US President Donald Trump has been rewriting the rules of domestic and international politics ever since he assumed office. In an environment of increasing uncertainty, the world over, Suhasini Haidar, Diplomatic Affairs Editor, The Hindu spoke at length about the Trump Effect and the challenges and opportunities for Asia. She was delivering the Changing Asia Lecture organized by the Society for Policy Studies in association with India Habitat Centre in New Delhi.
She observed that traditionally the US has had a history of honoring deals made by previous administrations and a singular vision has always guided its policies. But Trump has turned the precept on its head and values like Pax Americana and the desire for a liberal rules-based international order is no longer a given objective.
Elaborating further, she said, “The US has unilaterally changed the landscape.” She pointed to how US has had fights with some of its closest allies like NATO, Canada and Australia to pay more than their current share , the imposition of tariffs and the reversal of immigration policies to explain her point.
“There have been walkouts from international agreements and regimes: In the past two years, the US has exited from UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has threatened to walk out of the World Trade Organisation too. It has walked out of two key international multilateral agreements: the JCPOA with Iran and the Paris Climate Change Agreement. In fact, on the environment, the Trump administration changed as many as 70 laws and rules in its first year, the largest chunk of roughly 200 laws that were changed through executive orders and legislative action,” she said.
“Above all, there has been the removal or reduction of the US presence from most theatres of action, and creating space for regional players: leaving Syria to Iran and its allies, Afghanistan to Russia, Yemen to Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan to China. 2018 has also been a year of high drama on the trade front: with tariffs and sanctions being proposed against a slew of countries, and a full-blown trade war with China with tariffs on goods worth $200 billion,” she added.
While stating that Pax Americana has fallen into a “pattern of walkouts”, Haidar observed that not all the moves have been unpopular worldwide. She pointed out that India was happy with the tough talking Trump did with China and also with the US decision to cut military funding to Pakistan.
“In the past two years and even in his campaign, Mr. Trump’s Doctrine was clear: Elements included an 'America First' trade and foreign policy. Other elements on the same subject were that Allies must step up and contribute resources, that America’s Enemies are on notice, that the US would meet threats with Power, and demand a reciprocity in trade,” she said.
An interesting comparison that she drew here was to President Nixon’s “madman theory” where he reportedly tried to convince the Viet Cong, and then the Soviets that he was crazy enough to use the nuclear option. She then went on to add that the Trump Doctrine is a little closer to the US acronym WYSIWYG. “What you see is what you get”, and said it is possibly a cause for greater worry.
Shifting the focus to challenges that lie ahead for India, she pointed to the unscheduled telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump in February this year, the contents of which were never made public by the MEA. But a few days later, breaking the protocol, Trump went on to say publicly that Modi had called him to say India was lowering the tariffs on Harley Davidson bikes which further soured the relationship.
Haidar opined that few focused on the unsaid signals from Trump here. “The first, that Trade is an issue on which accommodating the US will (see it) reap disproportionate benefits. The opposite will wreak disproportionate anger. The second, that India or any other country must not take their special status with the US for granted. And the third, that Trump is not a traditional interlocutor. You may think you are having a private conversation with him, but the niceties of keeping the conversation private on his side can be dispensed with. So be prepared to say only that which can be publicly revealed, and don’t make promises in private that you wont keep publicly,” she said.
She also focused on the decreasing interactions with the two leaders having met only twice last year and said gaps must be addressed.
First is the economic impact. “In the past year, India has faced tariffs on a wide range of goods, not of course close to what China has faced, but significant, nonetheless. There has been a surge in disputes between the two countries,” she said. She also pointed out that Trump has called India a “tariff king” and a “freeloader”, that “piggybacks” on other economies. Though India’s response is still awaited, the impact on trade is becoming clear.
She also brought attention to the US-China trade war. Quoting a report, she said, “The United States exports more to the Indo-Pacific than to Canada and Mexico combined. Five of the United States’ top 10 bilateral trading partners are in the Indo-Pacific: China(1st), Japan(4th), South Korea(7th), India(9th), and Taiwan (10th). As you can see, the US will also stand to lose from a prolonged trade war, but smaller economies in Asia will be hardest hit.”
