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Op-Ed

“Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric does not create an opening for India”

The Quint

In an interview to The Quint on July 22, Foreign Policy Fellow Dhruva Jaishankar offered a comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Presidential election campaign, and the ramifications of the election for India and the rest of the world.

The current state of affairs in the Republican and Democratic Parties

He started with an analysis of the Republican National Convention, whose main takeaways appear to be the continuing division among party elites regarding Trump’s candidacy, and the unprofessionalism of the Trump campaign (as evidenced by Ivanka Trump’s speech, which was rather disconnected from issues dear to the Republican platform, and Melania Trump’s allegedly plagiarized speech).

By contrast, the Democratic Party seems much more united around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, in spite of her unfavorable ratings among the broader electorate. It is likely that the upcoming Democratic National Convention will strengthen Clinton’s position in the presidential race, conveying the message that she is the responsible candidate with the best resume to become President.

Trump’s foreign policy

The discussion then moved on to an assessment of Trump’s foreign policy, which revolves around four main themes, i.e. immigration, the wind-down of alliance commitments, a negative assessment of the consequences of international trade (as seen in Trump’s criticism of NAFTA), and the perception that the world is getting less and less safe and that only a strong man like Trump might counter this trend. So, the leitmotiv of Trump’s foreign policy is the return of American isolationism, which would be unsettling for US allies, forcing them to reconsider defense budgets and deployments. Isolationism would also result in a reduction of American military presence abroad, in an attempt to reduce costs. However, Mr. Jaishankar noted that the economics of Trump’s troop withdrawals do not quite add up: it is unclear whether the United States would really save money by withdrawing troops from foreign bases and deploying them back home, as Trump indicated. So, isolationism would not result in a demilitarisation of the United States, but in a remilitarisation of the homeland.

Trump has relied on a small pool of relatively unknown experts to draw his foreign policy vision: this has helped him project the image that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, is an outsider to the establishment—a central theme in his campaign.

In an attempt to appraise the consequences of a Trump presidency for India, Mr. Jaishankar uncovered Trump’s mixed attitude towards the country, often characterised by a combination of admiration for the country’s economic performance and fear that this will eventually challenge US dominance. With regards to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, Jaishankar maintained that even if this has not targeted the highly-skilled immigration that comes from the country, India should still be wary of such rhetoric and attempts to turn to ethnicity or religion-based systems to restrict migration, as these might eventually affect the country.  Moreover, plans to raise trade barriers would badly affect India, whose largest trading partner in goods and services together happens to be the United States. So, Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric—mainly targeting Mexico, Japan, and China—does not create an opening for India.

Evaluating whether India should fulfill possible American demands for more active involvement in the international arena, in the guise of a military intervention abroad, Mr. Jaishankar said that this is a purely domestic issue, and that its outcome should be borne out of a domestic debate on the capacity of the Indian public to absorb casualties in a foreign theater. Mr. Jaishankar then added that if India wishes to become a major power, it should be willing to take some risks.

As for India’s expectations from the United States, Mr. Jaishankar, quoting a recent Brookings India publication on India-U.S. relations, said that tighter cooperation on counterterrorism and intelligence sharing, energy, intellectual property and higher education will be essential to strengthen bilateral ties. Whether Trump would be willing to do so remains an open question.

With respect to U.S.-India relations and Pakistan, Mr. Jaishankar noted that letting India deal with Pakistan on its own—something Trump seems to have hinted at—would harm India, as it would deprive the country of the leverage that comes from support from the United States.

As for the impact of a Trump presidency on Pakistan, reducing the aid the US disburses to Pakistan—a process that has been ongoing since 2012 at least, when the U.S. started reducing military aid—would not necessarily result in the US gaining more leverage, as Pakistan can now rely on a more active and trustworthy patron, i.e. China. Moreover, any attempt to cut off aid would be used as evidence of American unreliability in Pakistan, as was the case in 1965 and 1990.

Moving on to Trump’s attitude towards Muslims, the presidential hopeful seems to be reinforcing the post-9/11 notion that the United States’ is hostile to the Muslim world. This is certainly fanning anti-American sentiment, but much of the damage to the United States’ reputation in the Muslim world had been done before Trump’s rise.

Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this report is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author(s). Brookings India does not have any institutional views.

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