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The Geo Interview With Prof. Peter Trubowitz

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

The Geostrata interviewed Professor Peter Trubowitz of the London School of Economics and Political Science. In an insightful conversation with Geostrata's Ansh Tyagi, Prof. Turbowitz spoke about the evolution of US-India relations over the years, covering the current importance of the partnership between the two nations in dealing with China's growing power in the Indo-Pacific region.

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

Ansh: Hello, everybody. We are delighted to have the distinguished presence of Professor Peter Trubowitz, a professor of international relations and director of the Phlean US center at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He's also an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. His research interests lie in the field of international security and comparative foreign policy with a special focus on the United States. He's a keen observer of the US government and its policies. Some of his famous books include “Partisan Ambition, and American statecraft”, and “Defining the national interest- Conflict and change in American foreign policy”.

In an illustriousy long career, he has served in some of the best universities across the world, such as Harvard, Princeton, and many more. This episode of Gao interview will focus on the India-US relationship, and how it might unfold in the weeks and months ahead. It indeed, is an honor to have you amongst us today, Professor.

Professor: Great to be with you. Thank you so much for the invitation. Looks like just a terrific organization. And I appreciate the opportunity to come to you from London, where it's where I'm coming to you, mid-morning. So great to be here.

Ansh: Thank you, Professor. It indeed is an honor and privilege for us. So I would like to start by asking you, what are the basic drivers of India US relationship?

Professor: Well, that's a big question. And an important one. And you know, I mean, the US-India relationship is of course shaped by many things from geopolitical pressures to economic interests to domestic politics on both sides. I think if you had to single out one factor, let's say you are given a summative question. You had to identify one factor that has consistently shaped the possibilities for cooperation over time. I think I would say, I would answer that by focusing on geopolitics.

During the Cold War, US officials generally considered India if I can speak candidly, a thorn in the backside and at best an unreliable partner. And this is because as you and your viewers, know from Nehru onward, India adhered pretty consistently to a strategy of non-alignment in the great power contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, from Washington's perspective, this was better than having India throw its lot in with Moscow. But at a time when American officials tended to view the world in stark zero-sum terms, non-alignment, or neutrality was considered as close as you could come to aligning with Moscow without actually doing it formally.

And that India relied on a steady flow of Soviet military equipment to meet its legitimate security needs in the region, and relied heavily on on a national economic planning model that closely resembled Moscow only reinforced the perception in Washington, that India was unreliable at best and hostile at worse. And of course, for India having broken free from one colonial power, close ties with the United States, you know, given its outsized power and influence was a risky proposition. And so during the Cold War, geopolitical considerations largely kept the US in India apart.

There were exceptions of course, such as the 1962 Sino-Indian War that led Delhi to turn to the United States for support. But for the most part geopolitics in India, and US relations didn't mix during the Cold War. Now, that's no longer true today, or at least much less so. than it was during the Cold War. Today, Delhi and Washington share a common strategic concern, namely checking China's growing power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. And this has made it easier for the two sides to find common ground on a, you know, on a wide range of issues from technology transfer to maritime security, to military training.

Now, there are limits to that, you know, to their security partnership, India still attaches a great weight to what is now referred to as strategic autonomy. And it's reluctant, I think, or has been reluctant to balance too hard against China, by aligning too closely with the United States and its allies in the Indo-Pacific. And it continues to cultivate ties with Moscow, which in the face of Putin's invasion of Ukraine has become a bone of contention in India-US relations. And American concerns, let's say about terrorism or Iran have meant keeping close ties with Pakistan, which has rubbed Delhi the wrong way.

So that said, you know, despite all that, since the end of the Cold War, and I think especially since the early 2000s, military, economic unless we forget it, social ties between India and the United States have strengthened considerably. And both sides have come to value the strategic relationship in ways that I think you would have imagined as recently as let's say, three decades ago. And at the end of the day, the main reason for this is geopolitics. So instead of driving the US and India apart as it did during the Cold War, strategic considerations, I think, have been slowly and but you know, admittedly unevenly, but slowly drawing the two sides together.

