After a dizzying round of speaking engagements in Washington D.C. one can but help coming away with the impression that the capital of the United States is not only deeply divided but also mightily dysfunctional. The divide is not confined to the traditional Republicans versus Democrat paradigm that has now paralysed policy processes in that city for years, it now cuts across the Republican establishment itself. Perhaps for the first time it has also cleaved the deep state in the United States of America. On the streets there are regular protests across American cities with the chant or the rant “Not My President” slicing and dicing the frigid air.
Former Senate majority leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle of the Republican and Democratic parties respectively have written a brilliant book called Crisis Point that maps the journey of the American Democratic experience and tries to suggest a fix to the broken politics in Washington and across America. However, the election of Donald Trump as President has only deepened these fissures. In America now a third category of politicos has come and they are called the “Trumpies” — the supporters and followers of Mr Trump.
Beyond the many wars that Mr Trump is fighting with the American media, the intelligence community and a host of world leaders — from Mexico to Australia — there is a sense of deep dread among the policy community that the Trump presidency may end up undermining the decades of hard work that has been done to establish America’s global position.
What Mr Trump describes as the swamp that has to be drained is an intricate web of lobbying firms, consulting companies and think tanks that cater to the power dynamic of a city whose influence extends much beyond its own beltway to the far corners of the world. What that swamp has also absorbed over a period of time is the best and the brightest brains in the US limited not to the legal fraternity alone.
One of the greatest challenges the new administration faces is filling up thousands of vacancies that are co-terminous with the term of any administration in the US. Given the fact that most of the “bright sparks” in the Republican corner were signatories to a series of appeals that urged the American people not to vote for Mr Trump, it has made them persona non grata with the new administration. There was a window when Mr Trump and his core team were prepared to overlook the indiscretion but after a row of spats with the mainstream media and the spook population they have now circled the wagons.
If one was to go by the “informed gossip” in the US capital, senior presidential adviser Steve Bannon is now the man in charge of the appointments processes and extreme ideological vetting is the order of the day. Since there is hardly any bench strength left on the Republican side, there is a desperate scramble to look beyond the talent pool and find people who were not signatories to various anti-Trump missives and are “Trumpies” in some manner of speaking.
This means that quite a few positions in the US administration may remain unfilled for a while with the Obama holdovers continuing to run policy at the middle levels of the US administration.
Where does all this confusion leave India? Frankly, nowhere, because even after 40-odd days, there are no go-to-people in Washington D.C. who are charged with the South Asia remit.
What then are the tea leaves that policymakers in New Delhi should look out for to determine the trajectory of the new US administration towards India beyond the shenanigans of a bunch of carpetbaggers masquerading as Trump groupies trying to peddle influence in New Delhi.
First and foremost, what will be the US policy towards Afghanistan? Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has asked for a surge of troops to deal with a resurgent Taliban. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that enhanced troop numbers should come from both the US and its allies. He said: “They could come from our allies as well as the United States. We have identified the requirement and the desire to advise below the corps level. It would enable us to thicken our advisory efforts across the Afghanistan mission.”
With US allies in no mood to step up to the plate, if Mr Trump heeds the general’s request this would mean that he will step back from the Jacksonian imperative that is running through the “Trumpies” that the US must disengage from its global role. That in effect would also refix the policy towards Pakistan. More US troop numbers will mean more reliance and dependence on Pakistan. That automatically will translate into a rehyphenation of India and Pakistan.
If the US would require Pakistani assistance in myriad forms in Afghanistan then it obviously cannot and will not come down heavily on the terrorist infrastructure in that country and therefore the conventional American policy of paying lip service to Indian democracy while perpetuating an incestuous relationship with the Pakistani deep state will not only continue, but perhaps, intensify.
The second thing to watch out for is — what will be the US policy towards China? If Mr Trump is indeed serious about “Make in America” and “America First” then this should translate into reshoring of American manufacturing facilities. While automation and robotics will unfortunately ensure that this does not mean any substantive employment opportunities for the rust belt of the US, what this will do is inject a new dynamic into the Sino-American equation.
If one was to look back to the July of 1971 when Henry Kissinger flew from Pakistan to Beijing to break the ice with Mao Zedong, it is American manufacturing that has substantively underpinned the Chinese economic miracle. As of 2015, the American investment in China was valued at $74.56 billion. The high point of the US-Chinese relationship was in 2009 when Barack Obama actually proposed a G-2 to handle global affairs post the economic meltdown.
If Mr Trump succeeds in luring even a fraction of that back or succeeds in stopping fresh American capital from being invested in China it would introduce more than an element of strain into the relationship. This could work to India’s advantage, not economically but strategically. From an economic perspective, “America First” and Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” are parallel tracks that are not destined to meet.
However, the fructification of this strategic lever for India depends upon another variable that is at the moment ambiguous. Would the US like to disengage from the Asia-Pacific? If Mr Trump’s decision to renege on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is any indication, then in the coming months and years a huge power vacuum is going to open up in the region. Each country will have to revaluate and recalibrate its position over China. A lot of countries in the region may just decide to bend to the Chinese wind. In those circumstances, America’s economic pullback from China will get replaced by investments and enhanced trade within the region. Strategically speaking, India will not be able to take any advantage of the likely US-China estrangement, for the Australia-India-Japan axis without a US underpinning will be like a car without wheels frozen in time and space.
For India the best-case scenario will be American disengagement in Afghanistan that will enable it to take a more objective position vis-à-vis Pakistan coupled with a pullback on investments in China but continued engagement in the larger Asia-Pacific region. This will make a formal or non-formal quadrilateral between US-Japan-India-Australia a reality. It will add to New Delhi’s heft.
The final thing that India has to watch out for is the position that the Trump administration takes regarding the global trading order. It is amusing that the US now wants to demolish the multilateral trading system it so assiduously created over the decades and the President of the still totalitarian Communist state, the People’s Republic of China, is the new poster boy of globalisation. The paradox could not be droller. As of now all the balls are in the air in Washington D.C. and India, like the rest of the world, is in a wait and watch mode.