Indo-US ties: Looking back in time


November 5th, 2010

Oliver Stuenkel

As U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing his visit to India, it is worth looking back 10 years, to Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000, and appreciate how far India has come. A mere decade ago, India was isolated. The Brazil, Russia, India and China (Bric) label had not yet been invented. US-India ties were still in tatters, damaged by decades of mistrust during the Cold War, and by India’s decision to go nuclear two years earlier.

Economic relations with China were a far cry from what they are today, and Brazil was still not on Indian diplomats’ radar. And Russia, India’s traditional ally, was still reeling from the recent economic crisis. Mr Clinton’s visit mattered because it symbolised, more than anything else, the United States’ acknowledgement of India’s importance. Back then, India was insecure, lacking confidence, and desperate for foreign approval.

Ten years on, India stands transformed. It is not only one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but widely recognised as one of the leaders of the 21st century. Ties to virtually all major players have strengthened. No foreign leader can afford not to visit New Delhi. India’s Prime Minister is one of the most recognised political personalities on the planet. Despite the tensions, ties with China have undergone a great transformation, and Sino-Indian trade is set to increase further. A series of recent defence deals with Russia have revived ties to Moscow. And a far-sighted President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil early on identified India as an important ally and converted Brazil-India ties into a strategic partnership. It may thus seem that India’s ties with the other Bric members are so stable, and trade between them growing so strongly, that it no longer depends on the US, a country whose influence is bound to decline over the decades to come.

Yet, despite the continued hype about emerging powers, India must be careful not to take the Bric alliance too seriously. While the label conveniently boosted India’s image across the world, betting on the strategic importance of the alliance is bound to lead to disappointment. The Bric label will not stand the test of time, and India must continue to maintain strong ties to established powers such as the US.

The transformation of the Bric acronym from an investment term into a political reality is not a sign of Jim O’Neill’s prescience. The triumph of the Bric label and its enthusiastic acceptance even by its “members”, despite its inadequacies, is testament of rising powers’ unfilled yearning to understand an ever complex world and their place in it. The challenge of finding categorical ways of understanding the world is not unprecedented. Across history, scholars have attempted to distinguish between countries according to categories, groups and blocs organised along different variables. In 1946, Winston Churchill successfully established such a concept when he introduced the idea of an “Iron Curtain”, using ideology as the organising principle. Six years later, Alfred Sauvy coined the term “Third World”, helping human beings across the world understand the international system. Today these models are no longer meaningful, so there have been many proposals since the turn of the century about how to reconceptualise geopolitical reality.

The Brics were different. Since Mr O’Neill only looked at economics and never intended to devise a political alliance when he created the term, the countries he chose were very heterogeneous. Brazil and India are two democracies that are not yet fully established in today’s order, while China and Russia, two non-democratic regimes, have been established powers since 1945. The four disagree on virtually everything, including trade, climate change, human rights, and the reform of global governance, where China is reluctant to see India in the UN Security Council as a permanent member.

Despite all this, the Brics turned into a household term among international policymakers. Brazil’s, India’s, Russia’s and China’s leaders begun to refer to themselves as “Bric members” and agreed that they needed to strengthen “intra-Bric” ties. In 2009, President Lula, President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Hu Jintao met for a Bric summit in St. Petersburg. A second Bric summit followed in April 2010 in Brasília.

Why did the four Bric leaders decide to team up and turn Mr O’Neill’s investment category into a political reality? Aside from low per capita income, economic growth, and a large population, what unified them most seemed to be their common interest in changing the way the world was run. Yet, after initial optimism during negotiations and grand announcements about a “new world order”, the Bric members realised that their positions were too far apart to agree on any specific measures. The Brics’ discontent with the system and claim for a greater say, their revisionist rhetoric, vagueness about what should be changed and their eventually reluctant acknowledgement that the system is fundamentally sound showed that reality is more complicated than fiction, and that Mr O’Neill’s category is too broad to be meaningful.

What the success of the Bric label really showed was that scholars and investors are not the only ones who search for a category that can capture reality. Heads of state long for a meaningful way to understand the world as well. The four leaders had essentially met in St. Petersburg to “try on” the category Mr O’Neill had devised for them. Rather than pointing to their similarities, their behaviour reflected their strong desire to comprehend which category they themselves belong to. In a rapidly changing world where the traditional parameters of East vs West, North vs South and rich vs poor no longer provide any guidance for rising powers, trying on the “Bric hat” was merely another episode, yet certainly not the last, in their complex search for their identity and place in a world they will soon rule.