How individuals tilt the balance in diplomacy
India's aim with the visit is essentially a way to manage the individual--which is why an excessive focus on outcomes is mistaken--even as Delhi hopes that larger forces, national interests and events will continue to bind the two countries together
Diplomacy and inter-State relations often hinge on four factors--larger historical forces; individual leaders; the "national interest" of actors, as defined by a set of institutions within each State and mediated through political and bureaucratic channels; and events. It is the balance of these forces that can explain key changes.
The rise of China, for instance, can be attributed to larger forces (population, size, geography), leaders (Deng Xiapoing's decision to open up the economy and move beyond a Maoist framework and now Xi Jinping's policy of projecting Chinese power), its redefinition of national interest (engagement with the United States; economically integrating with the world while remaining politically closed; and till about 2010, focusing on internal affairs, which has now been replaced with more aggressive posture); and events (the 2008 financial crisis eroded the US economic strength; the "war on terror" since 2001 distracted it from its role in Asia-Pacific; and the election of Donald Trump turned it even more inward--all of which helped Beijing).
A similar framework can be applied to the India-US relationship, and the radical shift in ties.
Larger forces have driven it. The end of the Cold War saw India reframe how it viewed the world, and left it with little choice but to deepen its engagement with the only superpower at the time. The 1991 economic reforms made India more open--and made the US slowly wake up to the potential of the Indian market. The rise of China provided a strategic glue. The increasing role of the Indian diaspora in the US saw the emergence of a key constituency invested in deeper links. The role of US soft power--from popular culture to educational institutions--changed Indian attitudes towards it.
Based on this, there was a redefinition of national interest. India began seeing the US as a valuable source of investment, technology, and as a form of geopolitical insurance. The US began seeing India as a valuable market, a democratic counterweight to China, and a source of stability in the US-dominated international system.
Events helped. The Indian nuclear tests of 1998 antagonised the US, but paradoxically, also opened the doors for deeper engagement--from Bill Clinton's visit to eventually the nuclear deal. The Kargil War made India recognise that the US could actually be a source of support in tensions with Pakistan, which was further reinforced after the Parliament attacks. The 9/11 attacks changed US attitudes to terrorism, and made it more sympathetic to the Indian experience, even though its dependence on Islamabad increased.
And leaders played a key role. From PV Narasimha Rao to Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi, each Indian prime minister has worked on the partnership. On the American side, while both Clinton and Barack Obama deepened ties, it was George Bush who took a strategic bet with the nuclear deal.
As Trump visits India this week, there is both continuity and rupture. Larger forces still drive the relationship, particularly the strategic imperative of countering China. But the inward economic turn in the US, coupled with slower economic growth and protectionist tendencies in India too, have raised doubts about the economic subtext of the relationship.
But the most significant departure is in the personality of the leader, particularly Trump. He follows no diplomatic playbook. His priorities, and priorities of the US establishment, are not necessarily aligned. He is driven by a very high degree of personal vanity. He is unpredictable and takes liberties with truth. He has been helpful to India, but also publicly antagonistic.
India's aim with the visit is essentially a way to manage the individual--which is why an excessive focus on outcomes is mistaken--even as Delhi hopes that larger forces, national interests and events will continue to bind the two countries together.