ones. We will draw on our book, but also on what we’ve seen of Prime Minister Modi’s first two years.

Let me start with the three main themes of India’s foreign policy: its quest for regional primacy in South Asia and the security of its borders; its insistence on non-alignment, or as this has been more often and more accurately termed in the post-Cold War world, strategic autonomy; and, especially after 1990, its growing use of its expanding economy as a source of power on the international stage, ultimately as a springboard for India’s ascent to the global high table – which explains the title we have chosen for the book.

Our book looks carefully at the way these themes have evolved and illustrate them in a two-chapter snapshot of Indian foreign policy. The first covers the period from independence to the 1990s, the heyday of various interpretations of Cold War non-alignment; the second examines the dramatic changes wrought by the end of the Cold War and India’s almost simultaneous decision to open its economy. We focus especially on how the Modi government has performed in its efforts to enhance India’s international stature both through expanding its diplomatic activities and reach and by further developing its economic power.

It’s important to note that in its successful 2014 election campaign, Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP party ran primarily on a domestic economy platform. Many observers would argue that his government has thus far had a bigger impact on foreign policy than it has had on the management of India’s economy. Modi himself would see these two efforts as tightly linked – and we agree with that judgment.

The principal new feature of Modi’s foreign policy has been its drive to strengthen India’s relations with the world’s strongest powers: the United States, the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and, focusing mainly on economic affairs, Europe.  Like previous Indian governments, Modi’s marches to its own drummer – strategic autonomy. But Modi has gone farther than his predecessors in seeking strong personal ties with major international leaders.

Barack Obama has been the most prominent of these. As I’ve noted, in early June Modi will make his second official visit to the United States. When Modi was first elected two years ago President Obama had immediately invited him to Washington. The president had later gone to India at Modi’s invitation as the principal guest at India’s Republic Day celebration, an important honor never before given an American leader. This relationship between the two leaders is the more remarkable because the United States revoked Modi’s U.S. visa in 2005 on account of serious communal riots in the state of Gujarat, where he was then chief minister – a position roughly analogous to a U.S. governor. For nine years, the U.S. did not issue him a visa, and for most of that time, it had no official contact with him. A couple of months before the election that brought him to power, after epic bureaucratic struggles in Washington, the U.S. Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, was authorized to seek an appointment with Modi – who greeted her with a huge bouquet of red roses. This started to break the ice.

India and the United States have developed a robust defense relationship. They have further developed their economic ties, though as often happens greater trade has brought about greater trade problems.

Modi has also focused on Japan, a country that seems to fascinate him. He has developed a strong personal relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. Aside from cultivating enhanced economic relations with the Japanese, he has built up defense ties with Japan and other friends of the United States in what Washington now often refers to as the “Indo-Pacific.” He has also paid a good deal of attention to China. A half-century after China beat India in their border war in the Himalayas, the People’s Republic remains India’s biggest strategic challenge. At the same time, it is India’s biggest trading partner in goods, though the trade balance is heavily weighted in China’s favor.

Modi’s approach to China and the overall issue of Asian security parallels Washington’s. India does not want to see one power – read China – become predominant in the Asian region. But at the same time it is not interested in joining a formal anti-China U.S.-led alliance. Nor would the United States be interested in recruiting it.

Closer to home, Modi has certainly embraced the quest for regional primacy. There are two sides to his approach to this long-standing Indian goal. On the one hand, he has sought to use India’s surging economy as a magnet to bring about closer relations with some of its smaller nations, notably Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. On the other hand, he has taken a hard line on Pakistan, more in keeping with India’s traditional willingness to use hardball tactics in the neighborhood. We’ll have more to say about this later in this presentation, when we discuss India’s negotiating style.


Is there a vision of India’s larger international role behind these three enduring themes of Indian foreign policy – and Modi’s new twist on them? We believe there is – or more accurately, there are several competing visions of India’s global role that have animated Indian policy in the past and in all likelihood will continue to do so.

