Since the Nineties, Indian elites have been increasingly described as “pro-American.” While attending a mini-conference of a segment of India’s foreign policy and security elite in New Delhi last week, I kept noting how widespread the “pro-American” sentiment seemed to be. In fact, I heard one of the intellectuals argue that India’s rise would naturally be assisted by other secular, pluralistic, constitutional democracies and resisted by states which adhered to the principle of harmony. Such a statement would have been unthinkable in the recent past (although it may still be terribly naive). And yet this general warmth toward the US and the West does not seem to have translated into a significant shift in the commitment of India’s military resources.

(Now of course I need to state at the outset that there is still a segment of the political and intellectual spectrum in India which remains reflexively anti-American, but they are a distinct minority among decision makers and policy pundits today.)

So the real issue is what does it mean when Indian elites say that they are pro-American? I would argue that being pro-American in the Indian context means primarily a lack of hostility toward the foreign policies and economic influence of the United States in the developing world and South Asia in particular. What it does not necessarily mean is open or overt support for the American agenda in the region or in international fora except where American and Indian interests directly converge. In other words, Indians have no plans to displace the British lapdog (or the ever-purring Israeli lap-kitten).

Indian elites increasingly take what they describe as a “business-like” attitude toward the US. It is well understood that America will look out for its own interests and India does not expect the US to protect Indian interests. Indians know that they must engage actors and issues on their own to safeguard their national interests, but there is no longer an assumption that the US is hostile to the rise of India (although some strong suspicions remain that the US is trying to use India in a soft containment policy targeted at China). Similarly, India does not necessarily view the presence of great powers in its backyard with fear or anger as it once did. There is no longer a strong desire to proclaim a “Monroe Doctrine” for South Asia, from what I have seen. Naturally, there is concern that resources contributed to America’s partners in the war on terror or militants mobilized against the US may be directed against India once the US withdraws,but it is also acknowledged that in a globalized world terrorism will not be so easily confined to one region through a “forward policy.” So the US is not seen as a stabilizing force in the region, but few question the need for the US to fight the war on terror — although many question the way it is fighting that war and the partners the US chooses to work with.

Pro-Americanism does not imply significant responsibility for India, at least in the mind of Indian elites. In other words, Indians do not feel much pressure to help support US foreign policies through troop deployments. In most cases, overt Indian military involvement (e.g. in Afghanistan) would not be welcome by third party actors anyway. Moreover, any external troop deployment would have to confront a strong domestic bias against deploying troops abroad outside of the UN umbrella, not to mention a complex legacy from the disastrous Indian mission in Sri Lanka which culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Retired military officials with whom I spoke stated that India has the capability to project power into countries like Afghanistan, but other policy experts were skeptical of that claim. India is willing to give financially (for example it is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan and one of the top five internationally), but this is realtively painless compared to sending troops.

Pro-Americanism also does not imply any serious constraints on Indian policies. For example, Indians will continue to work with Iran on most issues regardless of US pressure. While India can be convinced that a nuclear armed Iran might be against its interests, a general policy of isolating and demonizing Iran will be quietly rejected.

Thus, when an Indian says they are “pro-American” what this really means is that they are not reflexively hostile to American policies and influence. There is a sense of affinity based on the similarities between the regime types and common threats, but India is not likely to simply bandwagon with the hegemon.