Mani Shankar Aiyar On Trump Putting India In Its Place

Published: June 29, 2018 12:33 IST

As a quite out-of-date Nehruvian, I have always been skeptical of drifting away from the fundamental precepts and perceptions of Non-alignment, even in this unaligned world order. Hence, my continuing skepticism of the true worth of our being hailed as a "Major Defense Partner" of the United States.

Such "strategic partnerships", even if they are with 40 countries, do constrain our freedom of thought and action in international affairs even if we like to affirm that they do not. It could legitimately be argued that there never was a time when freedom of thought and action were not constrained by practical imperatives, as witness the ambiguity of Nehru's public stand on the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. That was once again on display when the Soviets put down Czechoslovakia in 1968, as also when in 1980 Indira Gandhi kept her stern warnings over Afghanistan to Brezhnev strictly private. In that sense, foreign policy cannot ever be untrammeled. But Non-alignment did help our objective evaluation of any given situation to be untrammeled even if pragmatic considerations modified our articulation of where we stood. "Ekla chalo re" was always more an attitude of mind than a final determinant of policy.

Nevertheless, for those of my generation who grew through the heady days when India punched much above her weight in the world at large - Korea in 1953, Indo-China in 1954, Suez in 1956, the liberation of scores of countries in the sixties and the seventies, issues like disarmament through the decades of the '50s to the '80s, and evolving special policies within the evolving post-WW II global economic order for the Group of 77 developing and least developed countries, and securing the elbow-room to win military victory in 1971 - Nehruvian foreign policy, bar the Chinese disaster, seemed to be an uniquely Indian way, initiated when, at Independence, we were alone in the world in refusing to commit ourselves ab intio to either bloc. That policy of keeping ourselves away from prior alliance with either bloc then went on to secure the adherence of two-thirds of the world community. The high point of that period was perhaps the Seventh Non-aligned Summit held in New Delhi in 1983.

By 1985, it became clear that the Soviet Union, our time-tested friend, was slipping, Gorbachev's "glasnost" and "perestroika" being a last desperate attempt to reform communist rule to forestall its disappearing altogether. Just six years later, it was all over. And over the last quarter century, we have progressively shifted from being proudly and self-confidently non-aligned to becoming proudly and self-confidently a "Major Defense Partner" (even the spelling is distinctly American!) of the United States of America. Being entertained to a state banquet at the White House has become the ultimate badge of honour, the signal that India has been brought to the high table.

The US towards whom we started leaning in the early nineties was a self-assured US, a US so successful in ousting any rival ideology or power that the end of its principal rival could be portrayed as co-terminus with the "End of History".

It might have been if it had also marked the end of the US desire to intervene militarily in other people's quarrels or effect regime change in countries whose leaders were not enamoured of Washington. But once the nineties were over and the 'War on Terrorism' was declared, the 'Quest for Dominance' (Rajiv Gandhi's telling phrase) was resumed with 'fire and fury' (Trump). This also coincided with the diminishing in the US of the "Vietnam syndrome" - the psychological resistance among the people at large to getting involved with military adventures in peripheral countries.

But the US has not won any of its 21st century wars; neither Iraq War I which left Saddam Hussein in charge, nor Gulf War II that has left chaos in Iraq, the spread of the wings of Daesh (the Islamic State) all over West Asia, and Iran-Saudi (read Shia-Sunni) rivalry in its wake. Nor is there any prospect of ending the war in Afghanistan despite US military forces having been fighting there for more than twice as long as they were deployed in Europe and Japan in two World Wars and the ferreting out of Osama bin Laden from his foxhole in Abbottabad.

All this contributed in huge measure to Trump's upset electoral victory. Traditional 'isolationism' has reared its head, especially in its natural home, Middle America, but in this changed and globalized world it has led to a bodily shift from a foreign policy based on a belief in American 'exceptionalism' (which held that we are just the best in the world and our God-given task is to bring American enlightenment and hamburger stands to the world) to a bluntly transactional foreign policy that demands instant, tangible, measurable material benefits for America, in which immediate gains are weighed against vaguer distant goals that are simply jettisoned if found wanting.

Thus, the allies of the Atlantic partnership, now embodied in the Group of 7, are ostentatiously brushed off, as at their June 2018 meeting in Canada, where Trump, after walking off in a huff, refused to subscribe to their final declaration and tweeted that the G-7 host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was "very dishonest and weak", even as he took flight to Singapore to meet with an "enemy" leader, Kim Jong Un. He is threatening to follow this up with a tirade against European military allies at the NATO meeting in Brussels on 11-12 July even as he readies for a grand reconciliation summit immediately thereafter with Putin in Helsinki on 16 July.

Trump's denunciation of the North American Free Trade Area and the trade and investment war with China that he has launched and Nikki Haley's walk-out of the UN Human Rights Council are other examples of Trump's transactional twist to foreign policy.

The cancellation of the 2+2 talks with India, first in March this year and again now in June, needs to be evaluated not in narrow bilateral terms but in the overall perspective of the direction in which Trump is taking his country's foreign policy. The cancellations, without even a hint of an alternative date are Trump's way of demanding: what has India to give the US here and now?

For the present, our answer has to be: "Nothing". For, with good reason, we are wary of sacrificing our renewed economic and political relations with Iran only because Trump has denounced the Obama era agreement to end Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. Nor have we been able to deliver on the massive economic bonanza in terms of gargantuan purchases of US nuclear power plants (closed in the US since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979) that the US was so looking forward to when Bush press-ganged his entire team of allies in the IAEA and NSG to give India the exemptions needed to push through the US-India civil nuclear power deal. Significantly, there is no similar US push in evidence to fulfill a major foreign policy objective of the Modi government - full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. On trade too, India is keeping fairly tightly closed the door to unimpeded imports of US agricultural products, as extolled by Trump. Reciprocally, it is not Indian but US interests that are given priority in determining the conditions for the issue of HB1 visas.

The accent being on transactional gains for the US, or "deal-making" to reprise Trump's vocabulary, it is hardly surprising that the US are holding out on the 2+2 talks before being assured of the material gains they can get out of Indians talking and the Americans taking.

Of course, the US Defense Secretary and the US Secretary of State have lots of things to do. But when have they not? It is just that in prioritization, India is being told that a Major Defense Partner cannot get away with transgressing US foreign policy priorities without sliding down the greasy pole to Minor Defense Partner status. Pakistan was taught that lesson years ago.

We will not get an alternative date until we show that we have something to give the US in return for the favour of their sustaining the illusion that we really do matter to them.

We don't - at least not till we give Trump what he wants, whatever the impact that may have on our own vital interests. That is the essential difference for us between the Bush-Obama and Trump eras.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

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