Trump and Modi
by G B Reddy on 31 May 2017 6 Comments
Indian media speculation over a likely meeting between Trump and Modi has been making the news quite frequently of late. The Indian media is bound to hype the event from a blinkered, even myopic, prism, focusing on two points, viz., H1B visas /immigration and declaration of Pakistan as a terrorist state. To restrict the event to two issues, with perhaps the addition of membership to the UN Security Council and/or Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), in a half an hour meeting at the White House, Washington D.C., as opposed to Trumps’ weekend Mar-a-Lago Estate, may not yield positive outcomes for both sides, though the photo opportunities could be great. Modi faces a very big test in dealing with Trump’s unpredictability.  


Wise must learn from the lessons of others. Over 55 heads and representative of Arab and Muslim countries attended the Riyadh Summit in Saudi Arabia, including Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. Yet Islamabad is ‘embarrassed’ over Trump’s ‘cold shoulder’ to Nawaz Sharif. In Pakistan, the Prime Minister’s failure to have a dialogue (as strategic frontline partner in Afghanistan) has come under criticism from rivals.                                                                             


Fundamentally, there seems to be a lack of convergence at grand strategy level: Trumps “America First” versus Modi’s “Make in India”. Creating and exploiting opportunities in the above framework for making deals in common areas of agreement cannot be rushed through. Trumps foreign policy focus is on profit-cum-job-centric commercial deals in favour of the United States.


Let me briefly review events since January 2017. As early as February 2017, news reports speculated the likelihood of an early meeting in May. After foreign secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Washington D.C. in March, the Indian media reported a likely meeting in May, ahead of meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit on 7-8 July at Hamburg. As per US reports, Trump may meet Modi in the latter part of the year.


During his first 100 days in office, Trump hosted 16 meetings with foreign leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May soon after his inauguration, followed by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Jordan’s King Abdullah II; Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos; Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef; and United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and so on.


Next, Trump, during the first nine-day five-stop foreign tour to the Middle East, met dozens of leaders of the Muslim world followed by meetings with Israel’s Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.  This was followed by a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. In Brussels, he addressed leaders of the 27 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries and met the new French President, Emmanuel Macron. In Sicily, he will participate in the annual summit meeting of the Group of 7, an event that typically also draws dozens of other leaders who show up for meetings on the sidelines.


What does this imply? Simply that India and South Asia are not at the top of the agenda of the Trump administration. American foreign policy is naturally unfolding out of Trump’s grand strategy. Thus, radical Islam and immigration, trade, military sales, China, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, G-7 and G-20 have precedence over all others. Yet, Trump is keen to build bridges with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.


Trump’s foreign policy approach has been critically examined by many American think tanks. Some believe that Trump has plunged America into utter confusion and disarray. India and Modi should, therefore, tread cautiously and be prepared to face irrational outcomes.  


According to American observers, Trump would be willing to cut deals with any actors that share American interests and regardless of whether they share or act in accordance with American values. They claim that “amoral transactionalism” is the central feature of Trump’s grand strategy.


Trump’s approach to foreign policy is “tactical transactionalism,” that is “a foreign-policy framework that seeks discrete wins (or the initial tweet-able impression of them).


In the battle against radical Islam, Trump asserted: “All actions should be oriented around this goal, and any country which shares this goal will be our ally.” The greatesst perceived opportunity in this regard is for a strategic realignment with Russia, a country Trump and some of his advisors see as a natural partner in the fight against Islamic extremists, and perhaps, China too.


In South Asia, Pakistan, viewed as the “Global Epicentre of Terrorism,” remains America’s strategic front-line state against terrorism due to tactical and logistical imperatives. If past is a guide to future US strategy, it cannot make a U-turn and abandon Pakistan.


Trump’s personality traits have been exhaustively covered in the US media, and dubbed as mostly negative. Some adjectives include: erratic, mercurial, impulsive, narcissist, dishonest, heartless, reckless, imprudent, having utter lack of regard for truth, ‘Machiavellian’ negotiator and so on.


Trumps choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them, often in tweets, are extraordinary. He makes wild, paranoid and unsubstantiated accusations, spins conspiratorial theories and retracts them also. The Washington Post found that during his first 41 days in office, he made 187 false or misleading claims, an average of four per day. And when caught out, he displays a brazen disregard for the truth. “Unpredictability is his norm.” The only consistency is inconsistency - speaks in one voice during the afternoon and a different voice in the morning.


American think tanks and analysts believe that Trump’s approach to matters of state flows out of his background. As a real estate investor, golf course developer, casino owner, product brander and television personality with no prior experience in government or in competing for elective office, Trump is a pragmatic deal-maker who focuses on wins for himself and America in bilateral meetings. His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies, real or imagined, his craving for adulation, is legendary.


By his own admission, Donald Trump is not terribly analytical or deliberative. In a recent Time magazine interview, he declared, “I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right.” Unfortunately, when it comes to foreign policy, his instincts often contradict one another in potentially dangerous ways. Trumpian unpredictability seems not to take account of trade-offs at all. It creates more problems than solutions; and carries enormous risks.


However, it helps to establish a family connection, as in the relationship between Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and German Chancellor Merkel, who has invited Ivanka Trump to join a panel on women’s entrepreneurship in Germany.


India needs some skillful diplomacy to create opportunities bilaterally. Can Modi use his charm to win over Trump? A lot of ground work needs to precede such a meeting. There is some convergence on the fight against radical Islam, but the challenge is how to exploit it. The issue of NSG membership continues to face the Chinese veto.


Modi may like to enlist the support of the Indian Republican Diaspora, particularly Shalabh Kumar, the Chicago-based industrialist who was on the Trump-Pence Asian Pacific American Advisory Committee (APAAC) and the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, to work out economic and technology strategic partnerships.


Possibly, the Lodha Group in Mumbai and Panchshil Group in Pune (promoters of Trump Towers in India) may help in business deals with real estate firms with family links to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.


Modi’s meeting with Trump should not be rushed through, but after working out a strategy for various deals for India. The focus should be on mutually beneficial economic and technology partnerships, particularly in defense and space. Modi would probably wait for Trump’s new Ambassador. Viewed in the above framework, the American offer of a meeting between Trump and Modi may be appropriate on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Germany, in July. 

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