Walking a diplomatic tightrope

For India and the U.S., managing bilateral ties is linked to balancing nationalist, cultural and economic agendas

June 24, 2019 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:38 pm IST

Is the die already cast for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s forthcoming visit to India? Mr. Pompeo, and his Indian counterpart, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, are the trusted lieutenants of their leaders, U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, respectively, and largely aligned with their politics. But Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Jaishankar are also the links between the disruptive politics of their chief executives and the conventional strategic approach of professionals who work under them, and the legacy ecosystems in their respective countries. They have the tough task of managing a bilateral relationship that they both know is critical, without appearing to be undermining the nationalist, cultural and economic agendas of their leaders, which mirror each other, and hence create a situation of likes repelling each other.

A general presumption informing scholarship on international relations is that there is a non-negotiable and unchanging precept of national interest that determines the conduct of nations. Mr. Modi and Mr. Trump are two leaders who are rewriting the notion of national interest itself — for instance, secularism was considered to be India’s national interest until recently; immigration and trade were considered to be in America’s national interest.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi are guided by nationalisms that have cultural and economic components. In both, their views converge in some aspects and conflict in some others. For instance, on the cultural front, they could cooperate on global Islamism. But the growing presence of Indians in America is a source of conflict — Mr. Modi’s politics involves boosting the global Hindu; but Indian Americans are cultural aliens to Mr. Trump’s supporters, besides being seen to be their economic adversaries. The sustained squeeze on Indian guest workers entering the U.S., particularly through the H-1B visa programme, is a case in point.

Country-specific perspectives

What does Mr. Modi want for India from abroad? He wants investment, technology, arms, but does not want finished products (other than arms) or foreign ideas — Christianity, an open global market, the right to self-determination, human rights, Western strands of democracy coming through missionaries, international bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This has been expressed through higher tariffs on imports and restrictions on global NGOs. This list does not entirely correspond to what Mr. Trump wants to sell — he wants to sell only finished products at lower tariffs, and keep technology and capital within the borders of America protected.

From an Indian perspective, Mr. Trump has upended American strategy in two fundamental aspects. His approach to international ties gives precedence for commerce over the strategic, and workers over corporations. Professional strategists conventionally understood the U.S.’s international ties from the perspective of its multinational corporations. These corporations wanted cheap manufacturing in China and Southeast Asia and U.S. policy enabled that pursuit. Corporations wanted cheap labour from India by outsourcing work and importing workers into the U.S. But Mr. Trump does not want American work coming to India, or Indian workers going to America; Mr. Modi wants both. Mr. Trump’s disinterest in strategic matters and obsession with selling meet Mr. Modi’s desire for arms acquisition, however. Given a choice, Mr. Trump would be willing to sell arms to India without regard for issues such as regional stability that preoccupy professionals in the State Department.


India’s trade surplus is tiny relative to the size of the American economy and its trade volumes. Presidents before Mr. Trump always privileged the strategic components of America’s global ties over trade and commercial issues. India benefitted from that approach. When commerce becomes the only lens that the U.S. sees the world through, India and China look similar — trying to extract benefits from it. Mr. Trump thinks — he has said it several times — that India and China took his predecessors for a ride. Mr. Modi thinks his predecessors were weak leaders who were taken advantage of by the world, and he also wants to show how strong he is.

When Mr. Trump sees India and China as two similar countries that are taking advantage of America with protectionism, weak intellectual property protection, and higher emissions under the climate treaty, the strategic reason for India-U.S. alignment, which is the menacing rise of China, gets weakened. In fact, the Wuhan summit, that marked a new thaw between India and China, had as its backdrop Mr. Trump’s tirade against both countries on these issues.

The terror fight

One war that Mr. Trump wants to end (in Afghanistan) and another war that he appears to be itching to begin (with Iran) have major implications for India and its ties with the U.S. India wants America’s continued engagement in Afghanistan and peace with Iran. Just as the U.S. was campaigning hard to have Masood Azhar designated as a global terrorist, it was also seeking Pakistan’s help to persuade the Taliban for a deal in Afghanistan. The point being that India-U.S. cooperation on terrorism has several components to be factored in and the Indian euphoria surrounding Mr. Trump’s relentless bluster against Pakistan needs to tempered with some realism.

The Hindutva nationalists in India have a deep suspicion of China and its intention and they consider the U.S. as an ally and a partner, but the tactical nature of that approach is not hidden or unstated. The cultural suspicion of the U.S. itself is an additional factor.

A speech by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat to a gathering of the organisation on June 16 in Nagpur is instructive: “We are progressing and we will continue to progress. When India advances, when our Hindu society advances... the implication of that is that the selfishness that dominates the world is bound to come to an end… Countries that dominate the world using their money power and military power with the facade of grandiloquence. Therefore, there are many out there who do not want India’s progress. I don’t take names, but you understand. Many countries in the world are forced to support us because we have now become stronger. That is for advancing their interests. If we let them take advantage of our internal differences, our new beginning after 70 years will be eclipsed before it fully blossoms and bears fruit.”

Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Jaishankar have the task of navigating a bumpy ride.



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