If Trump were to action all his promises, the balance of power and configuration of alliances in different parts of the world would be significantly altered.
After the unexpected upset win over Hillary Clinton on November 8, President-elect Donald Trump met the incumbent Barack Obama on November 11 to prepare for his swearing-in and assumption of charge on January 20, 2017.
The world is waiting with bated breath to see what changes Trump will introduce in pursuit of USA’s foreign policy. India is equally concerned and would like to find out how Trump will be different from his predecessor in his approach towards India and Asia (See box).
Trump is an enigma wrapped in mystery. During the election he said what the people wanted to hear. On most issues he does not appear to be stuck to definitive positions which in several ways is good because it gives him flexibility. Trump has often made off-the-cuff comments, been simplistic in his remarks, at times verging on the unintelligible about what his policies and behaviour might be.
Currently there is enormous uncertainty regarding the stance that Trump will adopt towards China, Russia, the Middle East, Europe and other countries. This in itself is having a negative impact on smooth conduct of international affairs and has increased apprehension and misgivings of the world about security and stability in vulnerable and fragile regions around the globe. He has made many controversial and contentious statements about several issues and countries during his campaign. The world is not certain what to make of these pronouncements. Should they be treated as election rhetoric or the basis on which his foreign policy will be constructed? On several issues Trump has continued to modify his position over time. This would give the impression and raise expectations that the policy he ultimately follows could be somewhat different from his declarations during the election process.
It is also not definitely known who his cabinet members and advisors will be. Barring the fact that his cabinet is likely to be predominantly white and male, nothing much is discernible. If he were to select experienced professionals like Stephen Hadley and Richard Haass for some of the top positions in the foreign policy establishment, it will go a long way in restoring confidence and hope in the world community as well as a large section of Americans. He has appointed Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus to be his new chief of staff and Steve Bannon, the campaign CEO and executive chairman of Breitbart News, as chief strategist and senior counsellor. No names have been announced so far however regarding positions in the State department or the Pentagon.
It is felt that with control of both Houses of the Congress, Trump will have virtually un-trammelled authority to shape and conduct the country’s foreign policy. However, the Washington bureaucracy in the State department, Pentagon, the White House etc. will act as a big constraining factor and considerably limit his flexibility in taking unconventional decisions.
Trump’s exposure to issues of international affairs is limited. He will require to undergo extensive briefings by the establishment before he can be expected to take far-reaching decisions.
One of the most significant changes that could possibly emerge is in America’s relations with Russia. During the campaign Trump said that USA and Russia should collaborate to deal with the problem of ISIS and Islamist terrorism. He repeatedly—and consistently—expressed admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin. He said he would “look at” lifting sanctions against Russia and recognising Crimea as part of Russia. He described NATO as “obsolete and expensive” and suggested America may not come to the aid of vulnerable NATO allies if they are attacked.
Given Trump’s Russia rhetoric, his penchant for making deals, his lack of any set ideology, it is likely that he will lift sanctions in exchange for Putin’s cooperation in Syria. Putin was the first world leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory. Trump’s distancing from his NATO allies could seriously damage US credibility and trust which would require a lot of time to repair. In their first telephonic conversation on November 15, the two leaders agreed that relations between Moscow and Washington had become “unsatisfactory”. They pledged to pursue a “partner-like” dialogue to open a new era of “constructive cooperation on a broad range of issues”.
More specifically, the leaders agreed to harness their energies to fight their “shared enemy number one—international terrorism and extremism”. That is being seen to imply a shared determination to target ISIS. Syria also seems to have featured in the conversation. Collaboration between Russia and USA in the Middle East could result in restoring peace and lessening tension in the region.
The normalisation of relations between USA and Russia could diminish the compulsion for Russia to draw closer to China as it was forced to do over the last two years on account of the Ukraine crisis and the “accession’’ of Crimea to Russia. Stable and improved ties between USA and Russia could have significant geopolitical ramifications for relations between Europe and Russia, Russia and China, Russia and the Middle East and of course, relations of India with Russia and China. Europe might, notwithstanding the aggressive stance of some EU member states, try to establish near-normal working relations with Russia. This would significantly reduce Russia’s dependence on China for its energy exports and economic sustenance.
Economically, USA and China are joined at the hip. Bilateral trade between the two countries is to the tune of more than $650 billion per annum. China holds the largest volume of US government treasury bonds: $1.25 trillion. There might hence be limited possibility for Trump to take any stringent penal action against China. He has said more than once that US manufacturing jobs have gone away to China (and Mexico) and need to be brought back. He lambasted China throughout the election campaign, drumming up headlines with his pledges of slapping 45 per cent tariffs on imported Chinese goods, and labelling the country a currency manipulator. His most committed supporters and voters have lost jobs and seen factories close down and will want those jobs back to USA. They could force him to take some tough measures to restrain imports from China.
