Home The Flipside of Disruptive Politics: Trump’s Use of Unpredictability in Indo-US Diplomacy

The Flipside of Disruptive Politics: Trump’s Use of Unpredictability in Indo-US Diplomacy


The Indian PM’s visit to US has been received as relief, success, reassuring and quarantined from the uncertainty that usually accompanies the Trump administration. However, only one Indian commentator[i] has looked at Trump administration as a problem to be survived rather than a challenge to be negotiated. The latter proponents were thus satisfied with the joint statement which built upon the 2015 US-India Joint Strategic Vision (JSV) with respect to the Indo-Pacific adding ‘respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity for connectivity projects’ in a clear reference to the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). The Joint Statement (JS) emphasized[ii] Pakistan’s role in supporting cross-border terrorism and designated HM chief Syed Salahuddin as a Global terrorist.  India offered a major sop to President Trump in terms of a major defense deal signed with the Indian navy buying the Sea “Guardian” drones.  But there were significant breaks from the Obama administration. Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration has remained silent in terms of US’ own strategy towards the Asia Pacific. The “Pivot” has been conspicuous by its absence[iii].  Trump’s reticence to articulate a strategy for Asia pacific or to build on the pivot leaves allies and friendly countries such as India exposed to China. The current tri-junction standoff is the latest manifestation in terms of possible Chinese reactions and minimal room for miscalculations for India.

Trump has chosen to remain silent on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet. More importantly, he seems to have tacitly acquiesced[iv] to a One China policy notwithstanding the standard US policy of regular defense sales to Taiwan. There is no reference in the Indo-US JS to human rights unlike the JSV 2015[v]. America has receded to realpolitik with internationalist, liberal and neo-conservative voices in the minority. Trump’s America is behaving like a normal great power while possessing the capabilities of the sole unipolar power. This has induced powers like Russia, China and India into a false sense of multi-polarity. The true litmus test of a multipolar world is relative capabilities. US continue to dominate the rest of the world in technological, strategic reach and defense budget terms.

The US-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative DTTI which is the centerpiece of defense cooperation received no mention besides the “Major defense partner” status. Previous American administrations understood the importance of defense cooperation with India when it comes to defense technology transfer and Joint Ventures. The F-16 deal is such an example[vi]. “Major Defense partner” has come to be understood as pseudonym for “Technology” from an Indian point of view but DTTI has shown little progress[vii].

American technology is not just a strategic requirement for the defense industry but all sectors of the Indian growth and socio-economic story.  Market access that US companies demand of Indian leadership needs to be understood in terms of capacity building for the average Indian rather than choices for the average Indian consumer. The American middle class cannot be compared to the average Indian middle and lower income class. The magnitude of the poverty challenge in India dwarfs the transient ‘America First’ politics in US. Previous US administrations understood the importance of being on the right side of the Indian growth story which in turn has been based on poverty alleviation and democratic principles historically.

Finally the consistency of religious nationalist politics that both PM and President have subjected their countries to, has chipped away at the bipartisanship of the relationship. The Indian and American media coverage[viii] of the visit suggests that the bipartisan nature of the relationship needs to be reflected more on both sides without compromising on highlighting problems and fair reporting. In fact, the issue of bipartisanship is a seminal feature of the Indo-US relationship. Political parties in both countries are still to find a framework to institutionalize this essential feature of the relationship.

The constant rhetoric of President Trump’s unpredictability led the Indian decision makers to err on the side of the caution with even gravely serious issues such as access to ‘Agriculture’ finding mention in a bid to square “America first” with “Make in India”.

The relationship’s center of gravity has shifted firmly to China with nationalism as the dominant theme in present day international system. The rise of China is now the foremost strategic challenge in Asia with terrorism soon becoming a western problem. A common approach to the problem of terrorism remains elusive in the Asian landscape and Asian history which has been shaped by European colonialism and differing meanings of Sovereignty, terrorism, freedom and disputes.

The Western world, having ignored the problem throughout the 20th century seems to be uniting against the threat of terrorism. This leaves India in a unique position to be the only Asian country serious about the threat of terrorism owing to its status as a multi-cultural society with a nationalist government at the helm. India’s relationships with Australia and Japan are Asian in characteristic but their strategic goals are constrained by the presence of China. Japanese capital & technology and Australian university system form the bedrock of these relationships rather than strategic factors. The India-US relationship however is a relationship of scale and scope with bilateral dialogues on 50 different issues and sectors. These are two huge federal countries and therefore all joint statements have to reflect this defining feature of the relationship. American insistence on reforms and Indian insistence on American global role are not the strategic questions of the relationship. The strategic question is political trust between Indians and Americans of various political spectrums. Such a goal would be fitting for a bilateral relationship between two countries of such scale & history.

The current governments in both countries preside over domestic issues of division rather than inclusiveness. They represent a break from the traditional conservative-liberal establishment politics. While PM enjoys majority support, the violence against Muslim and Dalits has increased[ix]. President trump has systematically[x] removed American government initiatives in many domestic and international issues. This has led to major protests for various issues all across the US.  President Trump’s use of unpredictability to keep his enemies on the defensive is leading to friendly countries being on the defensive in dealing with him instead. His strategy has led to making a relationship of incredible scope and scale into just another strategic partnership. The bi-partisan nature of Indo-US relationship needs to survive these tumults to transform into a relationship of trust rather than a strategic relationship eluding any meaningful definition. This definition has traditionally come from the President and requires consistency, commitment and trust instead of unpredictability. Indian diplomacy on the other hand has rarely been as accountable in the public domain compared to economists, military personnel and bureaucrats. Foreign Service in both countries often shares their particular domain with PMO and the White house more than other departments of government. Diplomacy by very nature is discrete and measured. But there needs to be mechanisms whereby serving diplomats can reveal their thinking behind framing joint statements with tangible and mutually agreed criteria of evaluation and timelines of analysis. Strategic reviews, NSS formulation, Defense White papers, an inventory of achieved outcomes are all possible suggestions for the government to consider. 21st century diplomacy needs to adapt to the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon with increased information and accountability about governmental thinking on issues of strategy, statecraft and outcomes.





[i] http://www.orfonline.org/expert-speaks/surviving-the-trump-problem/

[ii] http://www.firstpost.com/world/full-text-india-and-us-issue-joint-statement-during-


[iii] http://thediplomat.com/2017/03/straight-from-the-us-state-department-the-pivot-to-asia-is-over/

[iv] http://www.firstpost.com/world/donald-trump-xi-jinping-reach-


[v] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/25/us-india


[vi] https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=






[vii] http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/dtti-first-signs-good-


[viii] http://indianexpress.com/article/india/modi-us-visit-how-


[ix] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-40428067

[x] http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/susan


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Prateek Kapil
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