“A Twenty-First Century Partnership”

Alyssa Ayres
This paper was originally drafted for the January 2010 session of the Aspen Strategy Group’s US-India Strategic Dialogue. Please click on the link at the bottom to access the full article.

Finding a new Equilibrium

Twenty years ago I landed in Delhi for the first time, a young college student on a semester abroad.  India was a different place, far away, and we Americans knew little about it.  Back then you’d see khadi-clad Western tourists ambling around CP, Doordarshan was the only channel around (although Prannoy Roy offered a half-hour hint of the future with The World This Week), and talking with parents back home meant booking a trunk call and then waiting around for hours, or trudging to the PCO/STD/ISD booth.  Cows grazed on piles of trash in concrete bins outside our youth hostel (the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra) in the heart of the Diplomatic Enclave.  Today, the tourists in handspun have been replaced by bankers in Brioni; Prannoy Roy now runs a media empire and cuts deals with NBC/Universal and Time Warner; everyone has a mobile phone and the rates are the world’s lowest, shrinking the globe and pulling family instantly close; and there are a lot fewer cows, not to mention no more trash piles, outside the youth hostel, which now also houses India’s preeminent software industry association, NASSCOM.  These bookends of memory show how dramatic a transformation has taken place, and how much more deeply our countries are now intertwined.

The distance, unfamiliarity, and lack of connection between India and the U.S. over much of the twentieth century, as so many have noted, contributed to our inability to realize the obvious potential of this relationship.  What Dennis Kux has aptly termed an “estrangement” was felt not only at the official level (between governments), but was also reflected in the relatively thin linkages outside of government.  Business connections were intentionally limited, a primary result of Indian industrial policies to protect its domestic market.  Academic ties existed but were again thin; exchanges could be measured in the dozens annually.  Nonprofit or NGO sector collaborations were a great strength—look at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations’ accomplishments, for example—but no one would argue that they were able to propel the relationship forward in and of themselves.

We are in a different place now, not only due to a changed balance of trust between Washington and New Delhi, but as importantly due to the increasing importance of private, nongovernmental actors (for-profit as well as non) in shaping international engagement.  Jessica Mathews wrote more than ten years ago about the great “power shift” reshaping our world—the global decentralization of political and economic power from their locus within state capitals, and the rise of nongovernmental actors, particularly via markets, media, and civil society.  Corporations are global, with employees and interests all over the world.  Technology has transformed our connectivity and our media environment, offering local voices a global platform (and winnowing down the once-privileged role of western media at the same time).  Heightened mobility of labor has created a more flexible global workforce at both the elite as well as unskilled levels, linking populations with families back home.  We now speak routinely about transnational markets, world citizens, and global public goods.

I view these developments as largely positive.  While some see factors of globalization (particularly global corporations and markets) as the signs of a dystopian future, the optimist would see in these shifts the seeds of utterly new kinds of partnership.  I can imagine a world where Indian and American researchers can together invent low-cost solar cells that revolutionize the scale and dissemination potential of solar power—helping us both transition away from coal, and as importantly, helping electrify places where power grids have yet to reach.  Or a world where a hybrid Nano might be a sixteen-year old American’s first car, turning hybrids into an entry-level rather than bourgeois bohemian option.  Or a world where our governments, NGOs, and technology companies leverage the scale and power of decentralized communication to better raise awareness of missing children, giving those in bonded captivity a better chance at being found.

From this vantage point, India and the United States are perfectly situated for the twenty-first century world, and for different kinds of partnerships on systemic global challenges, challenges so big and borderless that they simply cannot be managed by governments alone.  So beyond the obvious transformation in official ties between the U.S. and India—the narrative of estrangement to engagement—I would argue that the growing integration of our private sectors now offers the most important element of possibility for U.S.-India cooperation.  As we observed in the report of the Asia Society’s Task Force on U.S. Policy toward India:

Globally, we face a world where our governments confront eroded authority and problems of collective action, with multilateral institutions that no longer reflect current realities, and globalization’s challenges of rapid contagion—whether financial, biological, or digital—that require governmental coordination of the closest kind.  Many of these twenty-first century challenges must be addressed through government initiatives, but many others will require deep engagement with the private sector.  With the great strengths, the ingenuity, and the complementary perspectives that the U.S. and Indian public and private sectors can mobilize, the two countries together have the potential to make a difference to the most pressing challenges of our lifetime.  

The suggestions which follow are offered here to spur discussion on how India and the United States might creatively prod our governments to tap the energy of our private sectors to work collaboratively on global problems:  climate change, counterterrorism, proliferation,  transnational crime (including drug cartels and trafficking of women and children), and humanitarian relief.  None of these can be tackled by government action by itself, so the recommendations below assume the centrality of public-private cooperation for success.  As a result, the orientation of these recommended policy options tends toward techniques of enhancing large-scale coordination and information sharing, better linking policymakers in government with faster-paced innovators in our companies and civil societies, as well as recommendations for government incentives to steer private investment or innovation in directions that benefit the long-term for us all.  Examples are intended to be merely illustrative, not definitive.