President Donald Trump’s visit to India marks the culmination of the process of transforming India’s relations with the United States into what then-President Barack Obama described as ‘the defining partnership of the twenty-first century.’
The process began two decades ago, but it needed the latest ‘love fest’, as some described the Trump trip, to overcome several psychological barriers created by earlier encounters.
India’s adulation for Trump in February 2020 was in stark contrast with the reservations encountered during the December 1959 journey of Dwight Eisenhower, the first US president to visit the subcontinent officially.
The Eisenhower visit
Although hundreds of thousands of Indians turned out for Eisenhower’s public address in the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, India was less than enthused by then-burgeoning US alliance with Pakistan.
Eisenhower travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India though he wrote in his memoirs that India was the magnet that drew him to the region.
At that time, India’s ties with China had begun to deteriorate, and nonalignment notwithstanding, India had worked with the Americans to support the Tibetan revolt led by the Dalai Lama’s supporters.
By visiting both countries on the same trip, Eisenhower sought to build bridges between India and Pakistan. He hoped that he could persuade both countries to become America’s partners in containing communism.
US’ Pakistan connect
It is a reflection of the consistent belief of Americans in their ability to solve the world’s problems that Trump mentioned improving US ties with Pakistan during his stand-alone India visit.
But Trump so far has no plans to visit Pakistan, a country Indians see as a safe haven for and sponsor of terrorism. During his address at Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad, Trump said that India and the US were committed to fighting terrorists and their ideology.
He linked efforts to better ties with Pakistan to fighting “against threats from radical Islamic terrorists”. That is why “my administration is working… with Pakistan to crack down on terror organisations that operate on the Pakistani border,” he said.
If his hopefulness ever lands him in Pakistan, Trump will find that the Pakistanis will do their best to outdo the Indians in showing admiration for him and the United States.
Upon Eisenhower’s arrival in Karachi in 1959, Mohammad Ayub Khan and his administration had also spared no effort in trying to convince him that Pakistan was America’s dependable ally.
The hospitality was impeccable. The city was decorated with bunting and illuminated at night to mark the US president’s visit. A musical fountain was built near the president’s house where he was to stay.
As 750,000 flag-waving Pakistanis lined the streets, Ayub and Eisenhower drove 25 km from the airport into downtown Karachi.
For the final mile, they rode in an open, horse-drawn carriage to Ayub’s official residence, with a cheering crowd surrounding them the entire way. The US president could not help but be charmed.
60 years on, little has changed
But notes of discussions between the two presidents 60 years ago suggests that Pakistan fundamentally still stands where it stood then, with added layers of concerns about nuclear weapons and terrorism for the Americans.
Eisenhower tried to persuade the Pakistanis to rationalise their military buildup only to be told that it could not be done until the end of inherent Indian animosity towards Pakistan.
Ayub Khan asked for F-104 aircraft, radar equipment, anti-aircraft artillery, Nike-Ajax missiles, and sidewinders to deal with the Communist threat, even though it was clear to US officials whom the Pakistanis considered their real enemy.
Pakistan’s military leaders still measure close ties with the US in terms of how much military assistance they could get from the Americans.
Also, Ayub Khan called for US mediation over Kashmir in his meeting with Eisenhower just as Imran Khan continues to do in his exchanges with Trump.
Ayub even made an implicit plea for Pakistan to be seen as Afghanistan’s effective protector – something that remains a plank of Pakistan’s policy to this day.
Eisenhower had told Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he had “a favourable impression of General Ayub’s sincerity of purpose and his desire to live at peace with India and to bring about a settlement of the problems presently affecting relations between the two countries.” Like Trump, he “offered to do anything that might be considered helpful.”
India an important partner
But while the desire to be balanced may still be alive in some corners of Washington, much has changed in the world that now propels the India-US partnership forward.
The American compulsion to check China’s rise, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, makes India an important partner. India-US bilateral trade stands at $150 billion and will most likely increase in years to come.
China, not Pakistan, will be the cornerstone of shared Indian and American military concerns. The US will soon be selling India $3 billion worth of military hardware while Pakistan is unable to buy expensive systems as it is no longer getting Foreign Military Funding (FMF) it received as a US ally. And India has been careful so far into not letting the partnership turn into dependence.
The US will continue to engage Pakistan, as it should, but that relationship has lost its primacy. Even if the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan materialises, a second Trump administration is unlikely to spend the kind of time and energy the Eisenhower administration invested in dealing with Pakistan.
Unlike 1959, the US does not need secret bases in Pakistan to fly CIA U-2s over the Soviet Union. It is time for Pakistan’s leaders to change the talking points that have persisted since that time.
Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His books include ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military,’ ‘India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t we be Friends’ and ‘Reimagining Pakistan’. Views are personal.