What ‘America First’ means for India

India is not on top of the mind for U.S. President Donald Trump. As he opens multiple battlefronts, domestically and internationally, the onus is on India to catch the attention of the new administration

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:46 pm IST

Published - February 07, 2017 12:04 am IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

“We… are issuing a new decree to be heard… in every foreign capital… From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” said Donald Trump, moments after taking oath as the 45th President of the United States. Since then several world capitals have heard various renditions of this decree, resulting in a more uncertain world. What does this decree mean for New Delhi?

Many policymakers and observers in Washington DC see India-U.S. relations as a case of American generosity. By extension, a section of the U.S. establishment has always argued for extracting more in return from India. Nudging the new President to continue with the non-reciprocal approach towards India, strategic expert Ashley Tellis wrote recently: “The current U.S. commitment to the rise of Indian power sans symmetric reciprocity… was anchored in the presumption that helping India expand in power and prosperity served the highest geopolitical interests of the United States in Asia and globally — namely, maintaining a balance of power that advantaged the liberal democracies. Accordingly, it justified acts of extraordinary U.S. generosity toward India, even if specific policies emanating from New Delhi did not always dovetail with Washington’s preferences.”

Slogans to policies

Mr. Trump’s personality has two parts — the transactional and the ideological. The transactional Mr. Trump believes that all international relations are based on give and take, that there is something to be gained or lost from each individual interaction with a global partner. There is no larger moral goal to be pursued, such as promotion of democracy, free market or human rights, slogans that explained, justified or even disguised American involvement with the world for several decades now. The ideological Mr. Trump sees the world as one in which Islam is threatening the existence of the Judeo-Christian civilisation. So there are alliances to be built and wars to be fought to secure the survival of the U.S. and Israel, of Christianity and Judaism, which he believes are threatened by Islamist terror. The choreography of the inauguration and the measures he has taken as President all indicate that such slogans that defined his campaign will turn into policies. No measure is too extreme in pursuing that objective of countering Islamism, as demonstrated by the attempted ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.


Mr. Trump would be open to dealing with India with an ideological frame of reference and a pragmatic, transactional one, simultaneously. The question then arises, on what terms and on what issues? Some tentative suggestions can be made on what India must be mindful of.

Points of friction

At the ideological level, the defeat of Islamism could be a common ground between Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who too has both ideological and pragmatic streaks. But a likely point of ideological friction could be the Modi government’s continuing crackdown on U.S.-based Christian charities operating in India. Evangelical groups have far higher influence in the current White House than in the previous one. Dealing with Mr. Trump’s transactional mode could pose another set of challenges. Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump have pivoted their politics on a hybrid of religious identity and the promise of economic betterment, defined more precisely as job creation. But they could be competing for the same thing here. The growth of bilateral cooperation in recent decades has involved a movement of U.S. jobs to India, and of Indian workers to the U.S.

“Your Prime Minister is a nice man,” Mr. Trump told Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Navtej Sarna recently. High-ranking Indian officials, including National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, have established contact with senior officials of the new administration. However, at present India is not on top of the mind for the new administration. As Mr. Trump opens multiple battlefronts domestically and internationally, the onus would be more on India to catch the attention of the new administration. Or perhaps, to stay low-key for a while, as bilateral cooperation continues on autopilot in numerous areas such as cyber security, intelligence sharing, space, disease control, maritime surveillance, agriculture, education and climate change.

Pressure on H-1B

On the temporary movement of Indian workers to the U.S . under the H-1B programme, the Trump administration has been clear that it will end its “misuse”. The business model of Indian IT giants such as Infosys, TCS and Wipro is based on their ability to locate a crucial part of their workforce in the U.S. who in turn support the operation of jobs carried out in India. In recent years, partly in response to the political resistance to offshoring of services in the U.S., these companies have increasingly hired Americans in their local workforce. So a crackdown on H-1B visas may not necessarily affect such companies, which will be able to function by hiring Americans in America to support the bulk of the operations that are in India. But anti-H-1B campaigners have changed their focus, to the business model, and away from the guest workers. “It does not serve any purpose to add restrictions on workers coming to the U.S. as long there is a system that allows work to be taken out of the country,” says Sarah Blackwell, a Florida-based attorney who has been at the forefront of the campaign. “We are, therefore, asking for changes that will not allow these companies to relocate the jobs.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration will be willing to carry forward the ongoing cooperation between the two countries in defence. The Obama administration has all but cleared the sale of 22 Guardian unarmed drones to be used for maritime domain awareness, and the new administration is likely to complete the process. The Trump administration is also willing to go a step further and favourably look at India’s pending request for Avenger armed drones. After being designated a major defence partner by the Obama administration, India’s requests for high technology are now considered with a ‘presumption of approval’ as opposed to ‘presumption of denial’. But each request is individually vetted and the decision is largely a political one.


What will Mr. Trump want in return? Indian policy-makers, who remember Barack Obama’s warming up to China in the initial years, would be happy to see some American pressure on Beijing. But Mr. Trump might want India to openly partner with, or even be frontline in tackling, China, according to one view.

During his recent visit to Delhi, Admiral Harry Harris, the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) chief, reiterated a long pending demand that India sign the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) that would enhance joint surveillance of Chinese vessels. But Mr. Trump may put pressure on other Asian partners first viz. his China policy, according to Sameer Lalwani, Deputy Director, South Asia, at the Stimson Center. “If the Trump administration pressures regional powers to do more to counter China, it will most likely start with its allies like Japan, Korea, and Australia, which have the most at stake and proximate capabilities. That said, the asymmetric generosity of U.S. technology access and diplomatic support with little immediate return is unlikely to persist. An administration committed to its transactional rhetoric will likely demand more from the relationship with India.”

Demand for troops

The previous Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, had immense patience and was sympathetic towards India’s constraints in confronting China. The new Defence Secretary, James Mattis, who made very favourable statements about India during his confirmation hearing, could be more demanding. Moreover, it is unclear how his Pakistan strategy will shape up. He and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn are both Afghanistan-Pakistan veterans. India’s consistent demand that the U.S. bring more pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorist groups could be met with another demand from the Trump team — for Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan. By ratcheting up tensions with Iran, the Trump administration has limited its latitude to pursue an Afghan policy less dependent on Pakistan. India’s reticence in sending its soldiers to fight wars elsewhere has remained a U.S. grouse. In an effort to move closer to the U.S., the Vajpayee government had considered sending troops to Iraq in 2003, but aborted the move after domestic opposition. The Trump White House may be less understanding about India’s domestic sentiment.

It is also not clear whether the Trump team will be pro-active on India’s bid for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It is not impossible, but it is also not likely. It is a different matter that America does not command that kind of power today.

But many watchers of India-U.S relations think that the pragmatism of Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi will prevail over their ideological streaks and will make them good partners. “Mr. Modi’s Make in India approach and Mr. Trump’s Buy American, Hire American can go together,” a former State Department official who dealt with India points out.


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