President Donald J. Trump. Much of the world is still struggling to accept the looming reality of those words following one of the most unusual and significant elections in American history. There is the sense amongst many (especially following Brexit) that we are in the middle of an unfolding revolution, a remaking of the world order.
Trump, it is suspected, may lead a return to the America of the late 19th century—a great power whose international interests were better defined in geo-economic than geopolitical terms. Today, American hegemony, whether resented or relied on, affects every country; naturally governments everywhere are scrambling to make sense of what is coming before they are overtaken by events.
So what can South Asia expect?
Although there are enormous uncertainties, the tea leaves point to a limited commitment to Afghanistan, an even more skeptical and conditional patronage of Pakistan than we already see, and a relationship with India that although warm in tone will leave it far more isolated in facing growing Chinese power.
It is important to recognise that the Republican victory on Nov. 8 gave them both halves: the Congress as well as the White House. Going by the Senate and House of Representatives’ budget-tinkering powers, there will be significant changes in the allocation of US overseas military and development aid.
A new consensus will emerge between the different strands of the party in these three bodies, one that will likely mark a sharp swing away from the idea of freely spending money abroad in support of progressive agendas. Human rights (except perhaps for Christians) and democracy promotion is likely to atrophy, as is the idea of massive development assistance. This will reduce American leverage in Kabul and Islamabad.
The picture with military aid is far less straightforward. If anything, the US Congress is going to be even more skeptical than the Trump White House over the flow of money to Pakistan for counter-terrorism cooperation.
Back in April, candidate Trump acknowledged that US military aid to Pakistan was an exception to his general aversion to sending money abroad, given the much higher cost of Pakistan falling apart or being taken over by a hostile force. Certainly, if the US remains militarily engaged in Afghanistan (likely, although under tough terms), it will continue to need Pakistani cooperation. Trump’s commitment to the fossil-fuel economy will also mean an enduring engagement with the Middle East and continued reliance on regional actors such as Pakistan.
Trump’s most exuberant fans in the Hindutva movement in India and America, who have danced, prayed, and offered sweets for his victory, ought to temper their expectations: his loud Islamophobia will not translate into a strongly anti-Pakistani policy. Yet, a Republican Congress, like the White House, will squeeze Pakistan harder for compliance. This will result in greater influence for the People’s Republic of China and perhaps the oil exporters of the Persian Gulf.
While the post-9/11 struggles against the Taliban in Afghanistan and piracy from the Horn of Africa to the Straits of Malacca have strengthened the Indo-American relationship, the deepest and most enduring source of Washington DC’s strategic engagement with India has been the hopes and fears for China. Although the US’ needs and the Indian establishment’s perceptions of America’s appropriateness as a partner have varied wildly over the decades, a Trump presidency could represent a much more profound shift. For the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power in 1933, a US president may be fundamentally indifferent to the balance of power in Asia.
Trump has been willing to talk tough about China’s trade and monetary policies, but Beijing’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea and advances into the Indian Ocean seem to be of no real interest. This will take some getting used to for New Delhi.
Prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Modi alike have leveraged American anxieties over the rise of China to secure US support on a range of issues (including pressuring Pakistan), allowing India to build its international profile while avoiding many of the costs of real leadership.
Trump’s normalization of discrimination against Muslims and economic protectionism against China will remain a highly prized source of validation to Hindu nationalists, but the reality is that India could be more alone than ever in facing its chief strategic adversaries.
The overall picture is closer than ever to the Indian independence struggles’ dream of an “Asia for Asian powers.”
But where does this leave the subcontinental rivalry that is heating up in Afghanistan, Balochistan, and Kashmir? India is not about to gain a decisive advantage, and Trump’s recent offer to mediate between India and Pakistan indicates that US interests in preventing wars that are likely to disrupt the global economy will remain.
However, India and Pakistan will have to rely on much greater self-regulation to maintain stability in the face of increasing risks of serious miscalculation. China’s complexes about India mean that it cannot replace America’s role as the balancer of last resort in the region anytime soon.
All this is of course highly provisional. No one yet knows the extent to which Trump will succeed in asserting himself over the institutional views of the diplomatic, military, and intelligence bureaucracies, or if a world-view formed in the real-estate and entertainment industries can survive a collision with geopolitical realities.
On the other hand, Trump’s election points to something much bigger. The success of his candidacy, the strength of Bernie Sanders’ bid, and the growth of the Green and Libertarian parties taken together speak of popular weariness with the American ruling classes’ determination to remake the world in their own image at any cost.
The American public wants lower taxes on its blood and treasure even if it means a loss of prestige. It is also determined to maintain the country’s overwhelming military advantage. Meanwhile, the elites’ internationalist sense of noblesse oblige will not vanish overnight.
The long American century may be far from over.
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