There is a wide consensus in India about the fundamentals. Two stand out:

  • First: that India is unique, the exemplar of a great civilization, not bound by accepting what “everybody does.” This characteristic is often displayed by Indian diplomats in negotiating with their foreign counterparts, sometimes to the latter’s despair.
  • Second, that India must above all preserve its strategic autonomy. It must keep its distance from all-encompassing international associations, and especially from “alliances.” And India is famously a “sovereignty hawk.” It looks most unkindly on any efforts on the part of foreign governments or international organizations to interfere with what it considers its own affairs.

Beyond this starting point there are different points of view. We have distinguished among three major schools of thought:

  • The “Nonalignment Firsters” whose view of India’s role in the world was most powerfully shaped by Nehru’s original concept of Cold War Nonalignment. They regard India’s power as driven by the force of ideas – and of seizing the moral high ground. In this context, they continue to show solicitude for the poorer Third World countries whose economic cause India championed during the Cold War.
  • The “Broad Power Realists” who stress India’s relations with the world’s major powers, see India as well on its way to joining that select club, regard the Indian economy as an essential source of power, and generally take a more utilitarian and, they would argue, practical view of foreign policy.
  • The “Hard Power Hawks,” who tend to venerate the toughest of India’s historical arch-realists. For them, military force is the prime currency of power. They are wary of China and more outspokenly antagonistic toward Pakistan than other foreign policy thinkers.


One can find elements of all three in India’s foreign policy. Nonalignment flourished at first, especially in the early years of Nehru’s government. But during the post-Cold War period, policy has been closest to the Broad Power Realist model. Prime Minister Modi comes out of the Hard Power Hawk tradition that has dominated thinking in the BJP. But he has clearly grafted a strong emphasis on the economy onto the Hawks’ playbook, and his efforts to develop closer relations with the United States and other major powers and their leaders seems to reflect the Broad Power Realist approach.

We also thought it important to examine the structure and style of Indian foreign policymaking, especially the roles of the highly competent but badly undersized Ministry of External Affairs and the powerful staff of the Prime Minister’s Office, led by the National Security Adviser. We’ve looked more briefly at the Ministry of Defense, where major decisions are made not by the uniformed military brass but by civilian Indian Administrative Service officials whose background in such matters is often very limited. (Someone responsible for choosing what high performance foreign jet aircraft to procure for the Indian Air Force may have spent much of his professional career dealing with agricultural or commercial issues.) We look too at the foreign policymaking role of Parliament – so different and so far less important than that of the U.S. Congress– and of the Indian states, especially those with ethnic connections with neighboring countries. Finally, we include a section on the growing role of Indian think-tanks in the formulation of foreign policy. This is the backdrop for discussing India’s negotiating style, and for that I will turn over the floor to Tezi.


Richmond is pretty close to Washington, so though you are blessed by being outside the Beltway, you probably share the perspective of Washington policy wonks, who tend to define “policy” in big strategic arcs. That’s the starting point Howie has shared with you. But I’m going to shift gears and look at how India actually executes policy – at the negotiating style that goes with its major strategic goals and its competing policy visions.

Anyone who has dealt with U.S.-India official relations will recall some of the hallmarks of India’s officials charged with international negotiations. They are skilled, they know their brief, they are strong, some would say ferocious, defenders of India’s sovereignty and its prerogatives. This evening, I’m going to give you a few examples – some from the book, and some from developments since the book was completed – that illustrate how India’s distinctive policy visions are reflected in the way the country carries out its international relations.


Let’s start with India’s uniqueness, which as Howie has said is the most important core value in the way Indians of all political stripes envision their global role. The example I’d like to share has to do with defense trade. One surprise here: the defense relationship has become the liveliest part of the bilateral relationship, something I could not have imagined during my years in government.

