India and the Western Liberal Democratic Order : Trump and turbulence (Part C)

Feb 11,2017

Successive Indian governments have invested, some more heavily than others, in seeking greater strategic content in relations with the United States. Some have even been so bold as to suggest that the bilateral relationship now constitutes a ‘strategic partnership’. At the very least, this suggests some misreading of geopolitical trends. There is no doubt a shared value system, a broadening and deepening of interests and issues covered. The intensification of relations has come in small and incremental steps with India’s policy continuing to be anchored in strategic autonomy. The relationship has always been transactional, and the only risk we see now is that it could now become even more transactional.


I find it difficult to hide my irritation when asked the question – is Trump good for India? India was not even a peripheral factor in the election of the 45th President of the United States. The first determination that needs to be made is whether Trump is good for the United States.


What we are witnessing today is a businessman with no experience of government whatsoever proceeding to deliver on election rhetoric and promises through executive fiat during the first week in the White House. The limits of such actions may soon be in evidence. Let us consider some of these actions.


The Mexican wall and the cost of its construction: Let us concede for the sake of an argument that an impregnable wall can be constructed along the rugged terrain, mountains and fast flowing streams which by itself would be quite a feat in terms of engineering skills. If the cost is to be borne by a 20% tax on imports from Mexico, would this not be self-defeating if it is the American consumer that has to pay?


The US is a 17 trillion dollar economy. It has provided leadership on issues related to the multilateral trading system. It is an original signatory to the WTO, NAFTA and a host of other plurilateral trade and economic instruments. Can it unilaterally withdraw from some of these?


The laws of physical sciences do not apply to the world of foreign and security policy, or for that matter to the world of trade policy.


Hypothetically, if the US were to withdraw from leadership positions in some areas, would other countries step in? Unless a country produces global public goods, I don’t see how this could happen. More important, it is difficult to see how a country could assume global leadership if it refuses to accept the findings of an international tribunal in a system ostensibly built on the rule of law.


Trump comes to governance from the vantage point of a businessman who has had a fair share of successes and failures in his own domain of business. What does a businessman do if a particular venture fails or is likely to fail? He cuts his losses and moves on.


The strength of institutions in US democracy should not be underestimated. The judges who will strike down an illegal order, business interests that will lobby Congress, public opinion that will find new and innovative ways to assert itself. For better or for worse, in the coming years, we do not appear to have any choice but to deal with a global system under US leadership. Whether the US disengages in some degree, remains to be seen. It is entirely possible that it will engage more aggressively. In the case of either scenario, there will be consequences.


That brings me back to the question: How we, in India, should deal with the new emerging situation? I believe we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of some of the opportunities that will come our way. For this, we need to exercise patience and tact.


India and Pakistan were two young nations born from the womb of the same mother. In 1955, when the Republic Day parade was first scheduled at Rajpath, the Chief Guest was Governor General Malik Ghulam Muhammad from Pakistan. Even in 1956, the members of the Pakistan Cabinet held Indian passports. How did matters go so horribly wrong in the following decades?


I have always found it difficult to subscribe to the view that Pakistan stands isolated. Can we ‘isolate’ Pakistan or should we ‘isolate’ Pakistan? Quite apart from the absurdity of isolating a country with a 200 million strong population, it is a nuclear weapons State, a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation(OIC), a member of the UN having served seven times on the Security Council – same as India – and a member of a wide variety of multilateral organizations. Our objective should be to use our bilateral relations with other countries, particularly the United States, so that we can individually and collectively use whatever margin of persuasion we have to instill the realization in Pakistan to desist from participating in state sponsored terror against India. Also, to the extent that the terror acts emanate from non-state actors to move with determination against such entities.


In the past, we have invariably found that the West, including and particularly the United States, whilst being supportive of our concerns has not moved against Pakistan to the full extent. There are many reasons for this selective approach to terrorism. In November 2014, the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the UN adopted, under India’s presidency a ‘zero-tolerance' approach to terrorism.


This could not act as a sufficient pressure on our western neighbor quite simply because the United States and other countries were actively supporting the so-called moderate opposition groups in Syria and elsewhere.


In my book Perilous Interventions, I quote former Vice President Joe Biden’s somewhat controversial address at the Kennedy School at Harvard in 2014, and I quote:


The Turks …… the Saudis, the Emirates, etc. what were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad, and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tones of weapons into anyone who would f ight against Assad.



Even more notoriously, in August 2014, during a talk with Iran’s Press TV, a former contractor of the US CIA, Steven Kelly, unabashedly admitted:


[The ISIS] is a completely fabricated enemy. The funding is completely from the United States and its allies, and for people to think that this enemy is something that needs to be attacked in Syria or Iraq is a farce because obviously this is something that we created [and] we controlled [now], it has become inconvenient for us to attack this group as a legitimate enemy.


And finally, I quote Lt. General Michael Flynn, the former Head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who informed Washington’s tactic of abetting Salafist extremists against the Assad regime as being ‘a willful decision’.


India will face many challenges, political, economic and in the area of security policy in the years to come. I have absolutely no doubt that we are uniquely positioned and have the requisite resilience to deal with bilateral challenges, whether from the United States or other countries. We also have the diplomatic strength and maturity to deal with changes in the multilateral system and the re-ordering of power relationships should those arise. In either case, what is required is patience, tact and mature diplomacy.

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