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“Natural Allies” in an Uncertain World: The United States and India

September 1, 2006

In his March 2006 trip to India, President George W. Bush declared that “the United States and India . . . are closer than ever before, and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world.” President Bush, like President Eisenhower before him, stressed that the United States’ and India’s shared democratic values make the countries “natural allies.”1 But despite sharing these values for almost 60 years, U.S.-Indian relations have been strained over much of the period. The relationship’s rebirth started during the 1990s and reached a new height in the beginning of the 21st century, as the U.S. government seeks to use democracy to meet the challenges posed by nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The question is whether shared values equal shared national interest or, simply put: what is the future of U.S.-India relations?

The strategic importance of India and the South Asian subcontinent should not be underestimated: the region is on the frontlines of the war on terrorism, is a potential flashpoint for nuclear conflict and holds enormous economic opportunity for the United States. With China to the north, the Middle East and Pakistan to the west and the vital Indian Ocean sea lanes to the south, India is a strong, democratic country in a critical and often dangerous neighborhood. Given the nuclearization of the subcontinent and the changed global landscape following the end of the Cold War and the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the American homeland, the U.S. government was smart to rethink policy toward India. Although the two countries share values, the future of U.S.-Indian relations is best determined by a close examination of the most pertinent issues: terrorism, Pakistan and Kashmir, nuclear proliferation, trade, energy security and the rise of China.