India as a "Global Swing State"
A New Framework For U.S. Engagement with India

Interview with Richard Fontaine and Daniel Kliman
July 22, 2013

As India continues its rise, a combination of factors may give it outsized influence on the global stage. NBR spoke with Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for New American Security, and Daniel Kliman, senior advisor for the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, about their argument for why India is a “global swing state” (along with Brazil, Indonesia, and Turkey). They outline what being a “swing state” means for India’s role in the international order and offer recommendations on how Washington should engage New Delhi within this framework.

What are “global swing states”?

We came up with the concept of “global swing states” during the run-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election. In the American political context, swing states are those whose mixed political orientation gives them a greater impact than their population or economic output might warrant. Such states promise the highest return on investment for U.S. presidential campaigns deciding where to allocate scarce time and resources.

Global swing states are nations that possess large and growing economies, occupy central positions in a region or stand at the hinge of multiple regions, and embrace democratic government at home. Increasingly active at the regional and global level, they desire changes to the existing international order but do not seek to scrap the interlocking web of global institutions, rules, and relationships that has fostered peace, prosperity and freedom for the past six decades.

In U.S. foreign policy, a focus on these nations can deliver a large geopolitical payoff because their approach to the international order is more fluid and open than that of more established powers like China or Russia. In addition, the choices they make—about whether to take on new global responsibilities, free ride on the efforts of established powers, or complicate the solving of key challenges—may, together, decisively influence the course of world affairs. Due to their mixed orientation and potentially outsized impact, these nations resemble swing states in the U.S. domestic context. In a report last year, we identified four global swing states: Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey.

Why India?

India is the quintessential global swing state. Its GDP is roughly $4 trillion and grew 7.4% annually between 2000 and 2011. By some measures, India is now the world’s third-largest economy. Sitting at the edge of the Middle East and East Asia, it occupies the majority of the South Asian landmass and has a land or maritime boundary with every state in the region, as well as China, Burma, Indonesia, and Thailand. Democracy in India has endured with only a single brief interruption since independence in 1947.

Indian leaders have on occasion called for a new system of international governance—lending their voice, for example, to a 2011 joint statement with Brazil and South Africa that endorsed “a new world order whose political, economic and financial architecture is more inclusive, representative and legitimate.” [1] Yet in practice, Indian leaders prefer to boost their country’s representation in existing institutions. This is most evidenced by India’s ongoing quest for permanent membership in an enlarged UN Security Council, an issue that has become a litmus test in its bilateral relations with the United States and other established powers.

At the same time, New Delhi is increasingly torn between pursuing an international approach aimed at giving India the space to focus on internal development and pursuing economic growth at home while taking on greater—and more costly—responsibilities abroad. A sign of this internal tension was the recent debate triggered by “Nonalignment 2.0,” a report authored by a group of distinguished Indian scholars and policymakers that argued for an inward turn. [2] It is currently unclear which contending perspective will win out and just how active India will become in upholding the international order over the medium term.

Are there any indicators showing in which direction India is “swinging”?

The best indicator is India’s approach to key pillars of the international order: trade, finance, maritime security, nonproliferation, and human rights. Looking at positions that New Delhi has taken in recent years, it is clear that India increasingly supports the global order.

To give some concrete examples, India has invested in the International Monetary Fund, become a foreign aid donor, and accepted the U.S. dollar’s role at the center of the global financial system. It has emerged as a maritime power that champions freedom of navigation, combats piracy, and seeks to boost cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. India has moved closer to key elements of the nonproliferation order: New Delhi now seeks membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the other major multilateral export-control regimes and also supports the multilateral negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Although India has generally avoided singling out regimes for human rights violations, it now actively promotes the consolidation of democracy in transitional states, both through bilateral assistance and through contributions to the UN Democracy Fund.

The one pillar of the international order toward which New Delhi has shown greater ambivalence is trade. India has at times worked to slow trade liberalization at the global level. It was initially critical of the Doha Round of trade talks and objected to treating emerging market economies differently from underperforming developing countries. By many accounts, India bears significant responsibility for thwarting a potential breakthrough proposal put forward by the World Trade Organization’s Director-General in 2008. And domestically, India has at times backpedaled on reforms to open its market.

There are ongoing concerns about India’s stagnating economy and the central government’s lack of political will to enact big reforms. What impact might domestic factors have on the country’s ability to assume an expanded global role?