Ansh: Thank you, Professor. That was pretty insightful, as you mentioned, India and US are coming together in geopolitical interest to some extent, then why has the United States not appointed an Ambassador to India in the last 20 months? What does this spell for our country's government-to-government relationship?

Professor: Yeah, great question. Well, you know, look, this is an unfortunate situation,. I suppose if it's any consolation, and it probably isn't,India is not alone. We're now nearly two years into Joe Biden's presidency, and there are more than 40 US ambassadorships that remain vacant. There's no US ambassador in Italy or in Brazil. Now, this doesn't have very much to do with Brazil, frankly, or Italy, or India, for that matter. It has everything to do with domestic politics in the United States. What I mean by that is that the confirmation process in the United States, it's always been difficult.

It's very kind of cumbersome, some would say outdated, but it's a cumbersome process. And it provides ample opportunity for any single senator, any one of the 100 senators can slow the process down by insisting on the vehicle of open debate on the Senate floor. I mean, in the past, they could use the filibuster to slow it down. In the case of the filibuster, you can't use that anymore. Since about 2013, you can't use the filibuster to slow down the nomination, but there are other ways to do it and to slow it down on the floor. And to tie an agreement to have a vote not to guarantee that the ambassador-designate gets actually voted in and you know, gets nominated, and approved.

That any senator can basically connect it to some pet project, let's say in their state that they want the President to provide progress on or more often in America's high highly politicized environment these days to use it to pursue political demands to advance different kinds of political demands. And this is what's happened to many of Biden's nominations as Republican senators with an eye on the presidency. You know, have used the nominations tied him up to get attention, you know, to get media attention.

Now, of course, it hasn't helped in this particular case that Biden's Ambassador-designate, Eric Garcetti, who's the mayor of Los Angeles has found himself embroiled in a controversy involving allegations that he turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct by one of his aides. So in a divided 50-50 Senate, where Garcetti he needs every damn vote he can muster to be confirmed, his case is in limbo. And it's hard to imagine that there will be a vote on his ambassadorship before the midterm elections in November.

And, even then, it's unclear whether the Biden administration will be able to muster the votes, you know, in that kind of slack session that runs for November and December, before the new Senate in the new Congress in January. And I guess, you know, just to answer the second part of the question, I mean, it's just the absence of an American ambassador in Delhi, who has the President's confidence, and Garcetti does. He was very involved, and was part of Biden's transition team in picking, vetting and choosing appointments for, you know, different departments of the executive branch, and Garcetti himself was even a potential Biden VP nominee.

His name was vetted and thrown around by a lot of a lot of people. Not having somebody with the President's confidence in Delhi just doesn't help when you're trying to manage bilateral issues, from trade to e-commerce, to temporary work visas. I mean, it's a long laundry list that require attention. But that's, frankly, where we are. And we might be there for a while.

Ansh: This question is also discussed a lot in the Indian institutions. And I think your answer will help us understand how domestic politics interfere in the foreign policy of a nation.

Professor: Yeah, the key thing is, it's not about you. This is about what's going on in the US, you know, so anyway, yeah!

Ansh: Professor, that brings me to my next question. We keep hearing that the India-US partnership might shape the 21st century. So, what do you think are the biggest milestones as well as challenges in this India-US cooperation?

Professor: Well, I think if you take the long view, which is, I think worth doing, is remembering that since India's independence, ties with the United States have, you know, whether a long period of distrust through the Cold War or mistrust or also periods of just downright estrangement over either action that the US has taken or actions or decisions or that the Indian Government is taking, you know, ranging from, let's say the US tilt towards Pakistan in 1971 and the war to India's first nuclear test in 1974.

And again in the late 1990s, when India completed a series of underground nuclear tests that caught the United States and everybody else by surprise and stoked a lot of fear because those tests were very close to the Pakistan border. And relations were harmed, you know, I'm old enough to remember this. By 1984, toxic gas and chemical leak, you know, at the American-owned Union Carbide plant, the pesticide plant in Bhopal that led to overtime, the death and disability of 10s, of 1000s of Indians. So, those are a lot of kind of low moments, or some really important insignificant periods of mistrust and estrangement.

