December 2, 2020

US Elections – Across the Presidential divide!

Even as the popular ratings of the two Presidential contenders are being debated, many national leaderships would hope for the right result for themselves as the US counts a great deal in every country’s strategic calculus.
Keywords: Elections | Trump | Biden | President | US-India | China | Russia | Defence | Technology | Global Power | Republicans | Democrats | Major Power | Counter-balancing | Democracy
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The first debate between the incumbent President Trump and his challenger Vice President Joe Biden may have had no winners but generated an exceptional response. For the first time in years one saw the Indian prominent TV channels telecasting the non-event, as per some observers, since one only witnessed typical personal vitriolic attacks rather than the deliberation on prospective policy choices. 

This is also probably the first US Presidential election which has generated so much interest and anxiety across the world, thanks in part to President Trump and his unconventional diplomatese and twitter friendly cracks even on important foreign policy issues. You just do not know what is next; while some eagerly wait for a change at the top, other leaders might prefer a more tempered and predictable Trump to remain in power. 

Even as the popular ratings of the two Presidential contenders are being debated, many national leaderships would hope for the right result for themselves as the US counts a great deal in every country’s strategic calculus.  Given the fact that China and Iran have had a tough time with Trump, the victory for Biden might provide relief. 

For Russia, the cards did not stack up that well and the hope that the two superpowers could work together for the global good did not materialise mostly due to inherent mistrust between the deep states in both countries. Nearly 35% of the Republicans distrust the Russians while 65% of Democrats regard them as a threat. Had a ‘reset’ taken place, given the personal bonhomie between Putin and Trump, several major international disasters could perhaps have been averted. At least they would have been addressed cooperatively, or the free fall could have been avoided whether it is US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and American disdain for multilateralism per se, but, we do not live in an ideal world. It is the real politic that dictates.

China has become a major power and is keen to test its prowess rather prematurely. It even hopes to replace the US from its numero uno position

During the last Presidential elections, the invisible Russian hand was seen. This time the credit may be given to the Chinese. An imbecile debate about external interference, by those who can, is futile irrespective of whatever high moral ground a country takes. History is replete with instances of direct interventions, covert acts or regime change enforcement through sanctions or military invasion or by creating anarchy and public discontent. 

Democracy projects have often not yielded the desired outcomes especially for the host communities. Even custodianship of the principles by the “greatest democracy” appears to be in doubt as the transition of power appears suspect in 2021 in the US. This has become a norm as multilateralism has lost its teeth and unilateralism has acquired real bite in the international discourse. What a pity as UN @ 75 watches helplessly. But counter-balancing of some sort or the other will occur.

During the last four years, even though the style and conduct of US foreign policy may have undergone change, a significant reversal of goal posts with the next change of guard in the White House is far from certain. Perhaps some amount of muscularity may yield space to sophistication and accommodation, but the key foreign policy challenges will remain. 

China has become a major power and is keen to test its prowess rather prematurely. It even hopes to replace the US from its numero uno position as it acquires the requisite heft and criticality in the global, value and supply chains, technological edge and continued economic growth. It has already launched its Belt and Road Initiative and entwined its foreign partnerships in its debt and cheque book diplomacy. 

US-India relations enjoy bipartisan support despite several irritants that include immigration and trade issues as well as India’s continued partnership with Russia. 

Covid-19 became the biggest disruptor as it revealed the intrinsic weaknesses of the mighty and the impoverished alike but it also exposed China’s aggressive, obfuscated and expansionist behaviour, combined with its wolf warrior diplomacy. Its misplaced bravado in trying to silence the truth, have corroborated the widespread suspicion that the rise of China will not be benign for the global world order. Can the next US administration transform that behaviour and reality? Quite unlikely unless China realises its limitations and the US agrees to a functional modus vivendi. 

Nearly two decades ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, US woke up to the stark reality of terrorism and invaded Afghanistan from where it is trying to retract. The fight against ISIS and several potent terrorist groups suggests that it is not over yet. There is a general feeling that the US is looking to pull out of unnecessary theatres of wars. Yet new and more sophisticated and technology driven challenges posed by extremism, radicalisation and terrorism, cyber warfare, weaponization of outer space and autonomous weapons systems make it difficult for the ‘hyper power’ to extricate itself without losing its edge. This is made evident in the competition for technological space in the domain of 5G.

