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4 August 2014, Gateway House

John Kerry’s charm offensive

Much was made of the ‘incredible possibilities’ for India-U.S. ties preceding John Kerry’s visit to India. The American emphasis on rhetoric touched a new high when Kerry formally invited Indian PM Modi to Washington in September. The two sides must now get beyond words to work towards a resolution of differences for the bilateral to blossom

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If there’s one thing that stands out about John Kerry’s recent trip to India, it’s the soaring rhetoric.

The public language of international diplomacy is often exaggeratedly (and deliberately) effusive. Yet this time around, the art was taken to a whole new level.

We heard about “the incredible possibilities” for India-U.S. ties, and how the two nations “can and should be indispensable partners.” [1] There was talk of India’s “most exciting” new government, and of anticipating a “terrific” meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when they meet in Washington in September. For a bilateral relationship that’s floundered in recent months, this is heady stuff.

Tellingly, Kerry resorted to such rhetoric more frequently than did his Indian interlocutors, who were often blunt in highlighting the challenges for bilateral ties. Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said that troubling U.S. policies have spawned “a considerable disquiet” in India.[2] And external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was critical of Washington for spying on India’s new ruling party.[3]

That the happy talk mostly came from the American side isn’t surprising. Kerry’s visit was a charm offensive, pure and simple. It was an effort to convince New Delhi that Washington still values the bilateral relationship, even after a long period of drift and a more recent period of crisis. And, of course, even after having denied a visa for nearly a decade to the man who is now India’s prime minister.

Above all, however, Kerry’s charm offensive should be seen in the broader context of U.S. Asia policy—and specifically two key factors that could portend deeper India-U.S. cooperation. One is the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Next year, with the U.S. no longer so heavily focused on the war in that country and, by extension, on engaging neighbouring Pakistan, Washington will have more strategic and diplomatic capital to expend on India.

The other significant factor is the Obama administration’s redoubling of its Asia rebalancing effort. Revisiting this much-ballyhooed yet long-delayed strategy—one that deepens security and economic cooperation with the entire region—was a chief inspiration for a week-long, multi-stop trip Obama made to Asia last April. Washington sees a convergence between the goals of its Asia “pivot”—which include tightening links with East Asia and providing a counterweight to China’s regional clout—and India’s own regional interests. In a speech Kerry made in Washington shortly before leaving for New Delhi, he spoke of future India-U.S. cooperation in Pacific and Southeast Asia. [4]

Alas, achieving this lofty vision of deeper partnership will be immensely challenging. The relationship’s numerous tension points—including, most recently, India’s opposition to a World Trade Organization agreement supported by Washington—are well known. When pressed by Kerry to reconsider his position on the WTO agreement, Modi refused. So are the lingering grievances in India over Modi’s visa denial and the Devyani Khobragade episode.

Even in the case of supposedly shared interests, there’s more discord than meets the eye. Washington and New Delhi both regard China’s growing regional clout with concern, but Modi—an admirer of Beijing’s economic model and a strong supporter of its economic relationship with New Delhi—may be unwilling to pursue an overt counterbalancing policy. The U.S. and India both want a stable Afghanistan, but they may differ on the role they would want Pakistan to play in an Afghan reconciliation process. As for fast-growing U.S.-India economic ties, which have enjoyed a five-fold increase in trade since 2000, U.S. concern about India’s unfriendly foreign investment climate, and India’s unhappiness about U.S. visa policies toward Indian workers, could jeopardize deeper cooperation. [5]

And lest we forget: The 2008 landmark civil nuclear accord, which supposedly heralded a new strategic partnership, is undercut by U.S. corporate uneasiness about liability issues.

There’s a lesson here for policymakers in both capitals: Don’t overstate the expectations for this relationship. It pays to be optimistic, but not unrealistic.

That said, with both Obama and Modi firmly committed to a healthy relationship, there’s good reason to believe bilateral ties can improve. Therefore, Kerry’s glowing—if not hyperbolic—appraisals of the relationship mark an effort to right the proverbial ship. However, if the two sides struggle to resolve their various differences, such rosy rhetoric runs the risk of ringing hollow.

In the weeks ahead, expect the U.S. charm offensive to continue. Modi will be feted by official Washington (with the likely exception of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) when he visits the U.S. capital in September. Modi’s visit, Kerry told the premier last week, represents an opportunity to establish an “ambitious new agenda” for bilateral relations. [6] Last week, several U.S. senators passed a bipartisan resolution to allow Modi to address a joint session of Congress—an honour accorded to then-prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2005, when bilateral relations were flourishing.[7]

In effect, Washington’s courtship of Narendra Modi is in full swing. The question is how receptive he will be to his suitor’s entreaties.

Michael Kugelman is senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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[1] U.S. Department of State, Remarks With Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj After Their Meeting,  <>

[2] The New Indian Express, Kerry-Sushma Dialogue Today, <>

[3] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Joint Statement on the Fifth India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, <>

[4] U.S. Pacific Command, Remarks John Kerry at the Center for American Progress’ India: 2020 Program, <>

[5] U.S. Department of State, Re-energizing U.S.-India Ties,

[6] The Hindu, ‘Obama looking forward to set ‘new agenda’ with Modi’, <>

[7] House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Chairman Royce, Rep. Holding Request Joint Meeting of Congress with India’s Prime Minister, <>