A Trump Presidency: Mixed Signals and Troubling Implications
On November 9 the unthinkable happened after the most polarised US election in US history. With the so-called ‘swing states’ – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -choosing Trump, the so-called ‘Clinton Firewall’ was breached and, despite a lower share of the popular vote, Trump convincingly won the presidency.
His victory divided USA and impacted global public opinion including among US allies. Protests continue in California and a petition calling on the US Electoral College to dump Trump and select Hillary Clinton as president, based on the larger share of popular votes she won, has already picked up 3.2 million signatures. Some ugly racist incidents have already occurred in the US and one can expect the extreme right to try to exploit this victory. Trump has started backing away from his more extreme position such as repealing Obamacare, putting “crooked Hillary” behind bars, and walking out of trade pacts and international agreements to which US is a party, including the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
What are the implications for India and the bilateral relationship? Much would depend on his choice of Secretary of State for Foreign Relations and whether his governance style would be decentralised with the President depending on a team of dedicated technocrats. This would be the best option, given his ignorance on global and strategic issues. Early trends are not encouraging. His transition team includes four members of his family as well as corporate consultants and lobbyists with little knowledge of global challenges challenging US interests worldwide.
Trump’s approach to India has been contradictory with much doublespeak. During the final presidential debate he referred positively to India, its high growth rates and spoke of his business relationships here. At an Indian American rally in New Jersey in October, in front of a large gathering of Indian media, he originally described himself as an admirer of “Hindus”. When the anchor pointed out that all Indians were not Hindus, he side-stepped and spoke of being a big fan of India.
Early in the campaign, he complained of outsourcing, about jobs being “shipped out” to India and alleged misuse of H1B visas. He voiced strong criticism of call centres being outsourced to India and Indians. After he used a false Indian accent to mock Indian call-centre workers, he sought to wriggle out of it by clarifying that India was a great place and his anger was not against India but against outsourcing. Whether this is feasible or possible remains to be seen but it has troubling implications for our bilateral relationship.
His statements on Pakistan have been equally ambiguous with hints that he would seek help from India and other nations to address the “problem” of what he described as a “semi-unstable” nuclear-armed Pakistan. In an early interview he said: “The problem with Pakistan, where they have nuclear weapons — which is a real problem. Pakistan is semi-unstable. We don’t want to see total instability.” It is not clear whether as President this would translate into a reversal of US policy towards Pakistan. Possibly not, since even Trump, as President, would need to respect the fine line defining US foreign policy based on American national interests. His policy on Afghanistan is equally unclear with hints that he would cut down on US commitments overseas. This would have direct implications on our peace and security with the increased threat of terrorist attacks in case of a premature US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is unclear at this moment whether a Trump presidency would strongly support India’s Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) membership and its candidature for permanent membership to the Security Council and strengthen the Indo-US Strategic Partnership which was also based on common concerns regarding the rise of China.
Trump has hinted that in order to make “America great again” he would follow a policy of splendid isolation, such as the one US followed at the beginning of the 20th century. In that event, not only would it negatively impact US strategic interests worldwide and encourage fundamentalism but it would also encourage China to be become the pre-eminent power in Asia which would be highly detrimental to India. Given his insistence that Europe should pay the US for military protection and increase their funding to NATO, several European commentators are questioning whether his ‘America first’ policy would result in the end of the West as the world has known after World War II. His earlier positive pronouncements about President Vladimir Putin has increased European fears about the impact of a new détente between USA and the Russian Federation adversely impacting European and European Union strategic interests.
In the global arena, his victory is being interpreted as the rejection of globalisation. After Brexit there are crucial elections coming up in France and Germany and rise of ultra-right wing parties in many parts of Europe. There are now fear that Marie Le Pen, President of the National Front, would easily make it to the second round of the French presidential election. In Germany, Frauke Petry is the leader of the right-wing Alternative for Germany who is radically opposed to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration and refugee policy and of ‘Islamification’ of Germany.
Even after Ronald Reagan’s election, the national and international mood had not been so grim or pessimistic. The day after the election, the leading newspaper in France, Le Monde, characterised the result in its front page as “a clown has been elected in the USA”. The flawed American electoral system which allows a president to be elected after he loses the popular vote to his contender has resulted in an inexperienced but overconfident maverick being elected to this exalted post.
With his finger on the nuclear button, the world, including the US’ principal allies in Europe, would have to treat him with more respect than they presently do. India would need to watch and wait what a Trump presidency could do for a carefully crafted India-US strategic relationship. Only history and posterity can judge the result. One can only hope for the best.