Three “foundational agreements” are standard parts of a defense sales relationship with the U.S. They embody the U.S. legal requirement to keep track of the way U.S.-supplied equipment is being used. They also establish procedures for things like mutual logistical support between the U.S. and friendly militaries. This is a unique feature of the U.S. system – the exceptionalism cuts both ways – but in most cases, signing these agreements is regarded by both parties as a bureaucratic housekeeping matter.

But all three, to India, look intrusive and seem to threaten its strategic autonomy. Our book describes how Hillary Clinton as secretary of state wrestled with the U.S. requirement for “end use monitoring” of defense sales. You can imagine how that phrase – and even more so, the policy – grates on the ears of Indians sensitive about their standing as a great nation. Negotiations on this issue took years, and spanned the George W. Bush and first Obama administrations. The first thing that was jettisoned was the name: it became “visitation” instead of monitoring. The packaging changed too, with Hillary Clinton’s star power smoothing the passage to an agreement.

But there’s a more recent example. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced at the end of his visit to India last month [April 2016] that he and his Indian counterpart had agreed in principle on a long-postponed logistic support understanding. The announcement came as a surprise: Carter, during an earlier period when he was Deputy Secretary of Defense, had decided not to pursue the logistics agreement. Indian hard liners thought they saw in this agreement something similar to base rights. It was too hard, and wasn’t making any progress.

Why the turn-around? The Carter visit started with a personal touch. Secretary Carter, who was already well regarded in India from his time as deputy secretary of defense, went to Goa, the home state of Indian defense minister Parrikar; he visited an Indian aircraft carrier. He got outside the Ring Road, India’s equivalent of the Beltway. And then, when it came time to talk about specific “deliverables,” as they are known in the trade, it turns out that Indian and American negotiators had developed a classic work-around. Once again, the understanding got a new name. It was also couched as a more modest-sounding procedural understanding involving case by case permission. After a lot of time and heartburn, India would have its own, custom-designed agreement. It’s not signed yet, but the prospects are good.


Defense negotiations touch on national security. Economic negotiations get into domestic problems, which can be even touchier. The most difficult India-U.S. negotiations are multilateral, and the most painful concern trade. India’s long-running effort to avoid expanding the World Trade Organization’s reach into new areas has involved important solo performances and a willingness to “just say no.”

In 2013, under the previous government, India’s trade minister used high profile brinkmanship to block agreement on limits the U.S. sought on agricultural stockpiles held by India and others. Agricultural trade is a tough issue for Indian politicians. Half the population is dependent on agriculture, directly or indirectly, for its livelihood, and poor farmers vote. Eventually, India agreed to a package of procedural “trade facilitation” measures, with a revised agricultural stockpile agreement as part of the same package. The new agricultural pact allowed a four-year grace period before limiting India’s stockpiles.

Two months after Modi took office – and only seven months after the package deal had been accepted – Modi’s trade officials blocked the package, complaining that not enough progress had been made on its agricultural concerns. The anger in Washington was palpable: India had blown up an agreement that was all set to be formalized by the WTO’s full membership. It was clear that Modi was unprepared for the U.S. reaction: coming from a nationalist background, he basically looked on WTO as so much alphabet soup, and didn’t see much of a connection between this type of multilateral negotiations and the bilateral ties he was trying to build up with the United States.

After a few more months and some complicated negotiating moves, this crisis was settled. The agreements India had blocked were accepted with almost no changes. India was willing to take a stand reminiscent of some of the heroic figures of its ancient literature, in order to make clear to both its trading partners and the voters at home that the Indian government was willing to go to the mat. The final negotiating process was driven by the need to avoid having it look as if India had simply caved in to U.S. demands. So no visible progress could be made when Modi visited Washington; the resolution had to await an Obama-Modi meeting in a neutral setting, on the margins of an organization called the East Asian Summit, in Myanmar.

