New Delhi: While bilateral ties form an important component of international relations, they can only rarely deliver in excess of the existing geopolitical realities. Where the relationship is unequal, as is more often the case in international diplomacy, bilateral ties may deliver more when the bigger power makes disruptive and by their nature asymmetric concessions. The United States’ nuclear deals with India and Iran are examples of such exceptional behaviour, although the contents of the respective deals themselves are widely divergent. Mostly, however, bilateral relations are amenable to reasonable and sustained increments, where the burden of expectations is not amassed too high by either side. Eyes kept wide open to existing geopolitical realities and emerging trends facilitates the conduct of intelligent, insightful and sensible bilateral diplomacy. This is how India might like to approach bilateral relations with the United States.

The United States is the world’s sole superpower in terms of military might but it has become much less adept at enforcing the peace or Pax Americana. With his brilliant and timely intervention in Syria, Vladimir Putin has shown more accurate military appreciation of the ISIS threat and the means to eliminate it. Russia has become the de facto leader of the Shia powers in the region and stolen the advantage deriving from Iran’s nuclear deal with the United States. President Barack Obama deserves blame for not cerebrating so far ahead as President Putin. The United States’ thinking about the Middle East is hopelessly muddled. Its Sunni allies led by Saudi Arabia are no longer willing to trust its judgment.

What, readers in India may wonder, has this to do with India-US relations? Everything. If the United States is failing in the Middle East, it would not want to make more blunders in another Muslim country it invaded and occupied, namely Afghanistan. It has decided to keep a division of troops in the country and is going back on plans for an early withdrawal. It would be sensible to raise the troop strength and extend US counterterrorism operations to Pakistan from where all the terrorism is emanating. But President Obama is too cautious to change the pattern of fighting in Afghanistan. He has just over a year left to his term and would rather pass into history as a peacemaker who brought all US troops home. This plays out well in elections although it is terrible for US security. President Obama would, therefore, do the traditional and the expected in Afghanistan, which is pinning hopes on an “ally” as unreliable and treacherous as Pakistan to rally the Taliban for peace talks and enable a political solution to the Afghan crisis.

It will fail no doubt, but it will not part Pakistan from US company. As a lever against India with the United States, Pakistan’s Afghan card has lost its utility from duplicity and overuse. That is one lesson from international diplomacy: never abuse a lever. But it still carries enough residual heft to put restraints on India in its anti-Pakistan demarches with the United States. Two outstanding democracies, burgeoning economic and trade relations, closer military ties partly directed against China, etc, are all fine, but there is a limit beyond which India cannot press the United States against Pakistan. This is what is meant that bilateral ties mostly cannot deliver in excess of existing geopolitical realities.

With China again, both India and the United States have particularized restraints. As a Great Power, China cannot be antagonized beyond a point. While Russia and China are presently close, the United States may at a future date like to revert to the Cold War practise of propping China against Russia. It is farfetched now but a Chinese economic collapse would make it less able to resist US pressure to turn against Russia if it is accompanied by an American rescue package. The Americans are daft enough to even consider this. On the other hand, as its immediate neighbour to the north, the Curzonian buffer of Tibet gone, India can scarcely become implacably opposed to China. Strategic competition cannot be allowed to deteriorate to ruinous conflict.

In other words, bilateral relations are heavily crisscrossed and embedded with multilateral linkages. India must pursue bilateral relations with the United States firmly grounded on these realities. There is no place for romanticism here. Policymakers on the Indian side should not be carried away by the terrific personal chemistry between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama. The American establishment is notoriously hidebound. Richard Nixon had to use all his infighting skills and some to get the establishment on a friendly footing with “Red” China. And since the Watergate scandal, US presidential powers have been steadily eroded by the legislature and the judiciary.

What will work for India and the larger world, including the US, is if it resolutely sets itself on a path of growth and prosperity. Economic growth will bring rapid increments in bilateral ties for India, and supply the plentiful levers to employ against adversaries. All nations are basically transactional in their relationships. There is no reason for India to be different. It must recognize that relations with the United States will be one of give-and-take. It must clearly know what to give and take.