US President Donald Trump’s formulations on India and Pakistan in the national security strategy document issued this week in Washington are perhaps less important than the large changes he hopes to engineer in America’s engagement with the world. Trump’s proposition that America will support India’s rise to become a leading global power is not new. Washington has been saying this for nearly two decades. Washington has also been long concerned about the sources of international terrorism in Pakistan. For India, continuity in US policy towards the Subcontinent under Trump is indeed welcome. But Delhi must watch out for the implications of Trump’s determination to pare down America’s expansive internationalism that has been there since the end of the Second World War.
The conventional wisdom has been that Trump’s rhetoric on closing America’s borders, replacing free trade with fair trade, injecting greater reciprocity into US alliances and walking away from constraining multilateral agreements was just campaign rhetoric. After a year in office, the world knows that Trump is quite serious about putting “America First”. His administration’s document on the US national security strategy tries to soften the blow. But the president in his speech outlining the strategy reaffirmed his deep suspicion of “globalism”. The tension between Trump’s understanding of “America First” and the internationalist instincts of his security team are plain to see. That tension turns into a profound contradiction between the world-views of Trump and the permanent establishment in Washington.
Unprecedented internal disputation is turning America into an unpredictable actor in world politics. Given America’s continuing weight in global affairs, adapting to the uncertainty that Trump generates is a major imperative for all of America’s interlocutors. Consider, for example, the NSS’s assertion that Russia has now become a threat. But Trump could not get himself to articulate that conclusion in the speech. In fact, he talked of cooperation with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
The strategy document certainly breaks from the past in affirming that China poses a big threat to America’s prosperity and international primacy. But, quite clearly, the massive economic interdependence between the two nations constrains any American temptation for a military confrontation with China. Trump also needs China’s political support in dealing with a large number of issues, including North Korea. Amidst the current flux in Washington, the policy challenge for Delhi is two-fold. One is to seize the opportunities that Trump is offering in countering terrorism and promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan and, more broadly, the Indo-Pacific. The other is to prepare for the unprecedented changes in America’s international relations under Trump.