The Middle East is foisted with several hot spots and multiple local actors perturbing the regional and global security calculus and supply chains. It needs to be given continued attention as the US embarks on its more robust Indo-Pacific strategy. The security of Israel remains a primary concern for historic and political reasons for the US. The rivalry between Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia with Iran and Turkey, in the geopolitical, geoeconomics and religious leadership contest, has brought in US at the forefront. Trump has smartly engineered the rapprochement and formal Peace Treaty and opening of diplomatic relations through the Abraham Accords between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel. More such agreements may follow in due course. 

For the first time US leadership overtly supported India in the ongoing Sino-India border conflict and as a result the QUAD and the Indo-Pacific strategy have acquired greater salience.

On the other hand, in contrast to Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” tactics against Iran, Biden wants to “rescue” US foreign policy and has promised to re-join the Nuclear Deal in part to assuage its Trans-Atlantic partners. However, fault lines created as of now might not provide much leeway. This necessarily engenders shifting dynamics and new political alignments that may have far reaching consequences as the USA-Arab -Israel matrix is pitted against an informal and unlikely alignment between China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan-Turkey and Qatar (CRIPTQ) which will compel continued US engagement in the region. 

Turkey, a NATO member, a protector of the Muslim Brotherhood aspiring for leadership of the Muslims world through Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman interventions in Libya, Syria, Iraq the Eastern Mediterranean, and the most recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict lays claims over Jerusalem and will demand the attention of the US Administration which conducts an ambivalent policy. A direct conflict may not be an option against Turkey but ways may be found to ‘tame’ Erdogan. However, the rise of ‘middle powers’ will confront many challenges from the regional satraps backed by Washington even if the next administration opens negotiations with Iran to restore the nuclear deal. 

US-India relations enjoy bipartisan support despite several irritants that include immigration and trade issues as well as India’s continued partnership with Russia. Competition for India’s growing defence market will remain a strong factor.  Although PM Modi paraded President Trump around at the “Howdy Modi” gala event held in Houston for the influential and successful Indian diaspora with a signature call for “Ab ki baar Trump sarkar”, India can generally count on US goodwill. Coincidentally Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris, of partly Indian origin as his running mate.  

Post-election USA may not be able to drastically depart from the compulsions created by current policies as it will have to contend with the future trajectory of multilateralism, economic recession, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and persistent global disorder.

A stronger India will also continue to urge the US administration to appreciate its compulsions with regard to energy supplies, security concerns and the importance of Chabahar port and of Iran for New Delhi’s Afghan strategy and connectivity projects to Central Asia. India has emerged as an important partner for the US in the Indo-Pacific. Even though they relied greatly on Pakistan’s access to the Taliban, the USA under Trump stood by India on matters of cross-border terrorism and Islamic radicalisation. 

Turkey’s close partnership with Pakistan and its support to some radical groups in India is a challenge that the US and India may want to jointly confront. For the first time US leadership overtly supported India in the ongoing Sino-India border conflict and as a result the QUAD and the Indo-Pacific strategy have acquired greater salience.

President Trump, whose record of handling the pandemic leaves much to be desired is said to have recovered from the Corona himself. Post-election USA may not be able to drastically depart from the compulsions created by current policies as it will have to contend with the future trajectory of multilateralism, economic recession, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and persistent global disorder.

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  • This vast and continuous Eurasian land mass from the Russian Far East to the Aegean Sea comprising the CRIPT must also include Afghanistan which has bled and humiliated US like no other country since Vietnam. CRIPT’s silent support to Chinese assault on India in Ladakh is partly self inflicted as we go deeper in our ‘strategic embrace’ of the US, ignoring Iranian and Russian reservations. The core weakness of the ‘American embrace’ is it’s almost proverbial unreliability (they can opt out of any accord, treaty, agreement through unilateral executive action as well as because of domestic laws like the Glenn, Syminington and Pressler Amendments), it’s asymmetrical rider and horse mentality, and it’s inability to make up for India’s loss of strategic space in Asia, especially in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia. Ill-conceived domestic policies centred around Hindutva and it’s mascot- CAA/NRC- have also contributed to reservations in several Asian countries. And it is in this context, notwithstanding PM Modi’s inappropriate ‘abkibaar TrumpSarkar’ comment, that a possible Democratic win in the US will hurt the Modi Govt.

Anil Trigunayat

Anil Trigunayat

Amb Anil Trigunayat is a former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta.

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