This will however not be without costs. President Xi Jinping is the supreme leader of China with much greater powers and authority than his predecessors, except possibly Mao Zedong and Deng Xiao Ping. He will not take any attack on China’s interests either in the economic area or in political, military and security fields lightly. Trump has consistently maintained that he is a deal maker. He could attempt to enter into a deal with China but options and possibilities are somewhat limited as he needs to operate under severely constrained circumstances. In their telephone conversation on November 14, Xi told Trump that cooperation is the “only correct choice” for the two countries. The challenge in dealing with China increases with the passage of time as China continues to rapidly expand economically, militarily and politically, while USA is comparatively on a declining trajectory. Moreover, because of the deteriorating economic condition, USA is looking at pursuing a more inward-looking policy.
Trump’s declaration that he would walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement could signal his move towards isolationism and dilution of commitment to Obama’s Pivot to Asia, if not totally abandoning it. His pronouncement that Japan and Korea should pay for their own defence and if required, manufacture nuclear weapons could introduce great uncertainty in the geopolitical scenario in the region. On the contrary, China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative could continue to bring a larger number of countries of Asia, Africa and even Europe who have recently signed on to the OBOR project into the expanding Chinese clasp. This could spell uncertain and difficult times for the US and its allies and could have far-reaching consequences for regional security and stability.
If Trump were to fulfill his campaign promise to jettison NAFTA, construct a wall on the border with Mexico and make the latter pay for it, severely restrain the number of Muslims entering America from countries with terror ties, remove the nuclear umbrella from Japan and RoK and encourage them to develop their own nuclear weapons, renege on America’s commitment to the Paris Climate Change Accord signed in December 2015, it could have an unimaginable impact on the international standing, support and credibility of USA and significantly alter the balance of power and configuration of alliances in different parts of the world.
What Donald Trump Means For India
Trump’s presidency is expected to herald far-reaching changes in relations with countries in the periphery of India which could induce significant impact on India as well.
It however needs to be noted that a bipartisan consensus exists in USA amongst both Democrats and Republicans to have strong, vibrant and dynamic relations with India. This is evident from the history of the last more than 15 years when all the three Presidents—Bill Clinton (Democrat-two terms), George W. Bush (Republican-two terms) and Barack Obama (Democrat-two terms)—worked to strengthen ties with India. It can hence be expected with reasonable confidence and certainty that bilateral relations will continue to prosper under Donald Trump as well. There is a general perception in India which is fairly widely shared by perceptive analysts even from the Democratic camp that Republican presidents have usually been more supportive of stronger relations with India.
Keeping the above in view, it can be expected that relations between India and USA will continue to expand during the Trump presidency. It also needs to be kept in mind that over more than a decade, India-US ties have evolved into a “global strategic partnership” based on shared democratic values and increasing convergence of interests on bilateral, regional and global issues. The wide-ranging and ever-expanding dialogue architecture has established a long-term framework for the India-US engagement. Today, India-US bilateral cooperation is broad-based and multi-sectoral, covering trade and investment, defence and security, education, science and technology, cyber security, high technology, civil nuclear energy, space technology and applications, clean energy, environment, agriculture and health. There are more than 50 bilateral dialogue mechanisms and vibrant people-to-people interaction between the two countries.
During the campaign, Trump has made only positive remarks about India. He has only once spoken tangentially about the loss of service jobs to India. He has however stated that he loves India and that with his election “India will have a true friend in the White House”. It can be expected that bilateral ties in different areas including political, strategic, defence and economic will get further strengthened. The only areas where India could experience some negative headwinds is in the number and fees for H1B visas and if Trump, as per his promise, decides to bring down the corporate tax in USA from the current 35 per cent to 15 per cent. This might encourage some US companies based in India to migrate back, thus adversely impacting the “Make in India” programme.
Trump has said during his campaign that Pakistan is the most dangerous place on earth because of its support to terrorism. He has promised to take decisive and resolute action against terrorism and extremism including from Pakistan. This would be helpful for India. Trump’s election has led to great worry and consternation amongst the people of Pakistan. Trump has also stated that because of the worsening security situation and increasing attacks by the Taliban, he would station US troops in Afghanistan for an extended length of time to restore normalcy and peace.
Any action that Trump takes to improve relations with Russia and also to put pressure on China in economic or security areas would be beneficial for India. However, his proposal to dissociate from TPP and reduce engagement with Asia would encourage China to become even more assertive and aggressive with its neighbours, including India. It would also provide China with openings to enhance its presence in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean more quickly. This would be to India’s detriment.
It is ironic and somewhat inconceivable that Trump would like America to become “Great Again” by withdrawing into its own shell. America has always embraced greatness by reaching out beyond its shores and borders in political, security, economic and cultural spheres and strengthening people-to-people contacts. It will be necessary for USA to maintain a similar posture in the world if it wants to promote and propagate values of democracy, pluralism, secularism, tolerance, openness and expand its influence. The next few months will be crucial in this regard.