What Trump’s new National Security Strategy means for India

India, in the new report, falls squarely in the “opportunity” category, rather than in that of “threats” or even “competition” for the US.

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Photo: D. Myles Cullen

Indian reports of the Trump administration’s recently released new National Security Strategy (NSS) are over the top. India’s designation as a “leading global power” caught the attention of some Indian newspapers. “We appreciate the importance given to India-United States relationship” the official spokesman exulted, noting that “the two responsible democracies.. share the same objectives.”

It is, however, important to put the words of the document in a proper perspective to understand that the new American NSS and the very obvious contradictions between its words and the practice of the Trump administration in the past year. As an National Security Council (NSC) staffer noted, it was not clear whether the president had actually read the entire 55-page document. Donald Trump’s policy making is often through early morning tweets, and he has said in the context of his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “I call the final shots.”

So, with this caveat, let us see where India figures in all this besides being told that it will get support to become a “leading power”. One thing is clear, in contrast to the villains of the NSS — China and Russia — India is in a sweet spot. It falls squarely in the “opportunity” category, rather than in that of “threats” or even “competition” that the US says it otherwise confronts.

The American goal, the NSS says, is to prevent unfavourable shifts in its various regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and Middle East. So, it will nuance its regional strategies to ensure American primacy.

Even so, there is some ambiguity here. India is a priority area which deserves support for “its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.” But, when it comes to the specifics, the document notes that the Indo-Pacific “stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the US.” This, of course, could be a rhetorical description of the region.

India is a priority area which deserves support for “its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region.”

But neither in the document, nor otherwise, does the most important external area of Indian concern — the Persian Gulf and the North Arabian Sea — fit into the Indo-US conversation. India is seen primarily in terms of the balance of power in relation to Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific Ocean. In fact, when it comes to the Middle East, besides not figuring in US calculations, India may find itself on the wrong side since the NSS goal is to “neutralise Iran’s malign activities in the region.”

For Pakistan, there is tough love. The US says it is seeking a Pakistan that “is not engaged in destabilising behaviour” and defines the principal US goal as the need to prevent terrorist threats that impact the security of the US homeland and of its allies. It also seeks to prevent “cross border terrorism that raises the prospect of military and nuclear tensions” and in line with this, it declares that “an Indo-Pakistan military conflict that could lead to nuclear exchange remains a key concern requiring consistent diplomatic attention.”

The NSS says that the US “will help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty as China increases its influence in the region.” New Delhi would be advised to carefully study the implications of these formulations. One positive takeaway is that the NSS seeks to promote South Asian and Central Asian economic linkages, connectivity and trade. This would be good news for India and the region, but it remains to be seen if the US can persuade Islamabad to lift its blockade of India.

The Trump administration deserves credit for bringing out the NSS in its very first year and this is an effort to transit the administration “from campaigning to governing.” This is also the first time that a president himself has introduced his NSS, rather than leaving it to his officials. In line with the president’s beliefs, the new strategy seeks to provide a strategic gloss to the “America First” vision. It does not seek to build democracy elsewhere or champion issues like multipolarity or climate change which were an important part of the NSS of the Bush and Obama administrations.

In  a break from past iterations of the NSS, the Trump NSS rejects the idea that the US can change its rivals through a process of engagement. Instead, it offers a bleak vision of a global battle place where the US seeks to preserve itself from the actions of  “revisionist” powers like China and Russia who have no intention of becoming “benign actors and trustworthy partners.”  The two were challenging American power and influence and “attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”


Critics have pointed out, there is a huge gap between what the Trump administration says and what it has been doing so far.


To counter them, a “fortress America” must be established to  protect the homeland, its prosperity and to advance its influence. Where cooperation with allies and economic partners was a key element of the Obama or Bush-era NSS, Trump insists that this must happen in a framework advantageous to the US.

But as critics have pointed out, there is a huge gap between what the administration says and what it has been doing so far: Despite tough talk on China and Russia, the Trump administration is engaging them. In the case of Moscow, it states in the NSS that “actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine democracies,” but it is doing little to punish the Russians.

Even while attacking China for seeking to “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region”, the US has, by walking out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, undermined the basis of a push back. In any case, the US has been cooperating with Beijing to deal with North Korea, even while striking massive business deals with it. The NSS says that the national debt is a grave threat, but the administration is supporting the passage of a tax cut which will add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the debt. Even while proclaiming as it does in the NSS that it will champion American values such as liberty, freedom of religion and speech, in practice, the administration has gone out of its way to embrace authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Even so in the US, such documents provide guidance to a sprawling administration and bind all of them to work towards particular goals. The NSS is a congressionally-mandated document which acts as a mission statement of an incumbent administration on a range of issues relating to global issues and engagement as its military posture.

Whatever be the sanctity of the NSS, in Trump’s hands, it means little. While his advisers, all top-rated people like secretary of defence James Mattis, NSA McMaster or Tillerson seek to work American strategy along realist lines, the president can and does turn things inside out. So, the chances that the US works along a coherent and credible national security strategy are not very high.


This commentary originally appeared in The Wire.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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