Uncertain waters

In his address to the joint session of the United States Congress on February 28, President Donald Trump said, “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America”.

Thus, he once again made it clear that his focus is on the unrestrained pursuit of American national interest and not on upholding the world order that ironically America had contributed most to creating after World War II.

America sought to underpin that order through the principles of democracy and liberalism, human rights and civil liberties, free trade and investments and collective security through the United Nations system. With the beginning of the Cold War, America established and sustained Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) for European and its own security.

It is true that whenever there was a real contradiction between these principles and American interests, the former took a back seat. However, successive US presidents sought hard to cloak their actions in internationalism and high principles.

Trump is the first who has assertively abandoned them altogether despite some insignificant lip service. This can only have enormous repercussions on the international landscape and for all countries; India will not be an exception.

The immigration issue is a good example of Trump’s political values which resonate with a large segment of Americans who have no interest in issues beyond the local.

His determined insistence on reducing the flow of immigrants into America is not only to combat extremist Islam and economic reasons; it is, at a more basic level, a repudiation of the country’s liberal values so assertively and proudly claimed by its traditional establishment.

For Trump and his supporters, the American political class was willing to abandon the country’s interest in seeking to uphold a world order. He proudly says he will never do so.

Successive American presidents have sought to contain extremism and terrorism, some of which have emerged from sharp Islamist mazhabs. While doing so, they have all balanced their comments through assertions that terrorism cannot be associated with any religion.

Trump has not done so. In his inaugural speech, he said, “...and unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will wipe out from the face of the earth”. Again, and in his address to the joint session of Congress, he said, “We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism”.

In neither case was there any attempt to ensure that his remarks did not imply a bias against Islam itself. It is only in his second executive order on immigration that he has noted that the first order which has been stayed by the US courts “was not motivated by animus toward any religion”. This sentence was to overcome legal difficulties. It does not mean that Trump has changed his approach.

Trump has not fully spelt out the kind of international system he wishes to usher in to replace the present world order. He has been disparaging on the United Nations, favouring bilateral relationships.

After the end of the Cold War, the US sought to act through the UN on issues of international security such as in the Balkans and the Korean Peninsula. President Bush though bypassed it and created a coalition of the willing before attacking Iraq in 2003.

It is likely that Trump will be even less interested in acting through the UN Security Council on issues where major American interests are at stake. His likely option will be to create a web of bilateral relationships to effectively pursue American interests.

After showing great scepticism at Nato’s relevance, he seems now to be conscious of its utility but wants the Europeans to bear their part of the financial burden. The Nato was established to counter the Soviets; its primary focus continues to be Russia.

However, Trump does not share the traditional American establishment’s negativity towards Russia. As such, the evolution of the US-Russian bilateral relationship will greatly impact Nato.

Foremost challenge
There is no doubt that China will be foremost among Trump’s foreign policy challenges. Beijing is aggressively spreading its influence all over the world but its impact is most felt in its immediate neighbourhood.

At a recent seminar in Delhi, a prominent scholar from south-east Asia said that China was “all over” the region. No regional country was willing to “confront” it. Philippines too wanted to make up with China despite succeeding in its action at the Permanent Court of Arbitration against it.

Clearly, American policies under then president Obama did not restrain China. Will Trump act more aggressively? He has talked tough but what is his actual space to manoeuvre with China?

Trump has criticised China’s unfair trade practices and has called it a currency manipulator. However, with China holding more than $1 trillion of US debt, there is a mutual interest in both countries not to allow their interaction to damage their economies.

Economic factors will not prevent geo-political competition and accompanied posturing but it would be wise for the Indian leadership in particular not to overlook the implications of the economic aspects of US-China relations.

The world is entering a new phase marked by globalisation and an intense reaction to it by segments which feel that they have lost out. The interplay of these contradictions will impact on all aspects of the international system including through challenging current value systems. India will thus have to deftly navigate in far more uncertain waters in the coming years.

(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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