By Sathiya Moorthy ( February 4, 2017) – Despite US President Donald Trump’s early call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and describing India as a ‘true friend’ of America, it’s no more the ‘dear Barack’ days. If it happens, it would take time, and on American terms, – unless the world around the two nations decides otherwise.
India and Indians need to understand that Trump is an inward-looking President, as was the case with those that followed the ‘Vietnam era’ days. It’s not necessary that he has a limited world vision. It may be that he has a limited vision for the US, and riles predecessors who had spread American ware thin — across Europe, especially in the Cold War era, and extending and expanding it to cover non-traditional sections of Asia, with China as an emerging counter-poise for the erstwhile Soviet Union.
More importantly, Trump does not seem wanting to let religious terrorism replace State-actors of the Soviet Union/China kind as a counter-poise to the US in the post-Cold War. America has been tasting defeat after defeat, on the military front, as was the case in Vietnam. The mighty US military machinery and its NATO allies need not have expended all those energies and trillions of dollars to eliminate a Saddam Hussein here and Osama bin-Laden there. In the process, America has made enemies of more nations and more people(s) than during the Cold War.
America’s experience and experimentation with ‘pro-democracy’ elements too has failed, if there was any. It was time the US understood that regime-change by itself does not change national priorities or psyche, and tune them on to American wishes all the time, be it in Libya or Tunisia, or wherever. Like the Soviet Union, these were/are State actors with predictable patterns to their behaviour. It’s unlike individual leaders of the Osama kind, whom the US keeps eliminating and crows over the same – only to find a new person in his place, whom it had not psycho-analysed, among others.
Trump’s America is at cross-roads and is going, and he seems ready to acknowledge it, whatever be his corrective tools and their success-rate. Also, for much of the post-War, America’s policies have benefited from the inevitable churning process that other nations keep doing all the time, if only to re-tune to the US all the time.
But a time comes – and it has come now, again – when America cannot leave it to others to make the adjustments, and ends up seeing and feeling that after a point, it was doing a part-adjustment. It’s also because it could not afford to go back or re-work the priorities, and not certainly the situation in which it’s only one of the stake-holders, however important.
Trump came on the scene, out of nowhere. In the nineties, it was Ross Perot, but he remained an ‘outsider’. Trump had the Republican Party’s ideological cover and organisational machinery that the other man did not have. That way, before Trump, Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ and Ronald Reagan’s hard-line economic policies had flagged changes in their time, reflecting the mood and methods of the average and ignored American of their times.
It’s comparable to the leadership changes in India of our times, be it Indira Gandhi in the Seventies or Narendra Modi now. The components and priorities may change with each leader, but they are all based on and derived from their compulsions and circumstances at a given point. In the US, you put a George Bush or Obama in their place, and the alternating attempts at switching from domestic to foreign policy as the liet motif of a leadership’s existence becomes clearer.
Like Reagan in his time, Trump is now looking at domestic issues and has created a domestic constituency, whose electoral aspirations he cannot but address. Having lost the popular vote to losing contestant, Hillary Clinton, he cannot now afford to see further erosion to his ranks. In between, he may seek to tame the ideologues and realists on the larger plane, or get tamed and at times distorted by them, on the reverse.
In doing so, Trump also seems to be toying with the idea of a ‘controlled’ and ‘controllable’ international situation, without continuing with the fishing expedition that his Republican and Democratic predecessors had launched, without being sure of what the post-Cold War era had in store for America and the rest of the world. It’s not without justification either, though the neo-con language that the Trump camp uses may be more tuned to the lower-end of the domestic-right constituency than even that of the two Bush administrations, where the neo-cons were more focussed on international issues, given the timing and the image of Bush, Sr.
Post-Cold War, Europe, for instance, had all the opportunities to grow on into the second pole from where they had helped the US de-throne the Soviet Union, without any of the problems attaching to its re-emergence at the end of the two World Wars. But nostalgia of the immediate past seemed to have pulled them down on the geo-strategic front. On the economic front, euro included, Europe is now in a greater mess than when Cold war ended.
So, co-opting Russia, if only to turn America’s back on it later on, but only after shifting the global gears back to Europe, makes good geo-strategic sense for the US, whose global reach, in terms of economic dole-outs, military interventions and socio-political knowledge, have been pegged unrealistically high, by all concerned. Alternatively, even if the US were to continue with the ongoing post-Cold War geo-strategic policies, then again, Trump seems convinced that he cannot China run away with Russia.
A China-Russia alliance would be a formidable combination for the ‘free world’ to take on, given the European mess, and the unpreparedness and unwillingness of America’s post-Cold War Asian allies, including India, to fight an American war, if it remained so, despite their collective preparedness, otherwise. Add to that, Iran and Pakistan within Eurasia, then the geo-strategic initiative of the world as a whole, and the region in particular, would rest elsewhere and not with the US-led West.
The Obama foreign policy was prepared to acknowledge the Asian part of it, thus seeking to befriend Iran, too, and not antagonise Pakistan – to the extent the Indian neighbour of the latter would want. But it was unwilling to ‘expose’ the European allies to a possible return of the Cold War, and back to Europe, where Moscow may begin to set the agenda, all over again.
Trump wants it otherwise, or is putting back the US in the middle, and let situations and other stake-holders to re-position themselves, if at all, before deciding on America’s real major thrust in the 21st century – going beyond Obama’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ initiative, which was as much confusing as it was confrontationist. Whether desired and designed by Trump or not, it’s where the US and the rest of the world might find itself if America continues to ride on the course that Trump is taking it just now.
India needs to understand the evolving American policy towards the region and the rest of the world more than what Trump critics nearer home in the US are ready to credit him with. In doing so, or ahead of attempting it deeper, Trump would want to consolidate his domestic position, more especially outside of Congress, where he has party majority but not loyalty in both Houses.
So, if he has to frame tough rules on H1B visas, ill-luck to those Indians that get caught in the web. Maybe, Trump will reconsider his policy down the line, or even trade it off with stake-holders nearer home or outside, in the shape of ‘true friends’ like India. But in the interim, ‘Trump for Trump’ has to be his slogan – and will be so, too. India either needs to readjust and wait, or would have to look elsewhere, internally in terms of jobs and family incomes, and non-American ‘old friends’ or ‘new allies’ – all of it in a tentative and transient space and phase
- Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, Observer Research Foundation. This article has been posted in ORF website.