By his own admission, Donald Trump’s biggest trick in the bag is “unpredictability.” Markets hate the very idea and nations, too, are deeply uncomfortable with it.
The world now has to adjust to a president-elect who considers unpredictability a virtue and who has been making contradictory declarations. The expectation is that once in the White House, Trump will be more studied and measured.
He also likes to make deals – a prospect that opens possibilities but also presents challenges depending on who is making the deal.
Trump has never held a government job or served in the military. Like many in corporate America, he has known politics and politicians only as a donor, fixer and a seeker of favours from Washington.
In short, the world will have an unpredictable deal-maker in the White House. Diplomats around the world are understandably worried. They don’t have the usual markers of policy papers and briefings to take measure of the man, only tweets to guide them towards predictions and assessments. Many are wondering: if Trump “makes” foreign policy on the go, will they have to respond on the fly?
Scores of Republican strategists, foreign policy experts and pundits spent the last year signing letters pledging not to work for a Trump Administration. The hashtag #NeverTrump was popular. But now that real power is at hand, they may reconsider, if only to “save the world.”
What is Trump’s foreign policy or rather, his “take” on the world? So far, he has mocked America’s military allies, courted Vladimir Putin, threatened to declare China a “currency manipulator,” demanded payment for the U.S. security umbrella and promised to tear up trade pacts – all considered heresies in Washington and potentially destabilizing.
He has professed “love” for both India and Pakistan on camera – probably for the same reason: campaign donations. He promised to be India’s “best friend” in the White House at a rally organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), a new-ish organization that will be in play now that Trump has won.
The RHC can well be a bridge between a newly-cast Republican Party and the BJP. An early Trump visit to India is not ruled out if RHC insiders are to be believed. Trump and his associates do not view Prime Minister Narendra Modi or his background negatively, as some advisors closest to President Barack Obama did – although admittedly, the personal never got in the way of the political.
But that doesn’t mean Trump will not be a hard bargainer. He has railed against outsourcing, job losses and H-1B visas – all of which point fingers at India. Senator Jeff Sessions, one of his closest advisers, is a stern opponent of the H-1B programme and will likely exert pressure to trim or otherwise restrict the visas.
India can take comfort that its steadily expanding relationship with the United States enjoys bipartisan support, bolstered by a 3.1-million strong Indian American community that is becoming a bigger political force with each passing year.
To add ballast, four Indian Americans won seats in the House and Senate this election, taking the total to five – the highest ever and a landmark moment. They are all Democrats and expected to weigh in on India-related issues in the U.S. Congress.
But Washington may not function the way it used to, since Trump’s loudest pitch was to “drain the swamp” in the capital and force change. He is expected to act as a giant disruptor, disconnecting wires and create static.
Where it will leave bipartisan consensus on India, is anyone’s guess. Hillary Clinton and her team were known quantities but the same can’t be said of the new dispensation.
Trump brings in a huge element of uncertainty just as Indian foreign policy was adopting a bolder posture in Asia based on a gradual firming of Indo-U.S. ties under Obama. If Trump’s stray comments, which hint at a shrinking rather than an expanding American footprint in Asia, are to be believed, India will have to adjust accordingly.
Only few will disagree that India has benefitted from a U.S. presence in Asia, its enforcement of a rule-based order and protection of sea lines of communication. Any lowering of the U.S. profile under Trump’s “America First” slogan will create a vacuum – which in turn might mean a free-for-all among competing powers, the strongest of which is clearly China.
But at the same time if Trump actually hits the reset button with Russia and comes to an understanding, it opens enormous possibilities for new alignments. The growing proximity between Moscow and Beijing should worry Washington but the demonisation of Putin is a bigger project here.
No one really knows enough about Trump’s foreign policy inclinations to offer prescriptions and making educated guesses has its limitations. There is no option but to wait and see his picks for the cabinet.
From a foreign and security policy perspective, three top positions bear watching in any U.S. administration: The national security adviser (NSA) and secretaries of state and defence. The top name being floated for NSA is Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and former director of the Defence Intelligence Agency. Flynn is a controversial figure who was forced out by the Obama Administration for taking a hard line on methods needed to combat terrorism. The White House in his opinion, was too soft because it believed radical Islamist terrorism was no longer a seminal threat after the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Flynn even led the calls for “Lock her up” at the Republican Convention against Hillary Clinton, sparking outrage among serving and retired generals for dragging the military into rank partisanship – something that should ring familiar in India.
The Secretary of State post could go either to Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, or Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the foreign relations committee. Gingrich, a “flamethrower” known for two government shutdowns, is also a controversial figure. He was cited by his colleagues for ethics violations – a rare occurrence on Capitol Hill. Gingrich has made a comeback with Trump, designated the “elder” on policy issues. During the Republican Party convention in July he said Trump and Modi were a natural fit. He is also the honorary chairman of RHC, a group conceived by Shalabh Kumar, an Indian-born entrepreneur based in Chicago.
Gingrich credited Modi and Trump for single handedly changing the political dynamics in their countries and for taking a strong stand against terrorism. If he were to become America’s chief diplomat, India may find more of a meeting of minds and more practical cooperation.
Gingrich was a contender to be Trump’s vice president but lost to Mike Pence. He WILL certainly expect a senior position for sticking with Trump as party leaders abandoned him in droves, especially after several women accused the president-elect of sexually aggressive behavior.
Senator Corker, a former businessman and another cabinet hopeful, has a few bones to pick with India. At a hearing timed to muddy Modi’s visit to Washington this summer, he criticized India as a country of “slaves” and allowed a free-wheeling attack by fellow senators against the treatment of Christian NGOs by New Delhi. The hearing was largely one-sided and irked the Indian government no end.
For those in New Delhi who are celebrating a Trump victory, a word of caution: there is such a thing as too much change.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi
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