On April 4, US President Donald Trump threatened to retaliate against India if his country’s need for HydroxylChloroquinine (HCQ) was not met to counter the Coronavirus pandemic. Coming from Trump, this was not unusual. India was promptly forced to change its export ban order and ship the medicine to the US. Its volte face at a time when the country, perhaps, needed the medicine as much, if not more, diminished Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his attempts to show himself as a muscular leader who can safeguard national interests.
Trump’s belligerence towards India came barely a month after his visit to India where Modi had pulled out all stops to organise a promised and stirring welcome by more than a million people – later that figure was brought down to a manageable 1.25 lakh people, maintaining no physical distance at all, at Ahmedabad’s repurposed Motera stadium. Both the leaders had hugged each other profusely and praised each other at a time the pandemic, which has taken social distancing to obsessive levels, was raging in China and spilling to other parts of the world, especially in Europe.
Trump had denied then that the pandemic could hurt his country till the virus literally blew up on him compelling him to muscle his way around by forcing India to send HCQ, and other countries to send testing equipment. His exaggerated actions after the virus had fatally invaded US and ravaged New York in particular is a manifestation of Trump’s transparent nervousness and stark failure in an election year.
Modi has been at his wits ends trying to make sense of an eccentric US President, who, from time to time, keeps offering to mediate on the Kashmir issue or ridicules Indian investment in Afghanistan by claiming that India has only opened a library in Kabul. What is the method behind Trump’s policies and politics?
Professor Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of International School, Jindal Global University who has been documenting Narendra Modi’s assertive foreign policy in a fast- changing world, provides ample understanding of Donald Trump’s world view in his seminal work, ‘Trumped’. In his voluminous and ambitious book, Chaulia begins with the assumption that Trump’s ‘America First’ inward-looking foreign policy has seen “opening of doors for the non-western emerging powers to fill the world order left by an American retreat”. Here, the author sees this new emerging order from the standpoint of India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria, and wonders whether their leadership can fill this gap.
Chaulia is sanguine about Modi’s chances, which have come up short when dueling with Trump on many occasions. To his credit, he has soldiered on believing that he could extract more out from a person whose foreign policy has been glaringly amoral and transactional. India has had to buy arms and also succumb to pressure exerted by Trump to stay away from Iran — not to buy oil or trade with them. Chabahar port, in the south-east part of Iran, where India has invested, may have been exempted by sanctions, but New Delhi has displayed its wariness in meeting its full financial commitment, lest it does not meet American approval.
Pressure on India to rescind commitments made to friendly countries diminishes its stature as has been brought out so many times by the Iranian leadership, but New Delhi has not been able to figure out how to ignore US demands on Iran ever since Modi became PM. From that standpoint, the US has not really vacated the foreign policy space, which is the central argument of the book.
Though India is shying away from being an US ally, the diplomatic and military investment that Washington has made, ever since then president George W Bush signed the civilian nuclear deal and his advisor Condoleezza Rice announced that it would help India become a world power, ensures that the US keeps a close watch on happenings in New Delhi. Chaulia quotes David Sylvan: “Even if a particular country is allied as part of American Empire of client states, it is subjected to intense political surveillance by Washington to behave as per its grand strategic designs.”
This view essentially contradicts the view that the US indeed wanted to cede space to other emerging powers. Even if it was, the endeavor was to ‘lead from behind’ — a phrase made popular by the US when the European powers attacked Libya.
India has read Trump’s unilateral policies with anxiety and uncertainty. It is not really sure of how it perceives China and its attempts to globalise through its much vaunted Belt and Road Initiative. India stayed out of it, by claiming that it undermined the sovereignty of small nations that participated in that compact, but the US has waxed and waned on this issue. Only since late last year, has it begun to challenge China more forcefully on BRI, Huawei’s 5G and trade.
With Trump, Chaulia states that India was taken aback when the US did not come to India’s help on the Doklam issue. New Delhi did not blink despite threats by China’s PLA, but it realized that it would have to fix its ties with China on its own and not rely on Washington. A US diplomat told this writer that India was lucky that it did not have a scrap with China at Doklam due to the asymmetry in their military strengths. “You could have been bashed up badly,” he said.
Modi saw wisdom in this understanding and traveled to Wuhan to speak with President Xi Jin Ping to ease tensions. This was a valuable lesson for Modi who tried to use his alleged visible proximity with US presidents — first Barack Obama and then Trump — to not just build global influence, but also sought immunity from any interference in the pursuance of India’s domestic policies. Trump, in contrast, has made light of American exceptionalism and shows disgust for his country’s ethical pretenses by showing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian ways.
It may be a good idea if Chaulia adds a chapter to his extremely readable book to analyse what Coronvirus has done to Trump’s domestic and foreign policies and his prospects in the coming US elections. To reiterate, the book is a must read for not just diplomats and scholars of foreign policy, but also those who want to pick up lessons on how coercion and arm-twisting was brazenly used by Trump as an instrument to manipulate recalcitrant nations that refused to fall in line.