As prime minster Narendra Modi prepares to meet US president Donald Trump, it is clear the upward trajectory of the relationship built assiduously over the years by the leadership of both countries and enjoying a broad consensus of their principal political parties, is entering a more turbulent phase. This is hardly surprising given the raging winds of uncertainty unleashed by Trump in almost all aspects of domestic and foreign policy.
At one level this may be appear to be a temporary setback. The vicissitudes of leadership should not distract from a broad convergence of interests, whether a rule-based international order or a commitment to an open economic system. If the problem was simply the erratic and tempestuous leadership of President Trump, whose narcissism and insecurities need to be constantly feted and stroked, then it’s a question of tactics.
Ride out this storm and limit the damage, give him some visible rhetorical victories, and be patient until the next electoral cycle – and the relationship should come back to the trend line of recent years.
However, such a reading would be a mistake. Trump is not the cause of the political travails so evident in Washington but its natural outcome – the messenger, not the message. And the message is one that should worry India more. The political divide in the U.S. has grown so markedly and political rivalry so poisonous that American society is now more polarized on political lines than any other attribute. Prejudice against people belonging to the other political party today exceeds racial hostility, which is remarkable given how much the racial divide has shaped the US. Even marriages across political party affiliations are becoming less common, when even marriages across the racial divide have been steadily increasing.
Nearly two decades ago, in his analysis of why India had been historically so weak militarily, Steve Rosen in a landmark study, Societies and Military Power: India and its Armies, argued that divided societies have difficulties in generating military power. Social cohesion is important not just for normative reasons or for economic development – it matters crucially for a country’s military power. Today it also matters for a country’s ability to project national power in the global system.
Current trends in US politics portend a future that has a few parallels with the aforementioned Indian example. Certainly the political divide that is now becoming entrenched in American society will not challenge its military preeminence in the foreseeable future. The US economy will also continue to retain its many strengths, at least at the aggregate level, as many of the dynamic elements such as innovation and entrepreneurship that have been the foundations of American economic power will persist. Even the current isolationist stance in US foreign policy is not new – it has just reasserted itself in contemporary America.
But the sinews of US power were built not just on its military and economic prowess, but on broad bipartisan agreement of strategic goals underpinned by a generosity of spirit which earned the country much goodwill. Today, that generosity of spirit has been replaced by a mean-spiritedness in the domestic sphere; hence in its international dealings the US is hardly likely to be more generous.
Moreover, the broad bipartisan consensus has been beset by intense internal disagreements, not just on the means to achieving goals, or even the goals themselves, but even around basic facts without which it is hard to know where to even begin to bridge policy differences.
What should India do? In some cases, there is little doubt that the policies of this administration are quite contrary to India’s interests, with the stance on climate change and the bellicose attitude towards Iran, being two prime examples. With regards to Russia, China, or Afghanistan and Pakistan, the consequences for India are more ambivalent. The stances on immigration and trade clearly do not bode well for India, but changes were coming in any case in IT due to artificial intelligence-led technological changes.
But more than anything else, having thrown the world order into deep uncertainties if not crisis, the US today has become a destabilizing force in the world.
India needs to recognize and deal with the implications of this new reality and rethink its strategies in two principal areas. The first is with regards to the US itself. In the short-term, this administration’s affections can be bought off by, for instance, large defense purchases which will allow Trump to trumpet jobs in the US and a lower trade deficit with India.
However, the longer-term ability and willingness of the US to engage with the outside world in significantly positive ways, where it would have to commit its treasury rather than troops, is fundamentally unlikely – Trump or no Trump.
India is less likely to achieve much with the US government on shared geo-strategic concerns. But there are other partners within the US that India can – and should – cultivate more assiduously. The first set of partners relate to the three areas where US strengths are unrivalled: military and civilian technology and private capital, all of which are critical for India’s future.
Only the US, with a certain of type of buccaneering capitalism and capacity for innovation could have created the shale oil and gas industry in such a short span of time – and whose crucial role in driving down global oil prices has done more for improving India’s balance of payments and rescued it from its OPEC friends, than almost anything else.
In the case of advanced military technologies the US is even more ahead of anyone else, and here again there are self-evident gains for India. For India’s knowledge sector to thrive, it needs to more seriously cultivate R&D from US firms and deepen partnerships with US universities.
India also needs to broaden its cultivation of public entities beyond the federal government to states and even city governments, with much more active engagement with key state governors and mayors. The states of California, New York, Texas and Washington – all of which have a well-heeled and connected Indian-American diaspora – are examples in this regard. Given India’s urban challenges, forming stronger city-to-city bonds would also be worth nurturing. All of these would strengthen India’s engagement with a broader array of public and private actors in the US, and make the relationship less susceptible to the political winds emanating from Washington.
However, these will not address the geo-strategic challenges facing India, whether in the neighborhood, the region, or the provision of global public goods. As even staunch allies like Canada and Germany have realized, the US can no longer be relied to uphold its mantle of global leadership. The winds are portending storms ahead in the global order and India will need to be both more creative and put in much more effort to reinvigorate its bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral relationships – as well as ensure domestic social cohesion and political consensus – to ride them out safely.