This is the great question of the moment—whether New Delhi’s seeming inability to carry out key reforms will combine with a less buoyant economy to produce an internal-looking India, one focused even more on domestic development than it has been over the past decade. As growth slows and the economy reaps the final dividends from past liberalization, popular pressure on the Indian government to focus its attention and resources at home will increase. Rather than evolving from a global swing state into a core supporter of the current system, India could fail to realize its potential to contribute to peace, prosperity, and freedom. An inward “swing” by India would be inimical not only to the United States but to all countries that benefit from today’s international order.

This is one reason U.S. policymakers are watching domestic developments in India with keen interest. Washington will be looking at the country’s upcoming elections to see whether a government takes charge that wishes to expand its foreign policy profile and deepen relations with the United States rather than chart a more inwardly directed course.

How should the United States engage with India when thinking about this concept? In what areas should Washington look to partner more closely with New Delhi?

The concept of global swing states offers a new framework for thinking about India and its position in the international system; the concept does not, however, suggest a new emerging power bloc in which India will participate. On the contrary, New Delhi is unlikely to act in concert with the other global swing states. In most cases, U.S. engagement of India will occur bilaterally. Nevertheless, considering India through a broader framework can lead to new and more strategic approaches that go beyond merely identifying deliverables for the next high-level summit.

U.S. engagement should capitalize on areas where India has already taken on new global responsibilities. One such area is maritime security. The United States should expand maritime planning and joint naval exercises with India. It should also launch an initiative that brings together India and Indonesia to develop an affordable long-range, unmanned system for maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean. On human rights, Washington should enhance cooperation with New Delhi to help consolidate the political opening in Burma—a development that India regards as advancing its strategic interests.

The United States should also work to bolster India’s domestic capacity to more actively contribute to the global order. India’s rise has outpaced the governmental institutions that underpin its foreign policy. To cite one example, India’s foreign service is roughly the same size as New Zealand’s. While remaining mindful of domestic sensitivities, Washington can help New Delhi develop the capability to undertake a more ambitious international role—for example, by increasing International Military Education and Training funding or creating a dedicated fellowship program that embeds Indian foreign policy professionals in U.S. congressional offices (such programs already exist for Germany and Australia)..

Expanding the economic relationship with India should also be a priority. The United States and India should work to bring to a successful close the ongoing negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty and explore other avenues to liberalize bilateral commerce. While embarking on free trade agreement (FTA) talks is likely too ambitious a step at the moment, the two countries could seek to begin putting in place the building blocks for an eventual FTA, including by pursuing agreements that would ensure free trade in specific sectors.

Washington should ensure that the attention and resources allocated to building a closer partnership with India match the country’s rising strategic importance. Even as the U.S. Congress wrestles with how to balance revenue and spending, it should increase the level of funding for programs involving India. Over the long term, this investment promises to deliver a high geopolitical return.

While incorporating these elements, U.S. engagement of India will remain premised on a single idea: that India will continue to play a great and growing role in international affairs. This idea underlies the significant advances in U.S.-India relations, perhaps most clearly evidenced by the Obama administration’s explicit support for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council. The best path to further strengthen the bilateral relationship is for New Delhi to continue broadening its international horizons and to realize the inherent potential of its position as a global swing state.


[1] “IBSA Ministerial Joint Statement,” September 23, 2011.

[2]Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, and Siddharth Varadarajan, “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century,” Centre for Policy Research, January 30, 2012.

Richard Fontaine is the President of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served as a Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow at CNAS from 2009-2012. He previously served as foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain for more than five years. He has also worked at the State Department, the National Security Council and on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Fontaine served as foreign policy advisor to the McCain 2008 presidential campaign and, following the election, as the minority deputy staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Prior to this, he served as associate director for Near Eastern affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) from 2003-04. He also worked in the NSC’s Asian Affairs directorate, where he covered Southeast Asian issues.

Daniel Kliman is a Senior Advisor with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). He leads the Global Swing States Project, which focuses on whether four rising democratic powers—Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey—will bolster the prevailing international order. He also leads the Young Strategists Forum, which aims to develop a new generation of strategic thinkers in the United States, Europe, and like-minded nations. Before joining GMF, Dr. Kliman was a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He has served as a Japan Policy Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Adjunct Research Associate with the Institute for Defense Analyses. Dr. Kliman graduated from Stanford University and received his PhD in politics from Princeton University.

This interview was conducted by Sonia Luthra, Assistant Director for Outreach at NBR.