Significantly, when Modi’s government blocked the package deal, India had virtually no support from other WTO members. Normally, multilateral negotiations rely critically on building coalitions – not altogether comfortable for Indian officials schooled in strategic autonomy. At the United Nations, India has cultivated the role of spokesman for the developing world. In the WTO, it has typically worked with a smaller group of larger developing countries, often including China. In this case, however, the head of the WTO, a Brazilian official who traditionally had close ties to India, was pushing hard for a resolution, and was clearly unhappy with India. So India had no coalition partners and was basically negotiating solo with the United States.


Pursuit of regional primacy, as Howie pointed out, is an enduring goal of Indian foreign policy. Add to this an acute consciousness of relative power, and you come to the heart of what is similar and different about India’s negotiations with its neighbors. With Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh India is the larger power and has played hardball – not always, but it’s been an important tool. To prevent Nepal from getting too close to China, for example, India maintained a ten-month blockade of landlocked Nepal in 1989. The Nepalese believe that India reenacted this unpleasant episode last winter.

But Modi’s approach to neighborhood relations also had a more creative side, best illustrated by the example of Bangladesh. The previous Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had visited Bangladesh in 2011, hoping to resolve a package of issues involving management of their shared rivers, settling a complicated border, and facilitating cross-border transport. His visit came up short, for reasons that related primarily to his difficult relations with the feisty chief minister of the adjacent Indian state, West Bengal. Modi, to the surprise of many, picked up the threads of all three issues. He revived a border agreement that had languished since 1974, and succeeded in getting parliamentary approval for the constitutional amendment needed to implement it – despite the fact that his party does not control the upper house of parliament. This was part of a policy which was explicitly aimed at using India’s economy as a magnet for closer ties with India’s smaller neighbors, and it had a significant impact on attitudes toward India in Bangladesh.

Relations with Pakistan have been a roller-coaster ride, however. Modi reached out personally to the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, both by inviting Sharif to his swearing-in and by his impromptu visit for Sharif’s birthday last Christmas. But his government twice cancelled planned diplomatic engagements with Pakistan, actions that could not have been taken without Modi’s approval or at least acquiescence. We can talk further about where India-Pakistan relations stand during the question period if you’re interested. What this example suggests is that in negotiating with its smaller neighbors, and especially with Pakistan, Modi, like other Indian leaders before him, attaches great importance to controlling not just the substance of the negotiations but also the setting and, if you will, the theater involved.


China is a neighbor, but it is also another giant. India has not tried to use hardball tactics with Beijing. During the 1950s and 1960s, it had difficulty dealing with one of the signature Chinese negotiating techniques – keeping silent on contentious issues, and only engaging on an issue when it was good and ready. Nehru ran foreign policy personally in those days. He counted on his eloquence to persuade China. He suspected that Mao’s silence was an attempt to conceal problems and control timing, but didn’t find a good way to counter it. The China-India war that took place a couple of years after one set of border talks had broken down came as a devastating defeat for India – and for Nehru personally.

Eventually, the China-India border negotiations became a more hard-nosed enterprise. The two countries agreed in the late 1980s to keep their disputed border quiet, and in 1993 formalized an agreement not to allow border problems to disrupt the larger relationship. Since 2003, there have been close to twenty rounds of negotiations, which have progressed at a snail’s pace, but with few exceptions, there have been no serious border incidents. Indian diplomats have come to expect that China will occasionally test their responses, and have eventually developed a “vocabulary” of gestures for responding.


Let me close with the “mother of all negotiations” between India and the United States, the U.S.-India agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. It wasn’t one negotiation but a whole series: from the agreement in principle that George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh signed in 2005; to the 2006 statement on which facilities would be covered – a unilateral Indian statement that had to be worked out in advance with the United States; to the bilateral cooperation agreement, the so-called “123 agreement” agreed on in 2007 that set the terms for U.S.-India cooperation – but nearly brought down the Indian government and scuttled the accord; to the safeguards agreement negotiated between India and the IAEA, again with the U.S. in the background; to the climactic finish, the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group’s agreement in 2008 to grant a waiver for civilian nuclear trade with India, described by one of the U.S. participants as “the most brutal exercise in multilateral diplomacy he had ever seen.” In this last case, only the U.S. was formally a party to the negotiations, but India’s diplomacy, both bilateral and multilateral, was a critical piece of the process.

