Photographs by AFP
Photographs by AFP

The US election and the world order

India, like the rest of the world, has to prepare to deal with either eventualitythe mercurial uncertainty of Trump or the consistent predictability of Clinton

It has become a cliché that every US presidential election is more significant than the previous one, not only for the future of the US but for the rest of the world, including India. Yet, like most clichés, there is more than an element of truth and ample proof that the 2016 election will be unlike any other that the US has seen since at least 1940.

First, consider the candidates. On the one hand is Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee of any major US political party, with a track record of political activism dating back to her student days and who has held political office in her own right since 2001. On the other hand is Donald Trump, with no record of public service or political office and a string of bankruptcies that challenge his self-proclaimed credentials as a successful entrepreneur.

Indeed, Trump is only the fourth Republican nominee since 1856 never to have held political office. Considering that two of them were Generals Ulysses S. Grant (in 1868) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (in 1952), who had led the military successfully through the Civil War and World War II, respectively, Trump’s candidacy is even more appalling. The third Republican candidate, Wendell Willkie (in 1940), a lawyer and corporate executive won the nomination but lost the election by a wide margin. However, Willkie was an avowed internationalist, interventionist and anti-colonialist who also anticipated the United Nations. Despite being a political dilettante, Trump’s lead in opinion polls is a sign of the growing isolationist streak and the disillusionment of the electorate.

Second, consider the issues. The US election is taking place against the resurgence of virulent global terrorism from France to the Philippines and almost every country in between; the aggressive resurgence of China, which is blatantly challenging the rule of law in the South China Sea and beyond; a recalcitrant Russia determined to assert its historical control over its near abroad; the refugee crisis, which has overwhelmed an increasingly riven Europe; the continuing aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring; the growing divide between the US and its allies; and the continuing international tussles over climate, cyber, energy, food, trade and the oceans. Clearly, the 45th US president will face a far more chaotic world.

Trump’s delusional ‘America First’ approach sets itself the impossible task of shutting out the chaotic world—a foolhardy undertaking in an irreversibly globalized word. Clinton is expected to continue the traditional US global engagement, though some recent initiatives, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, might be reconsidered.

Although Clinton is seen as the ‘continuity candidate’ who will, more or less, carry on the foreign policy mandate of President Barack Obama, in reality Trump’s outlook is startlingly closer to that of Obama.

Trump’s ineloquent and abrasive approach to US allies in general and the North Atlantic Treat Organization (Nato) in particular is not dissimilar to Obama’s candid and rational critique of key Nato allies, the UK and France, but also Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as “free riders" (see my earlier column Dr Barack versus President Obama, 14 March 2016).

There are, of course, several key differences between Obama’s coherent approach and Trump’s incoherent reactions to Nato and other US allies. First, Obama (and Clinton) are willing to work with the allies to preserve and strengthen Nato and other alliances rather than abandon them. Second, unlike Trump (who called on Russia to release more emails hacked from the Democratic Party by Moscow), neither Obama nor Clinton are likely to cozy up to Russia or provide it geopolitical space, especially in broader Europe.

For India, which has moved closer to Washington in its bid to play a greater global role (given Beijing’s overt efforts to stymie New Delhi’s accommodation and Moscow’s inability to bring China on board), its choice is either the mercurial uncertainty of Trump or the consistent predictability of Clinton. However, India, like the rest of the world, cannot choose; at best, it can prepare to deal with either eventuality.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

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