Fmr U.S. Ambassadors to India: Quad is good beginning but doubts U.S. dependability persist in India


India continues to harbor some doubt about the dependability of the United States as a strategic partner and that is at least in part to blame for the country’s continued dependence on and close military ties with Russia, two former U.S. ambassadors in New Delhi have said.

David Mulford, who was ambassador to India from 2004 to 2009 under President George W Bush, and Kenneth Juster, who held the position under President Donald Trump from 2017 through 2021, were speaking at an online panel discussion on the strategic value of India, conducted by the Hoover Institution’s program on strengthening U.S.-India ties Mar 15.

Mulford was ambassador when the first coalition government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in place. It was during his tenure that India and the United States eventually signed a pact on civilian nuclear cooperation.

Yet, when Mulford took charge in New Delhi, the ties of the two largest democracies were under strain. Mulford said the sanctions imposed by Washington on India in 1998, in the wake of the country’s nuclear tests and declaration of itself as a nuclear weapons power, had led to doubts about its dependability as a partner in India’s progress.

Juster said those doubts were reinforced when, after having named India a ‘critical partner’, the U.S. administration under President Barack Obama refused to sell anti-missile defense systems to the country, prompting Delhi to purchase the S-400 system from Russia.

While the Indo-U.S. relationship has waxed and waned, the world’s strategic situation has been transformed with the emergence of a new superpower in China, the resurgence of great power in Russia, and a slow but steady shift toward a multi-polar world.

Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover institution and panel moderator, said these changes are enough to re-examine one of the U.S.’s most consequential bilateral partnerships.

The panel discussed how the U.S. should approach India to bring forth a new era of cooperation and prosperity for both countries. Mulford and Juster have both been involved in developing U.S.-India relations for a large part of their professional careers, both from the government and the private sector.

The panel began by discussing how the Indo-U.S. dynamic evolved to what it is today, beginning with the 1990s recognition of Asia and India as the foci of the 21st century.

In their opening remarks, both panelists reflected upon the state of Indo-U.S. relations today. Mulford said the U.S. had built an “incredibly strong” relationship with India over the past 20 years, one that permeates through civil society and private sectors as well as through governmental cooperation.

He stated his belief that this partnership will become one of the more important partnerships of the 21s century, but was clear that it is not without obstacles. The most recent stumbling block has been India’s steadfast refusal to vote against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the U.N.

According to Mulford, this is merely a symptom of the deeper issue of Russia-India ties. He said sustaining relations with India is of immense importance to the U.S., and the scope of the bilateral relationship is likely to grow rapidly. The U.S., he said, could help to see much of India’s abundant potential realized.

Juster, who served as ambassador in a different era of Indo-U.S. relations, spent a significant amount of time exploring the challenges and opportunities of the relationship.

He said that though the relationship had been widened and deepened to work on almost every area of human endeavor, there are limitations to how it can grow. Part of those limitations stem from how the U.S. conducted itself in the latter part of the 1990s, but Juster was quick to state that given where the relationship was at the turn of the millennium, exceptional progress has been made.

He agreed with Mulford’s statement that the U.S. could help India achieve its tremendous potential.

On specific issues, both ambassadors were optimistic about the Quad and its implications for Indo-U.S. cooperation. They pointed out that despite the lack of a formal institutional structure, the Quad is a formidable beginning to what seems to be a critical partner for the Indo-Pacific region.

They also saw it as an excellent avenue for building a dynamic, cooperative, and multilateral architecture for the Indo-Pacific.