What do we make of the cancellation of the 2+2 dialogue with the US? Some have claimed it is a disaster, while others have put it down to a mere scheduling issue. Drawing such sweeping conclusions from just one episode is fraught with risk. However, when you combine it with what has already happened so far and take a long-term view, you get the general sense that it’s a rerun of the exasperated fatigue that plagued the relationship through much of the 1950s and 60s. That was the time when America felt India was all talk and no action, and was going nowhere. This time, however, the problem has been of unusual personalisation of foreign policy on both sides, which has sped up the fatigue process.
So what exactly happened here? India, touted as the “next big thing” and the “next great friend” of the US since the 1990s, decided to upgrade its ties with the US to a 2+2 format in 2017. This format, in which the foreign and defence ministers meet simultaneously, is seen as a sign of “recognition” by the US.
Theoretically it is a bit more than that. Defence policy is intensely practical and focuses on what is, while foreign policy a largely esoteric domain that mostly substitutes activity for achievement. In the US, this leads to significant philosophical differences between the two departments, something covered extensively in a rather delightful read by a US Marine titled “Defense is from Mars, State is from Venus”. This is why, the US DoD never links ties with India to anything but defence, but the State allows its primary focus of trade and intelligence gathering to be watered down -- and sometimes significantly harmed -- by irrelevancies like human rights, and so on. The belief is that having a 2+2 format, gets the chiefs of both departments on the same page, breaking their own silos and seeing the “big picture” relationship and the stakes involved up close.
This time however, US president Trump decided that North Korea was more important; specifically for Secretary of State Pompeo to monitor and report to the President on. To be clear such a determination is neither a snub nor a disaster. North Korea, after all, is the first big foreign policy outreach by President Trump, and possibly the most significant one since Kissinger’s ping-pong diplomacy with China in the 1970s. This explains why Trump wanted to ensure that focus is maintained on that crucial break, and steered clear of anything that could derail it. Had the 2+2 been postponed due to, say, an upcoming summit with Canada or Australia, that would have been a mild snub -- or with Rwanda, a major snub. This was none of those. In terms of proportion, the US has asked a friend to a hang on a bit, while it deals with the biggest immediate security and proliferation threat in the recent past. In terms of proportion to claim that India should be prioritised over North Korea, would be delusional in the extreme, not to mention have a negative connotation of being a bigger source of concern.
All this however should not make one complacent. The howling and screeching that has accompanied this announcement is not entirely misplaced. Despite all its talking of getting closer to the United States, the foundational agreements that would actually give military substance to the talk of “closeness” have not materialised --- even after despite several prime ministerial statements, promises and what not. In the field of foreign policy, it is hard to see any real convergence, save on the fact that China is dangerous and we like a “rules-based order” in generic, esoteric, distant terms that may not apply to us (manifest destiny and strategic autonomy being the manifestations of this exceptionalism). India’s hiccupping economy, perpetually stifled by allegedly “pro-poor”, is in reality anti-growth, punishment driven, economic sadism wrapped in acute mismanagement. Which is why India can never realistically be the global dynamo of economic growth that China has been. The lack of administrative reforms and efficient governance make a bad economic situation, worse still. This means Indian leaders usually have to concoct convergence where none exists and talk up their own salience in order to get some favourable photo opportunities.
This lack of delivery however is packaged, repeatedly, by all governments be they NDA or UPA as profundity. In our case this takes the shape of non-alignment, which mean anything to anyone. So if the first few years of Modi were spent sucking up to the US, the last few years have been spent distancing. The most obvious sign of this came at the Raisina Dialogue this year, when the US Deputy NSA Nadia Schadlow, made all the right noises about the India–US relationship. However on the same panel and speaking immediately after her, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav said that India was refocussing eastwards and didn’t really need the US, this at an event that was hosting the Admirals of the “Quadrilateral”. If one thought this was a one off, then Modi’s speech at the recent ShangriLa dialogue only confirmed this drift. Many have attributed this drift to the Modi-Xi Wuhan summit, yet the sequence of events suggests, that it is the usual Indian tactic of playing hard to get when a transactionally focussed US president starts demanding results, that India never had any intention of delivering anyway.
The real disaster then lies in the fact that India is faced with such a transactional president, one who doesn’t want vague talk of future possibilities but lives in the here and now. This is matched by an Indian prime minister, whose astoundingly mediocre tenure means he has moved from talking from the here and now to abstracting everything into a distant and imagined future. In this scheme of things the contradictions of the India-US relationship only become more obvious despite the propaganda on both sides, but be that as it may, it has almost nothing to do with the 2+2 talks nor could those talks have fixed any of the fundamental problems of the bilateral relationship.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies