Dealing with America First

America’s new foreign policy contains both opportunities and challenges for India.

Ever since a foul-mouthed businessman known for his showmanship named Donald Trump proved major psephologists wrong, and became the 45th President of the United States, it has become a trend to sing obituaries to the “liberal world order” and America’s “globalism”. Analysts have had a field day, attacking his major foreign policy decisions, like pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific partnership (TPP), the Paris climate deal, criticising the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners, sabre rattling with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or the more recent call to shift Israel’s capital to Jerusalem. His late-night tweets have given much material to stand-up artists. Involving his daughter and his son-in-law as primary insiders in the White House has attracted much negative press.

So, what does the first major US policy document to have come out of the Trump presidency, the National Security Strategy (NSS) 2017, tell us about this administration, which has been in the news mostly for wrong reasons? Does the Trump administration portend the American decline as many fear? Will a Trump presidency tear down America’s system of alliances and partners around the world? Or does the NSS project traditional US foreign policy, as opposed to any radical shift? What does all this mean for India and its relations with the United States?

First and foremost, too much should not be read into the ‘America First’ slogan. This is a rather generic slogan. Concerns that it might send signals of the US ceding global leadership and turning isolationist are overblown. The history of US foreign policy, or for that matter, of any other country, has been grounded on a ‘country first’ principle, what the new NSS prefers to call ‘principled realism’. So, there is nothing sui generis about an ‘America First’ foreign policy. It would be naïve to believe that any US presidency has ever acted for some sort of global charity and not for America’s national interest in the first place.

What is new in the NSS, perhaps, is the emphasis accorded to the geopolitical significance of what is now called the Indo-Pacific region, although the Trump administration circumscribes the region “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” The major villains in the latest NSS are countries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, and non-state violent extremist organisations. They are not surprising candidates. The NSS raises red flags over China’s and Russia’s intentions “to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests,” but also says that “the intentions of both nations are not necessarily fixed. States stand ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries.”

What does it foretell for India’s foreign policy choices, in the midst of permutations and combinations of new great power relations that Delhi needs to traverse? While India needs to engage with China and Russia in multilateral forums like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and RIC (Russia, India, China), India is also seen teaming up with fellow democracies like the US, Japan and Australia to counteract the aggressive rise of China. While India is seen diversifying its defence relations with the US both in terms of defence trade and interoperability, Russia still remains an important defence supplier to India. However, such challenges are to be expected on the road to becoming, what Delhi likes to call, a “leading power”.

The NSS also says that “the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.” This means India has some tight balancing to do, as has always been the case, when it comes to maintaining relations with Tehran and Washington at the same time. India-Iran convergences, mainly in the realm of energy trade, have often come under strain in the wake of bitter US-Iran ties. After a brief interlude of improved US-Iran relations during the Obama administration, things are back to where they were, when Delhi’s ties to Tehran will be tested.

Despite generic political rhetoric coming out of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which lauded the “strategic importance given to India-US relationship in the new National Security Strategy,” much more transactional negotiations are bound to happen as India and the US aim to take the partnership to a higher level. One of the most notable areas of opportunity and challenge would be Trump’s emphasis on fair and reciprocal economic partnerships. How this will translate in terms of ironing out differences over intellectual property rights (IPR) and technology transfers would form a major area of negotiation between Delhi and Washington.

While the US was already moving to become energy self-reliant and a major energy exporter, the NSS shows a more assertive tone, by declaring that “for the first time in generations, the United States will be an energy-dominant nation,” proclaiming an aim “to lead in innovative and efficient energy technologies, recognizing the economic and environmental benefits to end users.” India recently received its first ever shipment of US crude oil, with imports reported to increase. Besides, Indian public and private companies have also reportedly invested in US shale assets.  How Delhi and Washington will take forward this aspect of the relationship, while balancing demands for interrupted energy supplies and the need for cleaner energy, remains to be seen.

Much has been written on how the Trump administration heralds the age of a self-centred America, out to tear apart the alliances that has helped sustain US primacy in the international system. However, the NSS is hardly reflective of such a trend, but rather vouches for “strong commitment and close cooperation with allies and partners” that “magnify U.S. power and extend U.S. influence.” Nevertheless, Trump’s lack of diplomatic finesse and his flare of dramatic and verbal showdown might have caught allies and partners off guard, whether it is chiding NATO partners for not doing enough burden-sharing, or pitting the “free” and “unfree” world against each other.

The NSS says that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.”  Countries like China and Russia, as leaders of the “repressive vision”, are America’s adversaries, that would like to tip the balance of power in their favour. The US, according to the NSS welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner,” and “will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India.” This signals opportunities to take India-US maritime cooperation to greater levels, in pursuit of freedom of the seas, and counteracting China’s increasing influence in it near seas and forays into the Indian ocean region mainly through infrastructure investments.

However, strategic opportunities come with challenges. While counteracting the rise of an aggressive China with unilateral influence in the Indo-Pacific is certainly a strategic congruence between India and the US, the emerging trilateral dynamics between US-India-China is not a zero-sum game. The mutual expectations between Delhi and Washington will be acutely impacted by what transpires between Delhi and Beijing and between Washington and Beijing. Trump is definitely not the nuanced and silver-tongued Obama. But will Trump be the cause of an American decline in the international system, and lead to the rise of China as an undisputed global leader?

An American decline as and when it comes, will not be because of Trump alone but because of an inevitable change of guard at the international system as a result of what Fareed Zakaria calls the ‘rise of the rest’. While no one seems to be sleepless in Delhi because of Trump’s foreign policy, Delhi needs to understand that India’s foreign and security policy cannot be outsourced. As Trump projects an America First foreign policy, India should engage the United States in the Indo-Pacific with an India First foreign policy.