But there have also been in the long history of India-US relations, if we're talking about milestones, moments of genuine cooperation and goodwill. And I'm not going to get all pollyannish here, but, you know, the collaboration between American and Indian scientists in the 1960s, that led to the Green Revolution and high-yield agricultural crops. You know, I remember this very well, the warming of relations that followed Bill Clinton's visit to India in 2000, which gave rise to, you know, a set of institutionalized forums all under the rubric of an economic dialogue, and ultimately really opened the path pushed on the American side by the Bush administration, to 2005 US-India Defense Partnership, which really set the security relationship between the two countries on its current trajectory.

And so, you know, I would say since, you know, India declared independence in 1947, relationships fluctuated. There have been highs, there have been lows. It's been marked by some rough patches of tension and misunderstanding, but I think, also periods of genuine cooperation, and sustained advancement. And I think we are more in that kind of latter period, we're more under the heading of genuine cooperation and advancement today than we are under the heading of tension and misunderstanding. That is not to say that, it is smooth sailing, and that there are difficulties, but it's more, the glass is half full, rather than half empty right now!

Ansh: Okay, Professor, now, I want to ask you that, you have already mentioned about Indo-Pacific, and how the region is bringing India and the US close together. What should be our approach to the Indo-Pacific region along with what goals or KPIs can be onboard and align most stakeholders in the region?

Professor: This is a great question. Also, it's a hard one! I guess, kind of looking back and thinking about going forward. I would say two things. The most important things are transparency, in particular, in the India-US relationship, but more generally in the region. And a recognition that Rome wasn't built in a day. You know, as I just mentioned, in response to the previous question that you asked about milestone challenges, mistrust has hobbled the India-US relationship in the past. And it could do so again. One just, you know, should not assume that just because relations have been moving in a positive direction, broadly speaking, for the past two decades, and that will continue.

I mean, nationalism is alive and kicking in both countries and this can fuel suspicions about each other's intentions. And it can also lead others in the region to keep a safe distance or to hedge their bets about what they are getting involved in with either or both countries. I mean, there's a lot of concern, let's leave India aside, there is a lot of concern about nationalism in the United States, you know, I mean, there was a huge sigh of relief, when Joe Biden took the oath of office in January 2020, maybe a little less in India. But in general, that was true.

But the concern that you hear, I certainly hear this a lot. You know, in European capitals, but I know it's true also in Asian capitals, the concern is that Biden might just be a brief respite, you know, and that Trump or some Trump want to be. And maybe one of those Trump wannabes, who's holding up the appointment of an Ambassador to India, could end up being President, the elected President in 2024. And that creates problems and potential problems for progress on the economic front and economic relations between the US and India, but also within the region more generally.

So that's one thing. I mean, at the same time, I think there's a need to guard against unrealistic expectations, ranging from that the US and India are going to be this like, strategic bulwark against China, that you know, that there's no daylight between the two sides, when it comes to China. And that there are going to be, you know, multilateral trade agreements in the region, I don't see that right now. And it's partly because of India's own misgivings about them, but it's also at least as much America's own misgivings about them. There's a reason that you know, America's economic initiatives in the region right now, like the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum, or partnership doesn’t include a multilateral trade pact.

And the problem is not India, it's the United States. There is not an appetite for that right now in the United States. So one has to be realistic, even though there is an appetite for it, among many of the countries in the Indo-Pacific region who would like to see it, to see some successor agreement to the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the US signed and pulled out of that, and somehow comes back into the successor or some other arrangements that perhaps involved India as well. And I think there's also, this gives me no pleasure in saying this, but that there needs to be realism about the possibility of a breakthrough on climate change.

And so what that means is that, expectations need to be calibrated properly. And I think, what it also means is not that you don't try to make progress, let's say on climate. But did you go for small wins? You play what we say and you know, okay, I'm not sitting in the United States, but I'm an American. Like, through and through, is that you use a baseball or sports metaphor. You play small balls instead of going let's see, for the home run. You get the singles and the doubles. I don't know what the cricket analogy is, but at any rate, that you go for small wins and you build momentum that way.

And I think that we need to see more of that. So if you're thinking of KPIs, you know that, those need to be the baselines and not some big multilateral agreements. And maybe more local initiatives that are on both sides, bilateral agreements or maybe even unilateral agreements where there's a kind of understanding, you know, that where there's a diffuse or reciprocity. To use an old phrase from Bob Cobain's work, “a diffuse reciprocity.”

