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Modi’s Friend? Wait.

Michael Kugelman

Trump will be fully capable of managing the India-US relationship during its good times. A natural ally will have to do more

Modi’s Friend? Wait.

On October 15th, Donald Trump spoke at a campaign event organised by a group called the Republican Hindu Coalition. It was held in New Jersey, a state with one of the highest Indian-American populations in the United States.

“I am a big fan of India,” Trump declared. He promised that if he became president, the United States and India would be “best friends” and that “there won’t be any relationship more important to us”. He referred to India as a “natural ally” of the United States, and described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “great man”.

And now, as America and the world struggle to make sense of Trump’s stunning election triumph, he will have the opportunity to demonstrate that he’s willing and able to back up such rhetoric with action and policy.

In the coming weeks, hundreds of questions will be posed breathlessly about President Elect Trump—some pertaining to his character and capacity to lead, others pertaining to his possible policies, and still others pertaining to the impact his presidency will have on the world. Yet, once the dust settles, there will be time to pose some deeper questions about foreign policy.

Chief among them is this: Can Trump maintain the strong momentum, set in motion most recently by Barack Obama yet also catalysed by the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations, of a deepening US-India relationship? In effect, can Trump build on what US senior diplomat Nicholas Burns has described as “arguably one of the most important US foreign policy advances in decades”?

In a sense, this question is immaterial. The US-India relationship is in a good place these days, and it was bound to remain stable regardless of the election outcome. This can be attributed not just to deep repositories of goodwill and convergent interests, but also to shared values and cultural affinities—fundamental bonds that top leaders in both countries have frequently showcased in recent months. Witness Modi’s references to baseball, Star Wars, and Lincoln, and Barack Obama’s mentions of Gandhi, bhangra and yoga.

Chief among them is this: Can Trump maintain the strong momentum, set in motion most recently by Barack Obama yet also catalysed by the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations, of a deepening US-India relationship? In effect, can Trump build on what US senior diplomat Nicholas Burns has described as “arguably one of the most important US foreign policy advances in decades”?

Additionally, as many members of the Washington foreign policy elite have asserted in recent months, the US-India relationship is one of the few bilateral relationships to enjoy bipartisan support in Washington. This is no small matter in a nation likely to be poisoned by unprecedented levels of partisanship after a particularly polarising presidential campaign.

And yet, Trump may face an uphill battle convincing India that he’s a safe bet for US-India relations. In fact, Hillary Clinton, with her proven track record of pro-India policies, would have been a safer bet than Trump, a wild card with a wholly unproven track record. The Indian-American community, which numbers more than 3 million and is America’s second-largest immigrant group, may have reached a similar conclusion. According to a survey conducted in August and September, only 7 per cent of Indian- Americans said they were likely to vote for Trump.

Consider Clinton’s record on India. She has travelled to the country for more than two decades. On her first trip, as First Lady in 1995, she made a memorable impression when, during a speech in New Delhi, she read a moving poem penned by a student at Lady Shri Ram College. Later, while serving in the US Senate, she co-chaired the India Caucus and supported the US-India civil nuclear deal.

In 2007, when Clinton was running for president the first time, a certain opponent brought attention to her close connections to India. Her financial ties to India and Indian-Americans (from investments in India to fundraising among Indian-Americans) prompted the presidential campaign of Barack Obama to circulate a memo (for which Obama later apologised) that described her as a ‘Democrat from Punjab’.

During her visits to India as Secretary of State, Clinton expressed not only support for US-India relations, but also effusive praise for the Indian people. In 2009, she established, with Indian counterpart SM Krishna, a new US-India Strategic Dialogue series.

Not surprisingly, the Clinton campaign’s foreign policy advisers featured many strong supporters of India and US-India relations. They included Nicholas Burns, who helped negotiate the US-India civil nuclear deal. In June, he published an op-ed for the Washington Post that called on America’s next president to prioritise the US-India relationship.

Clinton’s statements about India throughout her years in public service have often expressed strong support for its rise. As Secretary of State, she consistently urged India to become a regional leader. In fact, it was Clinton— not Modi—who first proposed an Act East policy for India. Three years before the Indian Prime Minister announced his Government’s new Indo- Pacific strategy, Clinton called on India “not just to look east, but to engage East and act East as well”. Consider as well Clinton’s views on Pakistan. Within some Indian circles, she is regarded as hopelessly sympathetic to that country, and by implication, not a true friend of India.

That’s an inaccurate view. She is closely associated with the unpopular drone war in Pakistan, which intensified when she took office. She also was Washington’s top diplomat when US- Pakistan relations were in deep crisis in 2011 and 2012, making her a prime target of Pakistani ire.

It’s also worth recalling that it was Clinton who coined the now-famous metaphor that so vividly illustrates the dangers of Pakistan’s refusal to crack down on anti-India terrorists on its soil. “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and only expect them to bite your neighbours,” she warned at a press conference in Islamabad in 2011.

Encouraging India’s rise. Urging it to lead. Supporting a deeper US-India partnership. Criticising Pakistan, and harshly so. All of this highlights how Clinton is a proven friend, not a hardened foe, of India. US-India relations would have been in safe and supportive hands under a Clinton presidency.

And yet, instead we have President Elect Trump.

On some levels, Trump will be just fine for US-India relations. Trump, tellingly, rarely spoke ill of India on the campaign trail, and he often praised its economic successes. His tough-on-terror stance will go down well in India. It could bring the two countries even closer together. Trump is unlikely to discourage Indian covert efforts to target anti-India terrorists on Pakistani soil. In due course, he may well even sign off on deals to provide US drones to India—an acquisition that would enhance India’s capacity to carry out limited cross-border strikes on militants.

That said, some of his campaign pledges, if translated into actual policy, would be received much less positively in India and could bode ill for bilateral ties.

