It is easy to be contrarian about U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to India early next week, given his idiosyncrasies, his often-unpredictable, rambunctious ways and the roughshod manner in which he seeks to put America first. And yet, it is clearer than perhaps ever before in recent times, that New Delhi needs the continued support of the U.S. government on almost everything substantial that matters to India in its quest to be a power of substance in the international system.
The acceptance of this admittedly parsimonious explanation then accords a new gravitas to the Trump visit. While the elaborate festive arrangements for the American President’s 36 hours in India may seem over the top, they are part of an investment in an ‘unbridled’ (after the failed impeachment and the surge in his approval ratings) Mr. Trump that he could quickly return — even during the trip itself — given his reputation as a sharp deal-maker who often beats the odds.
Preparing for Trump 2.0
Moreover, on present evidence, not limited to the fratricidal war between Democratic presidential hopefuls, the world may have to deal with Mr. Trump for four more years after the end of his present term this year. From a fairer trade regime; to accessing cutting-edge technology; to the fight against terrorism; to stabilising our region, New Delhi stands to benefit from constructive ties on all issues, given a more sensitive United States. India must therefore seek greater understanding and engagement should there be a Trump 2.0.
Asymmetrical partnerships, as we know from history, are rarely easy. Partnerships with superpowers are even more difficult; in international politics, as in life, even the best of unequal relationships results in a loss of some dignity and autonomy. It took all of Winston Churchill’s weight, foresight, wisdom, and the frightening imagery of communism invading Europe, to convince the U.S. of the need of a special relationship across the Atlantic, after the Second World War; and even then the British had to accept that London would be just another city in Europe, and Washington would consult London only when deemed necessary. But as Churchill realised on that fateful day in March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, when he delivered his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, the consequences of not arriving at a modus vivendi with the U.S. would be disastrous.
Today, the Indo-Pacific has arrived at an ‘Iron Curtain’ moment in its history. Without the United States, the region could become willy-nilly part of a new Chinese tributary system; with a fully engaged United States, the region has at least the chance of creating a more organic rules-based order.
In New Delhi’s case, the history of, what diplomat Dennis Kux described as, “estrangement” with the United States, during the Cold War, has had consequences for vital national interests that continue to cast their shadow on the present. Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), nuclear non-proliferation, the festering of the Pakistan “problem”, the Chinese humiliation of 1962, are just a few examples.
But much of course has changed today. Anti-Americanism, once the conventional wisdom of the Indian elite, seems outdated. New Delhi has, over the decades, gone on to align itself more closely with Washington. More important, outside the Left, both within India and in the U.S., the consensus across the mainstream of political opinion favours stronger relations between the two countries. This is notwithstanding the recent concerns expressed in Congress about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and about the internment of political leaders in J&K.
Foreign policy’s pro-U.S. tilt
In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a gesture that seemed uncharacteristic for him, effusively praised President George W. Bush and told him that the people of India “deeply love him”. According to the latest Pew Surveys of Global Opinion, support for Mr. Trump in India is high enough to suggest a great deal of public affection for the American President. That itself is a marker of the way India and Indians now see the world.
The reason for the change in New Delhi ‘s geostrategic outlook can be summarised quickly. If the 1971 Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union was a response to the continuing U.S. tilt towards Pakistan and the beginnings of a Washington-Beijing entente, at present, it is the prospect of a potentially hegemonic China in the Indo-Pacific region is helping to cement the relationship. Beijing has managed to alienate nearly all its neighbours and allies, except North Korea and Pakistan.
It is often tempting also to dismiss the gains made bilaterally during the last three years of the Trump Administration. A recent book, A Very Stable Genius, by Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig, suggests that Mr. Trump almost wrecked the partnership with New Delhi because of his ignorance, insolence and by going against the advice of his own (former) Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. There is, however, little other evidence to support this claim.
Indeed, two of the best informed American analysts suggest otherwise. In Foreign Affairs, strategic affairs analyst Ashley Tellis writes about the “the surprising success” of the partnership and argues that Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi have “deepened” the defence cooperation. And Jeff Smith of the Heritage Foundation lists the accomplishments India-U.S. ties have made over the years, including “a foundational military agreement that allows for the sharing of encrypted communications and equipment; a change in U.S. export control laws that places India in a privileged category of NATO and non-NATO U.S. allies; a new ‘2 2’ foreign and defense ministers dialogue; an exponential increase in U.S. oil exports to India; the inauguration of the first India-U.S. tri-service military exercise and an expansion of existing military exercises; the signing of an Industrial Security Annex that will allow for greater collaboration among the two countries’ private defense industries; the inclusion of India and South Asia in a U.S. Maritime Security Initiative…”
But, as Mr. Tellis points out, much work needs to be done for the two countries to fulfil the potential of the relationship, especially in the area of defence. This, together with other key issues including trade, is on the centrepiece of the Trump-Modi agenda for the visit.
There is, of course, a chance that we may have a Democratic President next year. In those circumstances, we can only hope that the bipartisan consensus on engaging India — which has continued from Bill Clinton’s second term will prevail. To be sure, however, a new President will seek to put his/her own imprimatur on the relationship. The Democrats will clearly be more proactive on human rights and on issues of inclusion and diversity, which would make a greater demand on South Block and test its capacity and creativity.
New Delhi must, of course, continue engaging with its strongest source of support in the United States: the Indian diaspora. Fortunately, there is a near consensus on the need to strengthen this constituency.
In any case, there is little doubt that whoever is the next occupant of the White House, a retreat from multilateralism (especially on trade-related issues) and concern about China will continue to be the two main pillars of contemporary American foreign policy. If for only those reasons, Mr Trump’s reason has undeniable significance.
Amitabh Mattoo is a Professor of International Relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University