Alyssa Ayres landed in India during her junior year in college. Decades later, she’s still going back. She is the senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Previously, she’s served at the State Department. From 2010 to 2013 she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia. Our Student Fellow Evelyn McCorkle sat down with her to discuss her new book, Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place in the World.
Alyssa Ayres: Our Time Has Come is about a rising India that sees itself now as ready to be one of the global powers. You could argue that India has long seen itself as ready to play the role of a global power, but India is definitely in a different place now. It has enormous economic growth. There’s obviously still more to do but it is now the world’s seventh largest economy — its economy is larger than those of G7 members Canada and Italy — I think people aren’t fully aware of that. It has been increasingly more decisive on the world stage, what it’s doing militarily. It has declared its ambition of a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, it has become a leader in climate change, particularly through India’s rapid deployment of renewable energy, and it has its own views on how the world trade system should function.
FPI: You’ve already begun to answer my next question! As an expert in the region you’ve studied India for a significant portion of your career. I’m wondering whether there was some sort of catalyst that prompted you to write this book. Why is India’s time “now”?
AA: I’ve been working on this book since late 2013 so it doesn’t feel like “now” — it feels like it’s taken a really long time! One thing that has happened with India’s rapid economic growth and its emergence as a technology power is increased attention to how India’s economic growth is transforming India domestically. We’ve seen a lot of really great books focused on India’s social change, domestic economic transformation, and what that means for people in India. My book is different in that it is written for a general readership and it is looking at the question of India’s role globally. What does it mean for how we conduct trade negotiations? What does it mean for how we think about securing the world? India is now talking about itself as a “leading power” — this is a term that the Indian government has come up with. India has been very forceful on the international stage with its bid for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. You see a lot of books about China’s role on the world stage, but not so many for a general readership about India’s ambitions globally. I just felt that there was a real opportunity to write about it in some depth.
FPI: And when you say “we “ are you writing from the perspective of policy makers, America, or the world? How do you approach it?
AA: I am American and I have served in the State Department — twice actually — and when I think about foreign policy I bring that perspective to bear. I certainly don’t claim universality, it’s a book embedded in my own thoughts over a 25-year period. It’s not an internal look at U.S. foreign policy formulation, rather, it’s a look at how the major changes taking place in India, and its own ambitions globally, create new questions for U.S. foreign policy.
FPI: You’ve written about India’s current role in regional and international organizations, or lack there of when it comes to inclusion in the U.N. Security Council or APEC. So can you discuss what future you see for India in the region or the world in these organizations or alliances?
AA: When you think about changes taking place in the world, one important question is how to reform institutions of global governance that were created in the 20th century and just don’t reflect the world as it is today. A country like India feels that most acutely; this is particularly the case because they were never granted a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council while China was. So India is in that sense disadvantaged by this artifact of history.
You look at a world that’s really changed; if you were to create a P5 [Permanent Five members of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States] fresh today would it have those countries as members? There would be questions about overrepresentation of Europe, certainly, and missing participants from other parts of the world. There is no African permanent member, and nobody from Latin America. India feels acutely that as the world’s largest democracy — more than a billion people — it has no permanent voice on the U.N. Security Council. So, the past two Indian governments have been very actively trying to make their case persuasively to countries around the world. I could go on—there are a lot of issues like that. Asia’s third largest economy not being a member of APEC? How do you think about a larger voice and role for India and rising powers in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? These are all spaces where you see New Delhi saying “Come on, we are a major economy now, we are doing a lot globally, we deserve to have a bigger voice where it counts internationally.”
FPI: What can you say about the evolution you saw during your time in government in the United States’ evolving relationship with India? And where do you see that relationship going under the current administration?
AA: I’ve been involved in multiple initiatives focused on U.S.-India relations and also on a couple different task forces, and the interesting and nice thing about U.S.-India relations is that there is broad bipartisan agreement that the future of this relationship is bright and deserves to develop more fully. You see this both in the United States as well as in India. That has insulated the relationship a little bit from what can be quite divisive partisanship in foreign policy questions.
FPI: Do you have any recommendations for the U.S. moving forward? In your ideal world, how would the U.S.-India relationship progress?
AA: My entire last chapter of the book is focused on recommendations for the United States. One of the recommendations I make, and it was also one of the recommendations made in the task force here at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2015, was to re-conceptualize how we think about ties with India. India is a fiercely independent country; it is not interested in being a U.S. ally. To add confusion to the mix, India’s former prime minister, who was prime minister during the opening in 2000, had this poetic phrase where he talked about the United States and India as “natural allies”. I don’t think he meant a treaty alliance, like a mutual defense treaty. I think he meant that as a sort of “term of art” — that major democracies should see themselves as naturally on the same side. But I don’t think anyone in India sees themselves as looking to sign up for all the stuff the United States likes to do around the world.
So I think we need to reframe how we think about a relationship with such a fiercely independent country, and think of it more like a joint venture where there are some areas of deep strategic partnership, but there may also be some areas where we are doing things that don’t overlap. But those areas of difference shouldn’t be allowed to cause tension with the activities we are pursuing together.
I make other recommendations about global governance. I think the United States should really step up [on reform]; it’s a place we can make a difference and should put more effort into doing so.
There’s another section in my recommendations chapter about an “enabling environment” — I’m worried about lack of attention to India more generally in the United States. I think it starts with higher education; the number of students enrolled in all Indian languages combined is less than a quarter of those who are enrolled in Korean. I mean it is a huge gap. More than twice as many U.S. students study abroad in Costa Rica than in India. I also think it’s important to have a more general awareness of India, because the country’s economy is an increasingly important component of global growth. That attention transition has already happened for China but not yet for India.
FPI: What advice do you have for other women in the field, who are working or hoping to work in foreign policy?
AA: My general advice is that unless you really love reading and writing, don’t go for a PhD. And I say this because I think the opportunity costs are too great now, and I think that people can forge a great career with a law degree or another form of professional degree. PhD’s take too much time, time when you’re not earning and not paying into retirement, and the older I get the more I see this. So, that is my number one piece of advice.
My second piece of advice is be willing to take opportunities that appear out of left field: they can play a really important role in how you see something, or how you learn about it. You never know what that might be, it might be the opportunity to work for an NGO for a year, or to teach somewhere, or to travel off the beaten path.