US President Donald Trump continues to challenge almost all the traditional assumptions about America’s international relations. Consider, for example, his most recent remarks that the European Union might be America’s most important adversary. A day before he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump put the European Union — whose members are some of America’s oldest allies and friends — at the top of the list of America’s foes. Asked by a TV interviewer to name America’s most important foe, Trump started with the European Union.
“Well, I think we have a lot of foes,” Trump began. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us is in trade. Now, you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe. Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn’t mean they are bad… It means that they are competitive,” Trump concluded. His outburst against the EU might be shocking, but it is part of an emerging pattern. Trump quarelled with America’s leading economic partners in the G-7 summit last month on issues relating to trade. At the summit of the world’s most powerful military alliance — the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — last week, Trump accused Germany of being “totally controlled by Russia”.
He said Germany was paying billions of dollars in a gas deal with the Russians, when American tax payers are paying more than their fair share in defending Berlin against Russia. Trump warned the NATO allies that if they did not contribute more to the collective defence burden, America would go its own way. Travelling to London soon after, Trump, sought to undermine the British Prime Minister Theresa May at a moment when she was battling Brexit hardliners in her own party and the tough EU terms of separation. He also seemed to support May’s rival in the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, who recently quit as the foreign secretary.
As he stomped through Europe in the last few days, Trump’s list of political demolitions turned out to be breathtaking. One is the so-called special relationship between America and Britain. For nearly a century, the Anglo-American partnership has been the strongest bilateral relationship in the world. Two, he is threatening to dismantle NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. Three, despite the huge resistance at home and in Europe, Trump seems determined to enhance the engagement with Putin’s Russia. Fourth, he is sustaining the pressure on EU and China to change the terms of economic engagement with the United States.
For many in India, it is tempting to align with Trump’s critics, at home in America and his allies in Europe and denounce the US president’s disruptions. Delhi’s focus must instead be on understanding the new turbulence unleashed by Trump. Trump is widely seen as an aberration in US politics. There is much hope that things will return to normal after he departs the scene. May be or may be not.
The fact is Trump’s opposition to globalisation, open borders and foreign military interventions have always had some resonance on the left and right of the American political spectrum. Trump has emerged as the utterly unanticipated political instrument to channel these sentiments into direct confrontation with the old order.
Trump is compelling India to rethink its longstanding foreign policy assumptions — and not not just those that Delhi adopted after the Cold War. The consensus on economic globalisation and a relative harmony among the major powers — which defined the post Cold War era — is now breaking down.
The tensions between the US and Russia and Moscow’s deepening embrace of Beijing have certainly created problems for India. As a late convert to economic globalisation, India will have much to lose, if the current trading order breaks down.
India will need a more transactional — a pejorative word in India’s diplomatic lexicon — approach to deal with the Trump effect. Claiming that it is “WTO compliant” is a poor strategy when the big boys are changing the trading rules. Delhi needs a flexible negotiating strategy founded in a more ambitious internal reform agenda.
Equally important is the need for India to come to terms with Trump’s deconstruction of the “West”. It is rarely that a dominant power seeks to overthrow the status quo. Trump is doing precisely that in questioning the utility of the collective Western institutions built after the Second World War and demanding a re-arrangement of burdens and benefits between the US and its partners.
Through the 20th century, India’s foreign policy has been shaped by the impulse to stand up against the West — initially against colonialism and later against Western security alliances. In the 21st century, India’s efforts to construct closer relations with the US, have been slowed by the presumed political centrality of retaining “strategic autonomy” from the West.
In Trump’s world, the contradictions within the West are becoming sharper than ever before. Obsession with “strategic autonomy” makes little sense when the post-War geopolitical categories are breaking down. As in the economic domain, so in the political, India’s diplomatic emphasis must be transactional.
Delhi must avoid conflict with the powers with which it has serious disputes. It also needs to lift self-imposed limits on security cooperation with the powers that are ready to boost India’s material power. In these troubled times, transactional diplomacy, and not political posturing, holds the key to achieving India’s ambitious national goals.