First, recall his offer to mediate India-Pakistan disputes. The last thing New Delhi wants is an outsider— any outsider, and particularly one with zero diplomatic experience like Trump—to swoop in and seek to work out bilateral disagreements, particularly because such a process would invariably invoke Kashmir, the intractable dispute that India has concluded is not up for negotiation.

Second, Trump has threatened to revisit Washington’s defence alliances in Asia. Any American withdrawal from, or even a lighter footprint in, the Indo-Pacific region would be a bad thing for India, given its desire to cooperate with the US in Asia to push back against the rising influence of China. On a related note, Trump has suggested—though not clearly stated—that he would seek a reduced US military footprint overseas. This could, perhaps, entail accelerating the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. If she were president, the more hawkish Clinton, by contrast, may have slowed if not halted the drawdown altogether. If Trump indicates a desire to expedite the withdrawal of US troops, this would send an alarming message not only to Afghanistan, but also to India, which in recent months—consider its decision to transfer several fighter helicopters to Afghanistan—has telegraphed a desire to deepen its footprint in that country.

Third, Trump’s vows to crack down on immigration cannot possibly be seen as a good thing in New Delhi—given the impact this could have on the Indian-American community and on US visa policies that are already perceived as being discriminatory toward Indians. His specific views about Muslim immigration into the United States, while welcome perhaps to some Hindu nationalists in India, would be both unsettling and worrisome for a nation with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to predict what lies ahead for US- India relations under an imminent Trump administration. When it comes to foreign policy, Trump is an utter wild card. He said relatively little about international affairs on the campaign trail—with the exception of frequent comments about ISIS and Syria. And though he generally didn’t say negative things about India, he also didn’t say much about it on the whole. His speech to the Republican Hindu Coalition back in October provides the best window into his thinking and his possible policies toward India. In that address, he spoke of pursuing strong commercial relations with India, and he highlighted the need for defence cooperation and intelligence sharing.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to predict what lies ahead for US- India relations under an imminent Trump administration. 

This suggests that Trump may be prepared to push for closer bilateral cooperation on counter-terrorism, an area where progress is already being made, and in bilateral trade, an area where cooperation has lagged. However, other areas of growing cooperation during the Obama administration may suffer—and particularly clean energy, an issue that appears to be of little interest to Trump.

Another unknown about US-India relations under Trump is how New Delhi will approach America’s new president. One can expect that Modi will be more than willing to work with Trump, warts and all. Modi, after all, was determined to make things work with Obama despite the visa ban Washington had imposed on him. New Delhi’s interests are just as well-served as Washington’s by having a strong US-India rapport, and Modi is likely to allow such strategic considerations, more so than concerns about personalities, to guide his thinking about Trump.

And yet, at the same time, Modi, like all responsible world leaders, will need to confront an uncomfortable question: How much do you engage a figure who has consistently made sexist, bigoted, and xenophobic remarks, even if he happens to be arguably the most powerful person on the planet? Trump may have been kind to India on the campaign trail, but he wasn’t as kind to Indians. Recall, for example, how he derided Indian call centre employees.

Regardless of how all this plays out, Trump will have his work cut out for him with US-India relations. He’ll face major challenges, and three in particular—all of which any new US president, and not just Trump, would have to confront.

First, he will inherit a laundry list of long-standing policy disagreements that Obama and Modi, for all their camaraderie and great personal chemistry, proved unable to resolve. These range from US H1B visa policies and India’s position in global trade negotiations to Washington’s friendly relations with the Pakistani military.

Second, he’ll have to find a way to better prioritise a relationship that, despite its importance, continues to register relatively low on Washington’s overall hierarchy of foreign policy concerns— below crises in the Middle East, Russia and Europe. Based on Trump’s fixation on these regions while on the campaign trail, there’s reason to believe that India will continue to be less than a front-burner foreign policy issue in Trump’s Washington.

The third challenge confronting Trump on US-India ties is how to address a major definitional disagreement—and that is what exactly constitutes the US-India strategic partnership. Both countries claim to want one, but without defining what it really means. This is a dilemma, given that each country has different expectations of what a strategic partnership generally entails. For Washington, it means operational security cooperation. For India, this type of cooperation is off the table, at least for now; recall the negative reaction from officials in New Delhi when, earlier this year, PACOM commander Harry Harris proposed joint patrols between the US and Indian navies in Asian waters. India’s notion of a strategic partnership emphasises high levels of technology transfers and arms deals. For Washington, such transactions are essential, yet only part of a broader package. Failing to reconcile these differing conceptions of the partnership could well prevent bilateral security cooperation from achieving its maximum potential.

Working through definitional disconnects and policy disagreements will require a delicate dance. So will managing the US-India relationship on the whole. Indeed, despite many recent injections of goodwill and trust, it retains some vestiges of the baggage and mistrust from the Cold War era, when bilateral relations were deeply dysfunctional.

Is Trump up for the task of navigating this deepening yet complex partnership? Only time will tell. What we do know is that Trump, unlike Clinton, is not a seasoned diplomat or statesperson. He is a businessman, and arguably a very successful one, but he is also a crude and controversial spotlight-seeking celebrity who becomes easily aggrieved by the smallest of slights.

What this may mean is that Trump would be fully capable of managing a US-India relationship during its good times—and there will likely be many of them. And yet if the relationship needs a jolt of momentum, or if it happens to plunge into crisis, Trump may struggle to steady the ship. That’s an unsettling thought for a relationship that many top figures—including Trump—have described as ‘natural’.

Ultimately, the US-India relationship may be destined to deepen, but with Trump at the helm, smooth sailing is far from inevitable.

This article originally appeared on Open.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About the Author

Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman

Director, South Asia Institute
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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more