For the United States, these negotiations involved several features that would normally be show-stoppers. The United States was going to have to get legislative approval for the resulting agreement. It was also going to have to accept non-standard agreements on non-proliferation with India, and deviating from the “usual way” of doing things is always hard for the United States. India, for its part, was going to have to come closer to the system built up around the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an instrument India looked on as “nuclear apartheid,” from which it had systematically kept its distance for forty years.

So how did two countries manage to reach an agreement that deviated from so many of their traditional policies and approaches? The answer is: both leaders really wanted to reach agreement; both empowered their negotiators; both were willing to back them up when they devised solutions that would normally have been outside the conventional approach. They came close to failure several times, but ultimately reached agreement. Since the agreement went through, they have struggled to implement it, finding obstacles on both sides. By that time both suffered from a kind of negotiation fatigue, so the quest for U.S.-supplied nuclear generating facilities in India is still unfulfilled.


To get the full flavor of this negotiation – and many others – you’ll have to read the book. But we have two big take-aways from our research.

  • First, never forget the importance India attaches to being handled as a unique representative of a great civilization. Many of India’s tactical preferences derive from this key feature. A case in point: India’s dislike for making a request when it isn’t assured of a “yes.”
  • And second, as we saw in the nuclear negotiations, a strong strategic push from the top of both governments can overcome both clashes in negotiating style and disconnects between the two systems that would normally kill an agreement.


In a changing world, one has to ask whether India’s negotiating practices – even those that have been around since independence – will change. We believe that the answer to this question will reflect two important trends:

  • First, India’s economy – will it make another big bet on globalization as it did 25 years ago? If it does – and I very much hope the answer is yes – you are likely to see, eventually, a more supple approach to India’s participation in multilateral organizations. One of the reasons for India’s “just say no” tactics is that Indian governments have not seen much advantage for India in successful trade negotiations. India’s trade as a share of GDP is now nearly half its economy, three times what it was in 1990. If this continues to go up, and if India’s manufactured exports continue to rise, India will look differently on trade negotiations, and will probably be more reluctant to risk blowing them up.
  • The second question involves the relationships among the world’s larger powers, especially the U.S. and China, and their ties with India. India is both drawn to and somewhat uncomfortable with the U.S. standing as the world’s single most powerful country. Its response is driven – but also inhibited – by India’s continuing devotion to “strategic autonomy,” and to avoiding difficult choices.


How do this global vision and this negotiating style affect U.S.-India relations? We’ve come a long way since President Clinton’s epic visit to India in 2000 put the transformed U.S.-India ties on public display. This snapshot of how India sees its role in the world and how it negotiates illustrates both the work we still have to do, and the distance we have traveled.

The biggest gap, in my view, lies in our respective global visions. For Americans, “leadership” is at the heart of the role we envisage for ourselves. For Indians – well, it is definitely not “followership.” And when Americans think of partners – the word we usually apply to our ties with India – they generally think of countries weaker than themselves, who share important elements of our global threat perceptions. For Indians, “partnership” is a much more elastic concept, and the notion of accepting another country’s threat perceptions is inconsistent with the idea of “strategic autonomy.” Interestingly, the area where we come closest to that model is in our approach to East Asia, where we share a view of China that involves both promise and concern.


This is still a high-maintenance relationship, and likely to remain so. But as President Obama gets ready to receive Prime Minister Modi for what will probably be the prime minister’s last official visit during the Obama Administration, it is clear that we’ve come a long way, and that we are developing the tools both sides need for a longer journey.



Howard and Teresita Schaffer



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