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As the world come to terms with the shocker of a victory for Republican candidate Donald Trump in the US presidential race, India must avoid focusing too narrowly on the implications for bilateral relations in the near term. How Trump might deal with great powers like Russia, China and Japan and its neighbours like Pakistan and Iran is certainly important for Delhi. How Trump might constrain outsourcing of work and insourcing labour will be even more significant.
What is critical, however, is India’s recognition that Trump has brought US to a point of inflection. A change in US global trajectory will demand more than readjustment of India’s policies. It will need a sweeping re-imagination of India’s national strategy.
It is only by assessing the historic structural shift in the internal and external orientation of US that the President-elect promises that India can deal with the incoming Trump Administration. If the challenges on the economic front will be quite demanding, the opportunities on the geopolitical front could be quite inviting.
The source of Trump’s political triumph was in seizing what his multiple opponents in Republican Party and his eventual Democratic rival could not even see — that there was a political revolt brewing in the US heartland against rich and indifferent elites.
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If his opponents stayed with the familiar playbook, Trump took a different path — of mobilising the resentments of the working people and combining it with populism and nationalism. It was this daring bet that helped Trump withstand the merciless exposure of his many character flaws during the gruelling campaign. Trump’s strategy was based on three propositions that questioned the core political beliefs of post-War US.
Trump argued that the US economy was no longer lifting all boats. Many scholars had indeed pointed to the growing economic inequality in the US and a rank outsider and self-proclaimed socialist like Senator Bernie Sanders came quite close to defeating Hillary Clinton in contest for Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year. Yet, Clinton did not or could not integrate America’s growing economic anxieties into her electoral strategy. Trump outflanked his rivals by moving decisively to the left on economic issues. In the process, he turned the Republican platform on its head and successfully painted Clinton as the agent of the rich and uncaring elite.
Second, Trump reinforced his left turn with a powerful argument against globalisation. Like Sanders, Trump rallied the working people against trade agreements that he insisted were taking away US jobs. He combined his anti-trade strategy with an even more powerful offensive against immigration into the US. As in the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom last June, Trump tapped into the growing fears about porous borders and the loss of US sovereignty.
As terrorism became an increasingly domestic issue in the US, Trump also promised to clamp down on Muslim migration into the US. If the Republicans traditionally relied on the social conservatism of the working class, Trump found a powerful tool in xenophobia. Trump’s intense opposition to globalism and open borders helped him breach the so called ‘blue wall’ of support for the Democrats in the Mid Western region — once the industrial heartland and now the rust belt — and capture the Presidency.
Third, on the foreign policy front, Trump confronted, frontally, the mainstream views on the international role of the US. He demanded that US allies in Europe and Asia share more of the burden for common security. He expressed his willingness to accept Japan and South Korea going nuclear in defending themselves against China and North Korea respectively. He was open to cutting a deal with Russia in boosting the fight against the ISIS in the Middle East.
Trump has also promised to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama. As leading members of the Republican foreign policy establishment denounced Trump’s heresy and endorsed Clinton, Trump was unfazed. His insight that there is little political support in the heartland for costly foreign policy commitments so eagerly embraced by the strategic community in Washington, turned out to be accurate.
In promising to redress economic hardship at home, offering to strengthen US borders, mobilising the rage against globalization, and downsizing the needless international burdens of the US, Trump has shaken up the longstanding domestic political coalitions of US and laid out a different direction for America. Even a little bit of American movement along the path will have significant economic and political consequences for the rest of the world.
India’s economic differences with the US that had begun to acquire some salience under the Obama Administration are likely to get a sharper edge as Trump turns the US against globalisation. Delhi must look beyond accusations of protectionism against the US or claiming an entitlement for ever more visas for Indians and rethink a mutually beneficial partnership that has sustainable support in both countries.
On the geopolitical front, Trump’s reconsideration of US military burdens on the Eurasian landmass provides a rare opportunity for Delhi to expand its own contributions to regional security. Rather than act as a ‘lynchpin’ of the US pivot to Asia, India can become the leading element in the regional balance of power system. If the US under Trump views itself as a distant power that will help support rather than direct regional systems, India will have greater space and agency to construct a strong Eurasian coalition.