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Predictable Trump, unpredictable consequences


Sushant Sareen

The cosy old world of parroting ‘strategic partnership' and ‘natural allies' even as asserted its ‘strategic autonomy' could be ending, as could be the indulgence that the US showed to India – there was so much that India sought and so little that India was ready to give.

Within the first week of assuming what is arguably the most powerful office in the world, the new US President Donald Trump has turned out to be exactly what he promised he would be: in style, he is in your face, has no use for political correctness, subtleties, niceties, and none of the genteel diplomatese that is normal in the conduct of international relations, or for that matter, domestic ; in substance, he has pretty much gone into overdrive to deliver on some of the most controversial things he had included in his manifesto – among other things, an entry ban on refugees, the Wall with Mexico, scrapping Obamacare, withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Predictably, he has caused outrage among his detractors, disquiet among many of those who while not enamoured of him are also not opposed to him, and dubiety and dread in the international community. But he doesn't really give a rat's ass (the expression is apt when used in the context of Mr Trump's own colourful vocabulary).

The first week has in a sense set the template of what can be expected over the next four years, if not the next eight, of the Trump presidency. What has become increasingly clear in this first week is that far from being unpredictable, Trump is very predictable in doing what until now was considered unthinkable (questioning relevance of NATO), undoable (turning the clock back on globalisation), unpolitic (the entry ban on Muslims and new pipelines), undiplomatic (tweeting that the Mexican President needn't come to Washington if he isn't ready to pay for the Wall) and un- everything else. What cannot be predicted are the consequences of his actions and policies, not just in the US but also in rest of the world.

It is now a given that things will no longer be what they have been. Trump as the great disrupter – he is questioning everything that had come to be taken as a given but actually had become stultified and ossified over time – will shake up everything. Since he will get some things right and some things wrong, no one can be quite sure how the cookie will crumble, how things will be put back together or what shape the world order will take after Trump is done with what he is doing. While a lot of what Trump has done is through the instrumentality of executive action, he could face stiff resistance not just from the US Congress, judiciary and the ‘establishment', but also from other countries around the world (including some stalwart allies of the US) who are going to be affected by his policies and are likely to push back against an overbearing America. Within the US, resisting Trump will mean a gridlock, which in turn will add to the dysfunctionality of the US government. This together with the growing international resentment to Trump's bull-in-a-china-shop approach will certainly impair and might even dislodge the US from its pole position in the world order. This means one way or another, whether Trump does all he intends to do or he is blocked on most things, it is going to be a pretty rough ride ahead for everyone.

Much like rest of the world, India too is on tenterhooks, waiting with bated breath to see how things pan out. Although conventional wisdom would suggest that Indo-US relations will continue to remain strong, given Trump's proclivity to turn conventional wisdom on its head, India cannot afford to be sanguine. It is not so much that Trump will do anything specific aimed against India, but that he will do stuff – in the domain of economic and strategic policy – that will impact India. Take, for instance, the ominous signals sent out by the new US ambassador to UN, who in her first talk at the UN declared that while the US “will have the back of our allies and make sure our allies have our back…for those who don't have our backs we are taking names”. In other words, no more free lunches; no more neutral positions; no more of the old autonomy that many allies and friends pleaded while voting against the US. It is now going to be a much starker and hard line version of the Bush dictum of “you are either with us or against us”. How far is India ready to go to be in sync with the Trump administration is something that will occupy Indian policy makers in the months ahead. The cosy old world of parroting ‘strategic partnership' and ‘natural allies' even as India asserted its ‘strategic autonomy' could be ending, as could be the indulgence that the US showed to India – there was so much that India sought and so little that India was ready to give.

Then there is the whole issue of US strategy not just towards other major powers like China and Russia (which could drag India in the Great power rivalry game, something India has wanted to avoid even as it tried to maximise its benefits from all these powers by maintaining a delicate balance between them) but also its policy in the region, especially in Afpak, on Iran and in the Middle-East. Given the hard line that Trump has been taking on Iran, how much space for manoeuvre will it afford India which can neither afford to jeopardise its relations with the US nor junk its relationship with Iran? Any break with Iran will make India's Afghanistan policy extremely vulnerable. Worse, if the US and Russia work at cross-purposes in Afghanistan, it could see the regional strategic turn extremely adverse to India if the wet dream of Pakistan or an alliance between China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan becomes a reality.  On the other hand, if the US and Russia make a compact in Afghanistan which isn't favourable to the Taliban, then it opens up new opportunities for India. As yet, however, there is no clarity what the US policy on Afghanistan will be in the months ahead – more of the same (which hardly solves anything), abandonment or a more aggressive push against the Taliban and their sponsors. Each of these will have an impact on India.

Against China, will Trump follow a more aggressive and assertive policy? The Chinese seem to think so and are getting spooked enough to make slight overtures to India. Will India respond to any substantive overtures from China even at the risk of antagonising the US (and perhaps Japan and other countries which are wary of China's strong-arm tactics)? Will India undersell itself once again to China as it has done so many times in the past – UNSC seat, WTO etc. – or will India negotiate a strategic deal? And if not, how far is India willing to go into an US embrace to take on aggressive and inimical China? Clearly, either of the two courses of action will have major implications. Have these been gamed by the Indian mandarins and political leadership, or is India once again going to be left hanging in between two stools?

While Trump will do what he will do, the question for mid-level powers like India is whether they will be able to anticipate and adapt to the changing strategic scenario fast enough to push their national interests (assuming we know what these are) or will they be playing catch-up? What is even more important is the fact that India will no longer enjoy the luxury of depending on one or the other Great powers for a variety of needs – technology, equipment, market access, diplomatic clout etc. What are we doing to fortify ourselves to handle a situation where the crutches of Great power support may no longer be available? That is the challenge that the post-Trump world is throwing in our direction. Are we up to meeting this challenge?


The author is Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed are personal

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