Next on focus was the strategic impact: “ In the two geo-strategic policies unveiled by President Trump in the past year, India plays an important stated role. The first is the US’s Indo-Pacific Policy, and the second is its South Asia policy for Afghanistan. On the Indo-Pacific policy though, it is still unclear what each side will do for the other. When it comes to connectivity projects in the region that would help India counter China, there is no movement on joint projects of the kind we have seen between India and Japan. On the other side, maritime security, India has ruled out being part of patrols in anything other than ‘neighbouring waters’ with third parties. While these are promising areas of cooperation, particularly with the signing of the LEMOA and CISMOA agreements to coordinate between militaries, it remains to be seen how far they will go together and how soon, given the Trump Effect,” she said.
On Afghanistan, she said it needs to be seen where a US pull out will leave India which is not prepared to put boots on the ground. “If India won’t even allow Malabar exercises to be convened for the Quadrilateral with India US Japan and Australia together, then where is the clarity of purpose in the Indo-Pacific?, “ she questioned.
Opining that some of these cracks can be papered over by the growing defence purchases India makes from the US, she cautioned that transactionalism cannot in the long run, overshadow traditional positions.
“In terms of the extra benefits of the India-US partnership, it has been a mixed bag too. While it helps to have the US’ backing on issues like terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the Financial Action Task Force, UN groupings, there is a certain opportunity cost in terms of ties with China, which the government has had to address in the last year, post-Wuhan summit. In our neighbourhood, the inclusion of the US along with China, means India becomes a minor player in its own neighbourhood,” Haidar observed.
“Finally, there is the Trump effect on the most resilient and substantial bond between India and the United States: that of the goodwill shared by their people. For most Americans, India is a land of myriad cultures, history and plurality. For most Indians, America is the land of opportunity and equality. It is not an exaggeration to say that the advent of political populism is bringing those values into doubt, not just in the US but in India and around the world. But the impact is most quantifiable in the US as visas dry up and rules are changed to stop their flow,” she added.
She said, the openness itself is in doubt and Trump’s policies have started having an impact. Quoting the official annual Open Doors report in the year ended Sept. 30, 2017, she said, the State Department issued 17% fewer student visas than in the previous year, and 40% fewer than the peak year of 2015. India and China, with the biggest student intake showed very low increases of 3-5% compared to the past. The decline in international enrollment is forcing institutions around the country to make tough budget cuts as well, which could ultimately impact the US’s resource wealth in research and other areas. She also observed that the Trump effect is seen in the polarisation of society, and percieved rise in racist attacks within the country.
Stating that it is necessary for India and other Asian countries to continue to grow and secure their futures, she said, “Where possible, the US must be negotiated with, and convinced about the detrimental impact of its actions on the world. Where it is impossible to change its course, the US, like China has in many areas, must face a combined and united front.” Giving an example, she said, when Washington imposed Steel and Aluminium tariffs this year, for example, it may have been more productive to have organised a coordinated pushback rather than each country negotiating their own waivers by one tactic or another.
“The need of the hour is a detailed understanding of the Trump Effect, studied without the unfair prism of Anti-Americanism,” she opined.
Responding to a question on Trump effect, she said she is of the opinion that it will be a lasting one as he has managed to change the way a lot of Americans think. “He is here because he is a democratically elected leader and he represents something that people wanted. The effects of the reversal of international agreements will lasting,” she said.
C Uday Bhaskar, Director , Society for Policy Studies, who chaired the session, pointed to the uncertainty and twitter-turbulence that Trump has brought to the existing global order by making good on campaign promises like walking out of important international agreements where everyone thought there was too much at stake. Bhaskar added that the world will have to contend with two kinds of unilateralism now – China’s creeping assertiveness and the disruptive one that Trump has unleashed over the last two years..