Enduring partners”, “shared values”, “trusted friends”: The words we will likely hear when Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets President Donald Trump next week will be familiar to us from past summits between leaders of India and the United States. The truth is that there has been a profound transformation in both the context and content of India-US relations.
President Trump is meeting Prime Minister Modi more than five months after taking office, after summits with the leaders of not just Asia’s two other major powers, China and Japan, but also diplomatic engagements in West Asia and Europe. India, it is clear, occupies only a peripheral place in the Trump world view, such as it is. Climate and clean energy issues, placed upfront in the India-US joint statement that followed the joint statement of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi in 2016, have been taken off the table by President Trump’s decision to walk out of the Paris Agreements.
The US’s clean energy finance commitments have been publicly mocked by the new president. The two leaders had pledged to explore “new opportunities to break down barriers to the movement of goods and services”; President Trump has made plain his disdain for this vision. Though Modi and Trump may find common ground on terrorism, there is devil in the detail: There are few signs of a new direction in the US’s policies on Pakistan, and Iran, which India sees as a factor for stability in the region, has evidently been cast by President Trump in the role of his arch-enemy.
For India, this visit may be an important time to revisit the fundamentals of its diplomacy, freeing itself from many years of hyperbole and cant. India has done well, by any measure, in building its relationship with the US. Yet, it has done so primarily because the US has seen India as a potential ally in a world marked by the rise of China, not on the basis of its actually-existing strengths. President Trump may be an idiosyncratic figure, but he represents a significant tendency in the US, which posits that it is best for the country to make what deals it must with China and other major economies, and leave second-tier powers like India to pick up the crumbs.
If India’s economic performance continues to underwhelm, and its willingness to project strategic influence remains anaemic, it will be ever less attractive for potential partners to issue cash, as it were, against post-dated cheques. This is the time for India to relearn the lesson that power flows from the sum of a nation-state’s capacities, not bravura performances by leaders.