Locating India in the world of Donald Trump
History is important—if not to explain current events, then to put them into perspective. In his excellent book Dean Acheson: A Life In The Cold War, Robert L. Beisner tells us that Acheson, secretary of state in the Harry Truman administration, found former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru “one of the most difficult men” to deal with and also an “irresponsible person”. This was uncharitable to Nehru even if US officials clearly did not like the tendency of India’s first prime minister to begin lecturing at any moment.
That was 1949. This is 2016 and the US has elected Donald Trump as its next president. A lot of US allies and friends do think that Trump is an irresponsible person and that he would be very difficult to deal with. This is obviously not an attempt to bracket Nehru with Trump—far from it. The fear of Trump today is grounded in completely different reasons from those that informed Acheson’s view of Nehru. After all, in 1949 the American liberal press called Nehru the hope of Asia while they have termed Trump’s election victory as nothing less than “an American tragedy”.
The crucial question for India is: How difficult will it be for New Delhi to deal with “irresponsible” Trump?
There are four levels at which Trump’s presidency will have an impact on India. The first and most obvious is the direct ties between the two countries. India and the US cooperate with each other on a range of issues from security to space, healthcare to climate change. Counting both goods and services, the US is India’s largest trade partner. Both the Democrats and the Republicans value this bilateral relationship and have contributed to its growth. All this seems fine, except for the fact that the US has elected Trump, not the Republican party.
For the moment, India would find relief in Trump’s mostly positive statements on India during his election campaign. He also praised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, a central theme of Trump’s campaign was to bring jobs back to the US from countries to which they have fled—India being one of them. Moreover, India, one of the top beneficiaries of H-1B visas and the country with the second-highest number of Muslims, has every reason to worry about the immigration and visa policies of the Trump regime. The campaign rhetoric hasn’t been helpful, to put it mildly.
The second level of impact on India has to do with policies of the Trump administration vis-à-vis India’s immediate neighbourhood and the region. While Trump’s rhetoric against both China and Pakistan has appealed to Indians, the devil will lie in the detail. For instance, while Trump once said he would seek India’s help in dealing with a “semi-unstable” Pakistan, he has also offered to mediate on Kashmir, a no-go area for New Delhi. The future of India’s growing cooperation with the US in the Indian Ocean and Afghanistan—the latter still in its infancy—also remains uncertain.
While China is a neighbour, it can also be covered in the third level of impact which accounts for great power relations under a Trump-led America. Trump’s rhetoric against China, if pursued, can result in a trade war between the world’s two largest economies. This development may be accompanied by a free hand for China in the security realm—a possibility India would not like to countenance. The favourable news for India may be the improvement in US-Russia relations. A New Delhi that doesn’t need to balance Washington and Moscow would have a stronger hand against Beijing.
The fourth level of impact will be the most challenging for Indian policymakers to address. Is India prepared for the kind of world a Trump presidency will foster? Trump’s vision for “making America great again” fits very tentatively, if at all, with his “neo-isolationist” conception of the US role in the world. The Washington consensus had already lost much of its sheen in the post 2008-crisis world. The logical corollary of this is Washington and its elites too losing some influence. A Trump presidency does just that. India, it can be said unequivocally, gained from globalization and free trade. If Trump’s America recedes into protectionism, Indian cannot walk out unscathed.
On the strategy side, Trump has hinted at his acceptance of Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. This may propel China’s military modernization which, along with unpredictable North Korean behaviour, will completely alter the security dynamics of East Asia. The challenge to India’s west is equally, if not more, stark. Trump has vociferously criticized the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany). If this deal is undermined, it will not just harm India-Iran cooperation but may push Tehran to break past the nuclear threshold. The response by Saudi Arabia and the prospects of closer Saudi-Pakistan cooperation on nuclear weapons and technology will keep Indian officials awake at night.
Indo-US relations are too important to be left hostage to so many uncertainties. The Trump and Modi administrations should begin engaging with each other as soon as the former assumes office on 20 January 2017. And in 2017, unlike 1949, one irresponsible and difficult person should not become an excuse for not investing in this very important bilateral.
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