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Trust or Trump: Implications

“We will deal with everyone fairly”- was the first foreign policy statement of the President-Elect of the US after his election.  Asked on the campaign trail as to what he thinks of the India-Pakistan relationship, the response quite characteristically was brief– “It’s a hot tinderbox and…….. I would love to mediate or facilitate”. While India-US relations enjoyed bi-partisan support, this election has led to the marginalization of the same democrat and republican parties. Mr. Trump was adamant on the fact that the US foreign policy was a disaster. The same ‘US foreign policy disaster’ however, had seen the US come closer to India over the last two decades.  While a lot of hyperbole is expected on a campaign trail, inconsistency is something foreign governments are always wary of. The blatant use of dilution of truths is another aspect that foreign governments are wary of. Mr. Trump’s campaign would have even realists wondering about such an assertive and aggressive use of fear, mistrust and insecurity for political advantages. Conservative intellectuals like Niall Ferguson have insisted that what Mr. Trump represents is clearly not fascism but populism and populists have not created instability. Rather they have been isolationists in the past. So the US might start receding from the world. It is debatable whether this was a populist election considering the campaign was strongly racist in character. Therefore, role of trust has taken a huge blow in the international system which will have negative implications for all countries.


The implication of that outcome for India-Pakistan however, is that wherever the US has receded from the world, Russia and China have come in to fill the gap. If President-Elect does follow a policy of rapprochement with Russia and isolationism with respect to Chinese influence in Asia, it will have mixed outcomes for South Asia. While US-Russian rapprochement is in India’s interests, American recession from South Asia leaves a power vacuum which China will fill owing to the relative power differential between India, Russia and China and the Pakistan-Chinese nexus. Of course, that’s not all; Mr. Trump it seems wants to take a transactional view on India-US relationship rather than a strategic view which was the primary reason for bi-partisan support previously. He wants to follow the same with respect to China. This means that there may be a new false economic equivalence between India and China in the Trump administration rather than the false strategic equivalence between India-Pakistan that previous US governments were accused of. His views against globalization and American involvement in the world combined with frequent flip flops indicate that the Pakistani hope of American mediation between India-Pakistan might still be a distant hope. But precisely due to this inconsistency, both Indian and Pakistani governments will be wary that old issues might be dug out. Continued commitment to the Afghan rebuilding project is another serious strategic issue.


The problem with unpredictability and uncertainty is not simply that it can confuse your adversaries but it can unnerve your friends. American electorate seems to have no problem with the notion, in fact implicitly legitimized the notion that the US has not been a stabilizing force in world politics and the insistence with which Mr. Trump discredited both parties seems to suggest that both good and bad options are on the table for the future for all concerned. On the contrary, friendly countries can legitimately ask if there will be a step back on issues where painstaking bipartisan and bilateral consensus was created. As part of the whole unpredictability and uncertainty narrative around Mr. Trump, Incrementalism has given way to radicalism.


Finally, the role of trust in international system will be further nitpicked. This is due to the unprecedented inconsistency of flip-flops and somersaults that characterized Mr. Trump’s campaign. For all disagreement one can have with individual political parties, they do institutionalize certain policy positions which presidents then strive to give a practical and consistent form. Mr. Trump has shown a disdain for institutionalism even questioning the fairness of the electoral process at various stages. He has questioned treaties such as NATO, JCPOA and Asian security architecture. The gravity of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, therefore, is noteworthy.

And If Mr. Trump does indeed revert to the republican policy platform, will he then be able to support or indeed strengthen pivot to Asia? Will he strengthen the strategic view of the relationship with India similar to the democrats? Will he strengthen the war on Islamic terrorism while keeping the balance of power in the West Asian region for stability which in turn would naturally involve leveraging both Iran and Saudi Arabia – two powers who are at loggerheads? 


Will he be able to answer the fundamental question that Henry Kissinger has posited to all US Presidents- “I would begin by saying that we have to have faith in ourselves. That is an absolute requirement. We can’t reduce policy to a series of purely tactical decisions or self-recriminations. The fundamental strategic question is: What is it that we will not permit, no matter how it happens, no matter how legitimate it looks?”

“And a second question is: What are we trying to achieve? We don’t want Asia or Europe to fall under the domination of a single hostile country or the Middle East? But if avoiding that is our goal, we have to define hostility. According to my own thinking about Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, it is not in our interest that any of them fall under domination.”


Closer home, Afghanistan-Pakistan has been a blind spot in terms of US overall strategy but the drone program, the tilt towards India, the de-internationalization of Kashmir, the reduction of American interventionism, the DTTI, the 123 agreement were positive developments under the Obama administration. If the primacy of engagement will shift to economic issues then the strategic issues that have driven the relationship despite institutional inertia stand to suffer. And if Mr. Trump is indeed aggressive towards China economically and recedes strategically, the Chinese leadership might try to offset that by receding economically and expanding strategically. Incidentally, in 5 years, that's 2021- is the 100th anniversary of the CCP and President Xi is now called a 'core leader'. He remarked on 150th anniversary of Sun-Yat-Sen-“We (China) are more confident and capable of realizing the goal of national rejuvenation than at any other time in history.”


[1] http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/us-will-deal-fairly-with-everyone-trump-to-world-community-116110900601_1.html

[2] http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/trump-offers-to-be-mediator-or-arbitrator-for-india-pakistan-talks/article/2604691

[3] http://www.cirsd.org/en/horizons/horizons-autumn-2016--issue-no-8/populism-as-a-backlash-against-globalization

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/12/the-lessons-of-henry-kissinger/505868/

[6] Ibid.

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Prateek Kapil
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