There has been no shortage of advice given to Narendra Modi about how he should approach Donald Trump. There is a touch of presumption in such advice, particularly because it is difficult to predict how the mercurial Trump will approach India. But the general tenor of the advice has been that India should be modest and transactional. It should avoid raising global issues that will annoy Trump and are incompatible with his worldview. Instead, we should be looking for modest deals under the radar, quietly advance some defence and business interests, and leave it at that. There might be a touch of helpful prudence in this advice. But there is also the suspicion that much of this advice comes from sections that have internalised a single-minded yardstick of Indian success in international relations: How does India do with an American President?
The Trump presidency should be a wake-up call on two things. India cannot give up its strategic autonomy. No one denies the importance of a deep and broad relationship with the United States. But the idea that tailoring our expectations to ingratiate ourselves to the US will solve most of our pressing strategic challenges is a pipe dream. While it is important to stress bilateral issues, the fact of the matter is that India will not be served well if the world generally becomes a more precarious place. Modi has unprecedented popular legitimacy and prides himself on his candour. It would be a shame if he did not at least communicate, without being confrontational, what should be India’s grave concerns about the emerging world order. Statesman have to be realistic. Mere sermonising will not do. But any statesman who loses the larger plot of history for small transactional gains will not do his country a service.
In one respect, Modi has already taken his gaze off that wider sweep of history. The unstated story of the Trump effect on India is the one no one is talking about. With the sheen wearing off American democracy, its reputation for openness diminishing, India had, in its own way, a chance to project itself as a potential normative exemplar. Instead, we have done the opposite. When Modi came to power, he was caught between two normative impulses. On the one hand, he had his Hindutva base. On the other he aspired to being accepted, perhaps even to lead, a community of peers on the global stage; and his outreach was fantastic. But till the Obama presidency, part of Modi’s global authority depended upon not acquiring a reputation for growing intolerance. It is much easier for India to project authority when its own foundations are liberal and secure.
The Trump presidency has altered that global norm. Liberal values, always a hypocritical currency in global affairs, can now simply be damned. It is not entirely a coincidence that as Trump has given short shrift to liberal values, the sense has grown in this regime that more assertive Hindutva will not have any reputational costs for India. We won’t get the sermons on diversity and tolerance that we got from Obama.
What India has done is to use the normative vacuum created by Trump, to advance an aggressive Hindutva agenda even more vigorously because this now has no reputational or peer displeasure attached to it. India should not get ahead of itself; its democracy has flaws. But being an exemplar of the free world is a far more befitting and ennobling ambition than using this vacuum in international affairs to damage our reputation for liberal constitutionalism with impunity. Rather than take a lead, we are following Trump’s example in frittering away our biggest strength. Modi’s handshake with Trump would be so much more a show of power if it had the imprimatur of liberal values than simply a deal for Lockheed Martin behind it.
Trump has constructed a mythology that America is now more transactional and isolationist. But neither is, strictly speaking, true. If transactional simply means business deals can trump norms, America has often been transactional. But Trump is not isolationist. The global order is more precarious, because American ad hoc interventionism is now likely to be more extensive. Trump’s forays into West Asia signal some things very clearly: The United States is not going to leave that region alone, it will continue to actively meddle, take partisan sides and will most likely create the conditions for more turmoil. The GCC, which had been insulated from the wider turmoil of the region, now risks being drawn in; America’s Syria policy seems less about ISIS and more about showing the Russians they cannot have their way; America is backsliding on its rapprochement with Iran, a key element to any hope for preventing more conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
While the immediate rhetoric from Washington is on Russia, the enduring axis of conflict and competition will remain China. Trump’s characteristically ambiguous tweet thanking China for “trying” to help in North Korea is a signal that the North Korea card will buy China goodwill only up to a point. China has also upped the stakes by pursuing a more aggressive global agenda. Trump will pivot back to the China threat sooner or later. But the global system now risks being pushed into a corner where neither China nor the US will find it easy to compromise.
Throw in two more elements arising out of domestic politics in America, and the world system is looking riskier. Trump does not have much pushback from the Republicans. His own political survival will also require keeping the spectre of global conflict alive even more than has been the case with past presidents. The American military industrial complex is about to get even more active and interventionist, not isolationist. While India can sense some strategic opportunities in these tensions, surely it behoves it to say very candidly, that the US is playing with fire in stoking more conflict. These conflicts are not ours; but it is in our interests to throw cold water on them. On a range of other issues that we have been told to avoid, from climate change to multilateralism, India has a strong hand; it should play them with any eye to posterity.
Modi likes to be a cool prime minister. History will remember him more kindly if India performed the function of a cool and cooling power in the international system. We need to be more liberal, less transactional and more internationalist. Worry about history, not about getting the approval of Trump.