Senior US officials briefing the media in Washington last week had indicated that the question of Kashmir, India-Pakistan tensions as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act and related issues might be raised by President Donald Trump during his talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on Tuesday. India usually bristles at others talking about its internal issues or bilateral disputes with Pakistan. But Delhi has been quite relaxed about the recent spate of comments from the US — from the White House as well as the US Congress — on a range of issues that have become deeply contentious in India. After Trump’s speech at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad yesterday, Delhi may have even less reason to worry about any hostile intervention from President Trump on India’s internal and bilateral disputes.
Unlike Barack Obama, during his visit to Delhi in January 2015, Trump did not publicly criticise the Modi government. He chose instead to remind his large audience, including the PM and senior BJP leaders, of the global admiration for India’s religious harmony and celebrated India’s expansive diversity. Trump pointed to America’s good relations with Pakistan and the progress in his effort to get Islamabad crackdown on terror groups and expressed his hopes for “reduced tensions, greater stability and the future of harmony for all of the nations of South Asia”. Having checked some important boxes without embarrassing the PM, Trump went on to emphasise India’s right to secure its borders and offered to expand defence and counter terror cooperation with India.
Those who worry about Trump’s meddling in Kashmir do not see how different he is from the predecessors in the White House. For long, the Washington consensus on foreign policy called for US activism in addressing all problems everywhere in the world in the name of “American leadership”.
Trump, however, is not convinced that the US must waste its blood, treasure and energy in solving other people’s problems. His emphasis on “America First” is a big departure from what Trump derisively calls the traditional “globalism” of American foreign policy. If defence of sovereignty has long been the anthem of India’s international relations, Trump has made it America’s own.
At the annual session of the UN General Assembly last September, Trump not only reaffirmed his devotion to sovereignty but also commended it to others: “If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation.” Trump rounded off his argument with the resounding proposition that “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
Beyond this philosophical contestation with the liberal internationalists, Trump, of course, has to take into account the interests of multiple institutions and groups that seeks presidential intervention on international issues. The American foreign policy establishment, for example, has long sought an active US involvement in resolving the Kashmir dispute.
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Most US Presidents were reluctant to put too much political capital in mediating the Kashmir dispute. The only exception was John Kennedy during 1962-63. There was a momentary flirtation with the idea during President Bill Clinton’s first term (1993-97). As they realised that Kashmir mediation might be a “fool’s errand”, American presidents have tempered the mediation offer with the caveat, “both sides willing”. Trump has stayed with that script.
Meanwhile, Delhi has learnt to leverage US interests in defusing tensions in the Subcontinent to promote its own interests. If Pakistan hoped that US will compel India to make concessions on Kashmir, India has managed to turn the attention to Islamabad’s support for cross-border terrorism.
Forget for a moment the relative merits of the Pakistani and Indian arguments on Kashmir and terrorism. As Delhi became a more attractive economic partner and the gap between India and Pakistan widened, the US “interventions” have begun to favour Delhi rather than Islamabad.
Bill Clinton intervened in the Kargil crisis to compel Pakistan to acknowledge the sanctity of the Line of Control in Kashmir. George W Bush intervened in the military crises of 2001-02 to get Pakistan to issue a formal declaration on not letting its territory be used to conduct terror operations. Following the terror attack on Mumbai in November 2008, Barack Obama began to put Pakistan-based terror groups under the international scanner.
After the airforces of India and Pakistan clashed in the wake of India’s attack on Pakistan’s Balakot terror camp a year ago, Trump reportedly intervened to secure the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan.
All leaders choose some priorities in dealing with other countries. For Bush it was the war on terror; for Obama it was climate change; for Trump it is trade. Consider for a moment, Trump’s China policy. Many in Washington want Trump to press Beijing on the continuing protests in Hong Kong and Beijing’s treatment of its Muslim population in the Xinjiang province. Trump, however, is unwilling to let these issues come in the way of wresting trade concessions from China on trade.
The threat to the sovereignty of India and China does not come from occasional statements by the White House, resolutions in the US Congress or stinging editorials from the New York Times. Both Delhi and Beijing know how to fend off external interventions. The real threat to their sovereignty comes from policies that deepen internal conflicts.
More immediately though Delhi, like Beijing, must deal with Trump’s determination to recast the global trading system and reconstitute major trading partnerships. Trump is convinced that the rest of the world has taken advantage of America’s “foolish” trade policies in the past. He only blames America’s globalist establishment. At the inauguration of his presidency in January 2017, Trump lamented the consequences America’s economic globalism: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.”
Very few of America’s partners agree with this argument; but they are all coming to terms with it, since the US is such an important economic partner and Trump has been relentless. At Motera, Trump underlined his ambition to do a major trade deal with India but also noted Modi’s tough negotiating style. Hopefully, the PM and President are skilful enough to bring the hard-ball negotiation to a close with an understanding that can transform bilateral commercial relations.
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This article first appeared in the print edition on February 25, 2020 under the title ‘India and America First’. The writer is Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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