“Yankee, go home! And take me with you” is an idea that has long summed up the world’s mixed feelings about America. Since the Second World War, people and governments around the world have frequently demanded that America go home. For them there are enough things to object to — none more important than the expansive American global hegemony.
At the same time, there is an unending attraction around the world to the American lifestyle. That anyone could get to the US and “make it there” has been the essence of the global US dream. For 18th and 19th century Europe, America was about liberation from the oppressive hierarchies of the old world. For Asia and the global south in the 20th century, America was about finding opportunities that were denied at home.
The Indian elite has been as schizophrenic about the US as any other in the Third World. For decades, elites of all political persuasion reveled in denouncing the US and proudly sending their children to incredibly successful careers there. No other place in the world has been as welcoming to Indians as the US.
Under President Donald Trump, though, some of that might be changing. Trump’s America wants the Yankees to come home but is shutting the door on unrestricted immigration from the rest of the world. Domestic critics say America has been a nation of immigrants and Trump is wrong to keep them out. But Trump has much support among the working people who know immigration keeps wages low, helps the capitalist class and disrupts the familiar cultural and social landscape.
Some chancelleries in the world demand that America must go home. The president of Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, wants to end Manila’s century-old relationship with the US military. Iran wants America out of the Gulf. Russia and China would like to see the US forces out of Europe and Asia respectively.
Only a few years ago, these demands would have been laughed out of court. But as Trump threatens to question America’s military commitments in Europe and Asia and denounces the past military interventions in the Middle East, the world is paying serious attention to the possibility of Yankee going home.
Trump shrugged off Duterte’s demand by saying it will “save money” for America; in the Gulf, he wants the Asian powers to police the vital sea lines of communication; in Europe and Asia, he wants the allies to do more for their own security.
In Europe, France and Germany are now talking about creating new defence capabilities for the European Union amidst the prospect for American security retrenchment. In Asia, Japan is debating a larger security role. In the Gulf, America’s Arab allies are scrambling to diversify their security dependence.
The idea of downsizing America’s role, along with the rejection of free trade and open borders, is at the very heart of Trump’s America First policy. To be sure there is deep resistance in the US to these ideas that run counter to America’s post-war internationalism. Wall Street on the East Coast and Silicon Valley on the West Coast along with the old foreign and security policy establishment in Washington all oppose Trump’s America First focus.
Trump’s message, however, resonates across the political divide in the US. Many candidates for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party agree with Trump’s goal of ending America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East. Many in the working classes, who traditionally supported the Democrats, believe Trump is right in arguing that free trade has hollowed out American industry and eliminated manufacturing jobs.
Put simply America is at an inflection point; India needs to come to terms with the profound changes unfolding in the US. The Indian political classes castigated the US for excessive interventions in the affairs of other nations. Trump now says such interventions are counter productive and all nations must strengthen their sovereignty. Indians criticised the US for imposing globalisation on others; the US President is now one of the biggest critics of globalisation. Trump’s America is not the one we have known.
During the Cold War, Delhi had trouble figuring out US domestic politics, given the limited nature of its engagement with the US that was focused largely on the State Department. As India broadened its engagement with America in the last two decades, Delhi has become more sensitive to the US domestic political dynamics. In getting the US to ease off on Kashmir and nuclear issues, Delhi had to look beyond the foreign policy establishment to generate better US appreciation of India’s concerns and interests.
One of the instruments that came in handy was the mobilisation of the Indian diaspora — a process that began during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, acquired momentum in the late 1990s and emerged as a key factor in elevating the bilateral relationship in the 21st century. Delhi, however, needs to unlearn some of the assumptions about US policy as it prepares to host Trump next week. While the diaspora is important and could be of some value in dealing with Trump, it can’t override the deeper forces animating American politics.
Trump is throwing overboard the domestic consensus on foreign policy that has held through the post-war period. Trump rode on the turbulence of US domestic politics to seize the White House to the utter surprise of the establishment in Washington DC as well as other capitals around the world. He is betting that ending unpopular wars, reordering trade relations with major economic partners, and limiting migration will bring him back to power in this year’s election.
Delhi’s success with Trump will depend less on the size of the welcome in Ahmedabad and more on the kind of strategic imagination it can display on trade cooperation, securing Afghanistan after America’s withdrawal, stabilising the Gulf and developing a new global compact on migration that is sensitive to domestic political considerations and yet contributes to the collective economic development.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 18, 2020 under the title “When Yankee goes home”. 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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