To say that the United States is still getting used to Donald Trump as president, six months into his inauguration, is at the very least, an understatement. It is against a backdrop of unpredictability unleashed by the president’s policy and turbulence, both domestically and globally, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-awaited meeting with Trump will take place in Washington on June 26.
Trump’s challenges abound on his own turf — from the courts, from Congress, and media on everything from travel restrictions on people from six Muslim countries, to charges of rigging the elections by colluding with Russia, to his attacks on the free press. Since he took over, Trump hasn’t indicated any sense of respect for, or desire to follow, traditional levers of diplomacy, leaving much to personal interactions with individual leaders.
If the leaks are any indication, Washington’s foreign policy establishment is frustrated. Key senior positions — including that of ambassador to India — are still empty, leaving the department of state and the department of defence largely rudderless. Campaign rhetoric on trade practices forgotten, Trump called China’s Xi Jinping a “great guy”. China, Saudi Arabia, (where he visited and, again forgetting campaign rhetoric, reaffirmed America’s friendship and declared Qatar an enemy throwing West Asia into crisis); even Russia has understood this paradigm shift, and opened direct communication with Trump and his team of family insiders. A personal rapport is also what Delhi’s clunky foreign policy machinery hopes to achieve when the two leaders meet.
The Indian side is confronted with some key concerns that Modi could raise in Washington. Indian nationals living in the US have been at the receiving end of an all-consuming anti-immigration rhetoric. Srinivas Kuchibhotla became the first to be killed in a hate crime after the immigration bans were announced, in Kansas. (It took Trump six days to condemn the killing). Campaign promises of nationalist and protectionist policies have impacted the immigration of highly skilled workers to the US. The much-sought after H1-B visa is subject to much greater scrutiny. Several new initiatives aimed at reforming skilled immigrant hiring policies have been introduced in Congress, raising alarm among Indian IT companies.
Under Barack Obama, India-US ties saw significant expansion in defence, counter-terrorism and trade cooperation. Indian national security managers are keen on expanding this particularly in ways that strengthen and solidify US support in combating Pakistan-sponsored extremism against India. New Delhi hasn’t forgotten that phone call between Trump and Nawaz Sharif – calling him a fantastic leader of a fantastic country, but is quick to replace that memory with the more recent snub to Sharif in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago where Trump referred to India (and not to Pakistan) as a victim of radical terror. An agreement for the sale of non-weaponised drones by US companies to India has been on the table for at least two years. Could India use Trump’s proclamations on the threat of Islamic extremism to secure the deal at the meeting?
For now, Washington’s South Asia policy seems restricted to Afghanistan’s security, critical for the region of course, but also the US. India’s challenge lies in bringing some of that attention to its own specific security concerns to the rest of the region, vis-a-vis Pakistan, and the all-weather China-Pakistan nexus.
Just how India will raise these concerns and what response it can expect, is unclear. Notions of shared democratic values are changing, and hard policy aside, the Trump era poses a major challenge for India-US ties.
Many compare Modi with Trump — for their populist politics and disregard of the media and civil society. But the comparison ends there. Modi, for all the criticism at home for a flagging economy, an agrarian crisis and silence as the number of incidents of communal violence rise, has consistently expressed the need to consolidate India’s role as a global player, with the US as lead partner.
However, given Trump’s fickle politics, his lack of attention to the need for a balance of power in Asia, and US foreign policy that swings from autopilot in some areas to dramatic shifts in others, New Delhi must lower its expectations and accept the possibility that this visit could be more about the optics than any real outcomes. Perhaps the best India can hope for when the two leaders meet, is holding on to the status quo until there is some stability in Washington. In these times, even that is good. As the old saying goes: Don’t make best the enemy of the good.
Authors: Bharath Gopalaswamy is director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council, Washington DC, and Maya Mirchandani is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
This piece appeared in the Hindustan Times on the 19th of June, one week before the meeting between Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.