The US makes progress and India makes progress and others make progress on climate change by doing things locally and you build momentum that way. Anyway, so you know, I would say that, that those are that the potential there the important things here are transparency about what is possible, what is not possible, what is being done transparently, about intentions, and a recognition you know, that you don't want the good to be the enemy of the of the perfect, that recognition that you might have to do that progress occurs, and can occur incrementally.

Ansh: Thank you, professor. Let's address the biggest question that we have. How is the India US relationship with this position vis a vis the China challenge? Also, how is this challenge perceived in the United States?

Professor: Well, look, I mean, I think I've already said something about how the China challenge is drawing the US and India closer together, albeit in an uneven and imperfect way, imperfect meaning only in the uneven sense of it. It's not full throated, there are India’s hedges and the United States position is not perfectly consistent. But I think I've said something about that. Let me say a few words,for your viewers, about how the China challenge is perceived in the United States. Here, I think I can, you know, add some value and put things in this historical perspective that might be constructive and helpful.

For much of the past 25 years, let's say past quarter century, China was viewed as a status quo power inside the United States as a and not only inside the United States, I would say this was true of many Western democracies, a kind of rapidly developing country that benefited more from working within the existing liberal world rules based order than by challenging it. And most US foreign policy analysts believe that if Washington and the West more generally integrated China into the world economy and the world's vast network of international institutions like the WTO, that a growing segment of China's political class, and the Chinese people more generally, would find it in their interest to work within the system, rather than to try to challenge and change it from the outside.

there were many terms for this approach from engagement to integration to co-option. But they all boil down to the same thing, giving Beijing economic incentives to buy into the international status quo and to pursue its ambitions as a trading state as opposed to a military power. That was the idea. And there are some US and Western analysts that still subscribe to this view.

But I would say today, most don't; most of put distance between themselves and they argue that as China has moved up the economic ladder, its ambitions have expanded as realism 101 like products, you know, and, and they point to a variety of different things from Beijing's efforts to develop new military capabilities like cyber warfare to efforts to lay claim to the South and East China Seas as vital national interest, its penetration of rich, resource rich countries in Africa, in South America and it's you know, it's huge infrastructure project tying China to the rest of the Eurasian landmass, the Belt and Road Initiative to the Chinese leadership's rhetorical commitment to restoring China to its rightful place atop the international pecking order.

You know, Xi Jinping's China dream. And each is considered evidence that a more assertive China is in the making. And this view has gained a lot of traction in American political circles, I would say in the last decade. Now, it's a far cry from the anti Soviet Cold War consensus. You know, American politics is not there yet. But skepticism about China's ambitions is now prevalent on both sides of the political aisle in the United States. And, and, you know, it's actually one of the few issues today that draws considerable bipartisan support, meaning support from both parties, both major political parties, the Democrats and, and the Republicans.

Now, the reason for this, though, and this is what, you know, I think people need to understand is that it has something to do with China's geopolitical behavior. But it has more to do with a widely held view that America's trade and investment with China has hurt a broad swath of American working families. And it's sometimes referred to in the American context as the China shock. You know, the China, along with Mexican immigrants has become kind of the poster child for Americans who have been marginalized economically and who are pushing back against it and politicians who are capitalizing on that politically, in a lot, you know, election campaigns, like what's going on in the midterms right now, in many parts of the, you know, in many districts and in states in the US, these people oppose trade liberalization.

And they're skeptical about international commitments that risk a heavy investment of American treasure or blood. And many of these voters cast their votes for Donald Trump in 2016. And again, in 2020. So why does that matter for us India relations?

The short answer is that it matters because while most American foreign policy analysts see great value in strengthening US India ties, frankly, it's not clear that most American voters do. I mean, before I came on, I looked up some polling, you know, done by the Pew Foundation, just to make sure that I wasn't, I hadn't dreamt this.

