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Open Embrace: India-U.S. Ties in the Age of Modi and Trump
Book by Varghese K. George

India’s foreign relations with the US has traversed through several crests and troughs during the Cold War era. India’s economic reforms, the collapse of the USSR, and the end of the Cold War did not significantly improve India’s relations with the US owing to the strong gales of Nehruvianism and the resultant suspicion about the US in the policy establishment in New Delhi. However, the aforementioned events ensured the rise of Neoliberal and Neorealist thought in the strategic discourse of New Delhi. Although based on different premises, both the schools of thought saw prudence in maintaining strong relations with the US. While the neoliberals focused on the utility of making deals for economic growth, the realists focused on prospects for military cooperation between the US and India.

The decade following the end of the Cold War weren’t particularly good for Indo-US relations owing to India’s nuclear tests in 1998. The US imposed sanctions on India for a brief period but later found it prudent to begin negotiations following the landmark talks between Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh. The first decade of the new millennium set the momentum for India’s relations with the US. The countries inked the Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2008 and conducted a joint maritime exercise in the South China Sea along with Japan, Australia and Singapore in 2007. India’s relations with the US have been on the rise since then. Between 2000 and 2018, the bilateral trade in goods and services between the two countries increased from $19.1 billion to $142.1 billion. The Indo-US relations is now mature and stable and based on rational calculations of the self-interest of both the nations.

The evolving relations, however, has been marred by simmering discontent on both sides of the table. Furthermore, the leadership in both India and the US has a conservative and nationalist outlook which prioritises the cold pursuit of national interest above all else. The Indo-US discontent emerges from differences in interest and position on the trade-related issues, India’s drive for data localization, oil imports from Iran, H-1B visas, and purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile system from Russia. India under PM Modi will have to master the art of deal-making with the US under President Trump to sail through these issues smoothly while keeping its national interest in mind and not tarnishing its robust foreign relations with the US.

The book, Open Embrace: India-U.S. Ties in the Age of Modi and Trump, has been written in the above-mentioned context and is of discernible importance in traversing the contours of the foreign relations between the two nations under the leadership of PM Modi and President Trump. The author, Varghese K George, aims to answer the question – “Can Modi and Trump make a deal?” The book, as clarified by the author himself, aims to present the flux of relationship between the two countries in the context of shaping internal dynamism. Therefore, the question of how leadership traits and internal politics impacts external engagements is of due importance in this book.

The author argues that the slogan of ‘America First’ under the Trump administration has become a symbol of American retreat from the position of global leadership. The retreat of the US is discernibly visible in Trump’s rhetoric against globalization and free movement of goods and human resources across the globe. There has been a diametric shift in the US’ position on globalization from being a torchbearer to a disparager of globalization. George has also highlighted the decline in the relative power of the US despite no decline in absolute power, and argues that the relative decline is contingent upon ‘the rise of the rest’. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the response of the US to its relative decline has been swift and assertive. The response is consistent with the expectations of the realist schools. The realists argue that the countries prioritize relative gains over other countries rather than absolute gains. Thus, I believe that the response of the US is only natural, and the nations across the world must learn to deal with it. Furthermore, I argue that irrespective of leadership at the top, the US, faced with the relative decline, will behave similarly when it comes to its core strategic calculus.

George has argued that Indian foreign policy has seen a mixture of its core tenets with Hindutva under the Modi doctrine. According to George, the Modi doctrine has learnt and borrowed from the philosophy of the RSS. He attributes this influence to Modi’s background as a Sangh volunteer. Accordingly, Modi’s Hindutva doctrine (hyperrealist) is guided by the practices of aggressive nationalism and believes in the utility of force. While the view is shared by many, the author disagrees with the said view. The argument that the Modi foreign policy doctrine is nothing but Hindutva stands disproved due to incontrovertible evidence against it. For this essay, we shall assume that George’s assessment of Hindutva is given and shall not dispute it. First, those arguing that foreign policy is learning from Hindutva under the Modi doctrine must ponder over India’s burgeoning ties with the West Asian countries. The supposedly jingoistic Modi Doctrine of Hindutva would have been expected to soft-peddle relations with the Gulf countries, but we have observed something completely contrary. India’s ties with countries like UAE is only flourishing and rightly so. Second, aggression is still lacking in Indian foreign policy behaviour. Except India’s recent counter-terrorism measures in PoK and Pakistan, India has been dealing with all other countries, including China, with a velvet glove. The alleged aggression of the Hindutva doctrine is discernibly lacking. Thus, the shift under Modi is not towards Hindutva but more transactional neoliberalism and neorealism. Drawing conclusions based on internal politics may result in inflated assertions.

Concerning relations with China, George argues that India and the USA have a convergence of opinion when it comes to a rising China and both the nation’s burgeoning trade deficit with China. However, the author rightly points out that despite macro-level convergences, India and the US are not always on the same side of the negotiating table. For instance, India’s position on Freedom of Navigation (FON) and its interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) is different from the US’ interpretation. Similarly, trade differences persist between India and the US, and both countries have not shied away from applying measures and countermeasures against each other. The issue of immigration and H-1B visa also persists and seems unresolvable. Recent statements of the President of the USA regarding mediation between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir issue has discernibly received contempt from India. Thus, convergences on China have been balanced by divergences on other issues, leading to a cautious approach by India. Furthermore, the author rightly points out that India will have to carve out a strategic space for itself irrespective of the dynamics between the US and China. India should be able to deal as much with a full-fledged trade war between the two economic giants as with a superpower bonhomie. However, I believe that a G-2 type bonhomie is a distant possibility and that the US will make all attempts to prevent China from unseating it as the world leader. Thus, India’s relations with the US will be crucial both for the US and for India.

On the question of terrorism, although India and the US have convergences, some divergences have been a cause of concern for India. Washington’s pressure on Pakistan and Pakistan-based jihadi terrorist groups have been appreciated by India. Washington’s overtures towards India on that count are appreciated in Delhi. However, Delhi is visibly concerned about Washington’s behaviour in Afghanistan. Striking a deal with the Taliban goes against New Delhi’s policy of zero tolerance towards terrorism, and Trump’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban is raising eyebrows in Delhi. The author, while focusing overly on Hindutva and its impact on terrorism, has missed to point out New Delhi’s concerns about Trump’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban.

The book is a comprehensive assessment of how India and the US are conducting themselves under the current regimes led by Modi and Trump respectively. Although I disagree with the assessment of George about the Modi doctrine itself, I would grade the book as insightful and thought-provoking. I recommend people across the ideological aisle to read this book.

                                                                                                              Book review by Rakshit Mohan