The real weight of democracy lies in its institutions and not its leaders. This statement is very critical to foreign policy. It is the institutions and their processes which provide the much-needed stability and continuity required to maintain smoother relations and avoid conflicts between nations. This very point encourages me to maintain in this article that it makes little difference to the attitudes of two large democracies towards each other irrespective of Mr Trump’s victory in the recent elections.
Indo-US relations have grown steadily regardless of which party or president was in power for more than a decade now. Their collaboration in the use of nuclear energy is a perfect example of how deep they have come in this relationship. The days of sanctions under the Clinton Administration for Pokhran-II seems far in the distant past compared to the present-day US lobbying for India’s spot on the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group. It is important to note that leaders have changed on both sides but relations have remained unfettered due to such change.
I maintain that change in leadership has no major impact on foreign policy because in scenarios where a democracy like the US interacts with a dictatorship it is literally engaging only with the dictator and what he thinks is best for the relationship but when two democracies like the US and India interact the dialogue stretches beyond its leaders and involves different people, institutions, and processes at every level to reach an agreement.
If individual outlook of leaders had any bearing on foreign policy, then one must examine the past in search of any evidence to validate this proposition. The Indo-US history is dotted with examples to support the contrary mainly due to geopolitical interests coming in the way of personal preferences of the leaders. The issue of denying a visa to the now Prime Minister Modi due to his human rights record over riots in his home state of Gujarat as Chief Minister and him choosing to engage with the US as his predecessor has done before him is one such example.
I concede that the President of the United States enjoys a lot of discretion when it comes to foreign policy and protecting American interests outside its territory and there is this feeling of uncertainty lingering around how Mr Trump will use his discretion in the Indian context. Mr Trump employed rhetoric and few ambiguous statements on issues such as the visa regime, battling terror and his love for Hindus giving no hint regarding his foreign policy plan. The problem with rhetoric is that it lacks substance and offers little help while drafting foreign policy. It will be interesting to see how trade and geopolitical equations turn out under the Trump Administration.
He specifically called out multilateral trade agreements to be abusive towards the American economy and wants fair bilateral deals in its place. The Indian Administration under Prime Minister Modi will see this as an opening for better bilateral deals with the US for its exports. A major portion of Indian exports finds its shore in the US markets and brings in $40bn approximately every year. Any tweak in those numbers will give the Indian economy an impetus to accelerate its growth. Trump also emphasized regularly on strengthening the manufacturing sector in the US to generate jobs and as the statistics go US imports to India only reflect half of what it exports to the US. Therefore, a good bilateral agreement on trade between the two can only be mutually beneficial putting their respective economies on the path to consistent growth.
Mr Trump’s policy on combating terror may add another layer to the Indo-US relations on defence and security. The present position is that the US maintains its relationship with India not at the expense of any other geopolitical player in the region especially Pakistan, India’s nuclear-armed neighbour. Although his speeches on Muslims created concerns on the future course of US ties with Pakistan, a US diplomat in Pakistan was quick to reassure that foreign policies are drafted based on national interests and not on individual opinions. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz expressed his opinion that it does not concern Pakistan if the co-operation between India and the US did not tilt the strategic balance between the nuclear-armed rivals.
A change for the better or worse from the status quo in relations is indeed possible but that cannot be credited to the leadership alone. The vagueness in foreign policy during the Trump era can tempt other regional powers like Russia, Iran, and China to test the resolve of the newly elected Administration by attempting to spread their agendas which may force the US to shift traditional viewpoints and dimensions in its relationship with India but that is only a possibility yet to be seen. Therefore, in the absence of any major event that severely undermines the current world order, it can be safe to say it will be business as usual and if it is anything Mr Trump will only remain as the face of the US foreign policy like his predecessors have been in the past.