And it shows that while 25% of Americans, you know, only 25% of Americans have a negative view, you know, like feeling cold towards India. Only 25% have a kind of warm and cuddly feeling about India, you know, a positive view of India, and most that 50% of Americans have a kind of neutral or no pun intended non aligned view of India. Yes. And yes, it would be a mistake for US or Indian officials to assume that just because India, the the US and India have a common strategic interest that their domestic public's will automatically buy into closer commercial ties.

So, there's a, you know, there's a, there's a kind of lesson potential lesson in the American story about China, that the political blowback in the United States over China is not only about China's behavior in the hood, in region, it is about the consequences of American investment and trade with China back home.

Ansh: Professor, this will make things more clear for students who are interested in international relations. And this will help them understand how the attitude about China has changed among the foreign policy experts in the United States. And how people view India as a non aligned partner, in majority in the United States. Well, I wanted to ask you, Professor, that India and the United States do not see eye to eye on European issues. Where can India and the United States meet when it comes to these issues?

Professor: Well,one outstanding question. That's getting some attention right now, especially in the last couple of weeks, is how far India is ultimately willing to move towards the United States and its European allies,when it comes to the war in Ukraine? I know what , you're probably expecting me to talk about the kind of work that could be done in the Indo Pacific. But I don't think that's front and center right now, when it comes to this question. And, until recently, it seemed like India wasn't going to move very far towards the kind of US European position on this question.

But ever since Prime Minister Modi's comments at last month's summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization you know, I mean, things have started to change. I mean, you know, India, initially took a decidedly neutral position on the conflict, but Modi used that occasion, in an interesting way. I mean, he used it, both to reaffirm the historic importance of, you know, India Russian relations. But he also used it to signal India's displeasure with Putin's prosecution of the war, reminding Putin that the present era, as Modi put it, is not one of war.

And so I guess what I would say here is, while India has clear reservations about the existing international order, in part because it's excluded from things like the Security Council by the existing liberal international order, its growth and development is also contingent on upholding existing rules such as sovereignty and territorial integrity. And Putin's invasion has thus created both a challenge and an opportunity for Indian leaders to signal where they stand on a rules based order that Western nations subscribe to, certainly rhetorically and Okay, admittedly imperfectly in practice, but nevertheless, you know, come down in that direction, rhetorically, and so I think, you know, in an interesting way, on this question that you've, you've posed about Europe and US in Europe, this issue is kind of where the rubber hits the road, as we say, and where and I think I don't, you know, some might say, well, Modi is trapped and constrained to me, it looks more like, he senses both the challenge and an opportunity here.

And he's pivoted in the last few weeks. And he's not alone. I mean, interestingly enough, Xi Jinping is all you know, use that moment, also to send a signal to Putin. So I don't want to get too far, you know, ahead of myself on this or over my skis on this, but this, I think, is a place where Modi has an opportunity to kind of segue Know, to the extent that he's interested in doing that the United States and in Europe, about where he stands again, with in mind that, you know that there can be reciprocity in the future. And that, you know, that's how great powers and you know, a state can effectively cooperate.

Ansh: That was a pretty important statement by Narendra Modi, professor. And I think it made it clear for everybody around the world that India does not stand with war, irrespective of the nations involved. Well, I would like to ask you, what do you think? What is the long long term forecast for the India US relationship? How will they evolve in the coming period?

Professor: Well, here's what I want, I think. So you have to be careful that one doesn't substitute one's hopes for analysis. I think we may be entering a period where US India interests will converge strategically, but not always economically and, each of these things is contingent as well. So they're not neither of them are guaranteed. But I mean, how much the strategic bonds develop and deepen in the coming decade, I think is going to depend, you know, largely on the extent to which the two sides view China as a common threat and, and don't allow things like what we're seeing transpire in Ukraine to push them apart.

But, with respect to the two sides viewing China as a common challenge, that also is going to depend and here's the contingent part of it, I think, in no small part on how China plays its strategic hand in the region. I mean, if Beijing continues on its present course, we probably should anticipate that strategic ties between the United States and India will deepen. Because they'll both find it in their interest to cooperate, whatever, where even if they can't agree on other things, visa is or what have you. But if Beijing adjusts its course, and works harder to reassure its many neighbors, including India, about its intentions, then India, I think, is more likely to take a balanced approach seeking more, not less strategic autonomy no matter what Washington wants.

