Originally Published 2017-01-25 10:25:59 Published on Jan 25, 2017
Navigating a Trumpian world

Last week, as Donald Trump took the oath of office to become the 45th President of the United States, millions around the world watched, gripped by the thought that the surreal had become real. Clearly, this is not just a regular political transition that takes place every eight years (or sometimes, four years). This is a transition pregnant with implications, not just for the U.S. but also for its role in the world at a moment when tides of change are already under way. Mr. Trump’s elevation adds to the unpredictability, marking 2017 as the beginning of a new age of uncertainty.

If there were any expectations that President Trump was going to be different from candidate Trump, these were quickly dispelled by his inaugural speech. There was neither a healing touch nor a sense of humility. The polarising election campaign rhetoric was in full-throated evidence during the short address. He remained the outsider, representing the ordinary Americans even as he railed against the “establishment”, represented by Washington.

America first but alone

“America first” may be a slogan used effectively by Mr. Trump but it hardly makes for an innovative strategy. Previous US Presidents have vowed to make America strong and prosperous again but the fundamental difference this time is that Mr. Trump seeks to make America great on the plank of nationalism and not by bolstering the global order which the U.S. has shaped and led since the end of World War II.

According to Mr. Trump, the global order has hurt America. “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidised the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” he announced. Like his campaign rhetoric, this too is an example of the post-truth era. Corporate America has never been richer and therefore remains both a driver and a beneficiary of globalisation even as it leads in technological innovation. It is the American worker who has suffered but his lot can hardly be improved by constraining corporate America.

The US, with a defence budget of more than $600 billion, spends more on its security than the next six countries put together. If the US defence forces appear stretched, it is because of their expanding role in different regions and not because it has been weakened or depleted. Other countries have benefited from the US-supported global order, becoming more prosperous but not at the cost of “US decay” as Mr. Trump would have the Americans believe.

His belief that “the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world” is a gross exaggeration but useful as a spur to protectionism, restricting immigration and bringing back borders. The fact is that more US manufacturing jobs have been lost due to increased efficiency and automation in the US manufacturing sector than on account of China becoming the world’s factory. Even as the US lost manufacturing jobs, its manufacturing output grew by over 86% during the last decade.

Discontinuities in foreign policy

Mr. Trump’s policy reflects three key discontinuities. First, he believes that he will be able to change the nature of relations, making Russia a cooperative partner — in Europe, in Syria and against “Islamic terror”, which he has vowed to wipe out. Such a rapprochement would change a rivalrous relationship that has existed since 1948 when the Cold War began. As recently as 2009, Hillary Clinton tried but failed to “reset” it.

Second, he would also like to change the US’s China policy which has now been in place since 1972. Trump’s conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, his questioning of the One China policy, threatening countervailing duties on Chinese imports, describing it as a currency manipulator and threat to cybersecurity are indicators that that the four-decade-old policy is in for a change. Most significant is Mr. Trump’s conviction that the US is no longer a beneficiary of the global order, often described as the liberal international order. It is an order that the US has invested in for more than a half century. True, it is somewhat dysfunctional today and the US is no longer willing to shoulder the burden alone. However the other major powers — Russia and China — are demanding a high price to be a partner and Europe, the traditional partner, is preoccupied internally. With elections in France and Germany due this year and the jolt of Brexit in 2016, an air of uncertainty hangs over the Euro and the European model.

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The return to nationalism in the 21st century is taking place in the high pressure bubble of 24/7 news, amplified in the echo chamber of social media, pushing populist leaders towards staking out positions from where retreat is difficult. This is true not just for Mr. Trump but also for Russia, China and other leaders who have crested the wave of populism. In a post-truth world, the line between half-truths and lies gets blurred.

No longer business as usual

Navigation requires reference to a fixed point, a North Star, but in today’s policy world with all the major powers playing a hedging game, even as the existing institutions fall short of coping with the challenges posed by a world in transition, there is no pole. Every major power is dissatisfied with the status quo but no major power or even a coalition of major powers is able to define, let alone seek to establish a new status quo. Meanwhile, the economic interdependence between the US and China coupled with a growing strategic mistrust creates the inevitability of the Thucydides Trap, in the absence of a forward looking leadership.

Where does this leave India? The tides of change will not come to a standstill merely because Trumpian America wants time out. The churning in Asia will continue and unlike during the Cold War, India no longer has the option of remaining disengaged. It is clear that it is no longer business as usual.

For the last quarter century, relations with the US have followed a predictable trajectory, determined by three key factors. The first was the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the former USSR. Russia under its President, Vladimir Putin, has successfully reasserted itself but economics and demographics will not let it emerge as a superpower, as was the case during the Cold War.

The second shift was the opening up of the Indian economy, a process that has continued uninterrupted despite changes of government though the pace of change has varied. This trajectory will continue in the same direction for India sees itself as a beneficiary of globalisation.

The third is the coming of age of the Indian diaspora in the US Gradually, the first generation of Indian professionals who migrated in the 1960s and 1970s has moved towards forming political groupings and has made its presence felt in local and national politics. The second generation is also entering the policy-making arena by joining government and running for public office. With every election, the number of Indians in the administration and in the Congress continues to rise.

These three factors encouraged Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to describe India and the US as “natural allies” when India was still subjected to U.S. sanctions after the nuclear tests of 1998. These very factors helped change US President Barack Obama’s initial inclinations in 2009 when he was toying with the idea of giving Richard Holbrooke responsibility for Kashmir in addition to Afghanistan. By 2010, Mr. Obama’s shift was evident when he described the US-India engagement as “the defining partnerships of the 21st century”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept the momentum going in a remarkable display of pragmatism, marked by nine bilateral meetings with Mr. Obama in two and a half years and more than a hundred new initiatives. Today, there exist more than 40 official bilateral dialogues covering the entire gamut of the bilateral relationship.

During the last decade, the major transformation has been in the nuclear and the defence sectors. While the negotiations by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited with Westinghouse and GE for nuclear power reactors are yet to be concluded, the sales of US defence platforms to India during the past decade have exceeded $15 billion covering howitzers, helicopters, transport aircraft and maritime surveillance planes. More significantly, working groups set up under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) have identified half a dozen co-development and co-production projects.

Age of uncertainty

The Indian diaspora remains a constant with some influence in the Trump administration, as does the continuing bipartisan support for India on the Hill, but Mr. Trump’s shifts in other areas can impact bilateral ties. A retreat from globalisation translates into US protectionism and tightening of the H1B visa regime.

If the US loses interest in preserving and sustaining the current international order, it may induce a shift from the “Asia pivot” which would remove a key plank in the U.S.-India strategic partnership. Closer ties with Russia would have implications for US policy on Afghanistan, which is bound to raise concerns in Delhi, given Russia’s (and Iran’s) newfound acceptance of the Taliban. Mr. Trump’s calls for defence burden sharing could weaken NATO (and East Asian partnerships) while his talk of shifting the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem could spark a new Intifada.

The Cold War had given way to a period which remained undefined, described merely as a post-Cold War world; what is clearer is that a quarter century later, we are transitioning to more unpredictable times. It is neither the age of global hegemons nor the age of multipolarity, but rather the age of regional powers, each jostling to ensure its role in its region, often with shifting coalitions. The past is no longer a guide to help us peer into the future. In the coming years, Mr. Modi’s foreign policy will need less red lines and greater agility and pragmatism as India seeks to find its place in this Age of Uncertainty.

This commentary was first published in The Hindu.

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Rakesh Sood

Rakesh Sood

Ambassador Rakesh Sood was a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He has over 38 years of experience in the field of foreign affairs economic diplomacy and ...

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