So, you know, some of this, we should remind ourselves is that it's not entirely in India's hands or America's hands, you know, and with respect to this, how the strategic relationship develops, it depends on the behavior of other players in the region, and most notably, China. On the economic side of the ledger. I think we should expect economic ties between India and the United States to continue to grow in a measured way. For the United States, India remains. It's a valuable destination for foreign investment. It's very, it's an important source of human capital, you know, and in an era when US corporations are rethinking their supply chains and alternative one of a number of alternatives to China.

For India, the United States now, its largest trading partner having a clip of China in I think back in 2019, but that has stayed steady or continued. The United States remains a powerful engine for export led growth and if Delhi can control the terms of American investment, which it definitely trying to do a valuable source of capital and technology, I think what is likely to remain a thorny issue for the two sides is climate change, which I think is a reminder that no matter how much geopolitical considerations draw India in the United States together, going forward, a lot is going to depend on domestic politics, and political will, inside these two important countries and what's going to shape the future of the relationship over the you know, in the longer term, five years, ten years out, is the way that geopolitics and domestic politics interact.

Ansh: Professor, I totally agree with you that we should have realistic expectations with this relationship, and should also keep an open mind to the conditions and circumstances that might emerge. Well, this brings me to my last question, and probably the one that I was waiting for the most. You have been in the field of IR for such a long period of time. How has your experience been? And what would you suggest to young people like us? Who is looking to take an IR as a career field?

Professor: Wow, that's a great question. So my experience while I love academia, and you know, and it's been, it's, been a pleasure to kind of be in this line of work, it's,

a, it's a family business, I should probably, you know, kind of mention, I mean, my wife is an academic, also here at the LSE. For many years, we were both professors at the University of Texas, at Austin. And we have two sons, who are both pursuing PhDs in the United States as well. So I don't know, you know, it's like, it seems to be kind of in our DNA.

I think, for me, what I've always tried to do is balance an interest in international relations theory with a commitment to addressing practical political policy problems and, and so a lot of my work is focused on uncovering and identifying the ways that foreign policy decisions are made in the United States, but also in in other countries and to do so in a way that avoids the kind of it's either one approach, or another approach, the field is often divided between those who really stress international considerations and drivers and those who focus on domestic drivers and if there's a thread that runs through my work from my first book that you mentioned at the outset, defining the national interest through my book of politics and strategy, to my forthcoming book with a former student Brian Berggruen, who's a professor at the University of Amsterdam, which is called geopolitics and democracy and that looks at the the evolution of the liberal order from its foundation in the post war period to its fracture us Since the end of the widening fracture since the end of the Cold War, it is this focus on the way that international and domestic politics interact sometimes in they are mutually constitutive and that they lead to, progress in sometimes they are at odds in a lead to division and polarization and conflict and competition and so forth and, you know, and I think the takeaway for that's always been a passion of mine to connect the international and domestic andI suppose what I would say, as a message to students out there, is that there was a time when thinking about the interaction between international and domestic politics wasn't very popular in the field and I stuck with it and I was, you know, that was kind of, that's how I thought, and still do think about international politics, you know, and about that connection in interaction between the international and domestic sides and so I think when people start to do a PhD, when they start to go, if they want to pursue a career, in international politics, they should pursue and stick, you know, to, if they're, their desire to do it is animated by a particular way of thinking about international politics, they should stick with that they should pursue it.

I mean, of course, you know, if events in data kind of point, to suggest that there's a problem with the way that you see the world, you have to back up and recalibrate and rethink. But I think it's good to, you know, bring that kind of passion to the field, we need it and we certainly need lots of new voices in the field, from parts of the globe that have been underrepresented in the Western canon of IR. And it's a good thing to see that kind of broadened and developed and that's actually one of the things that's great about the LSE is that the international non as a plug for my department with the LSE has been committed to kind of broadening and deepening and expanding the voices that are present at the table.

Ansh: Thank you, Professor. This was a pretty insightful session. We are really thankful to you for giving us your valuable time. We will look forward to hosting you sometime soon.

Professor: Thank you very much. It's been my pleasure to be with you. I think it's great that you are as a group doing this kind of thing. And I'll hope to be with you sometime in the future.

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