Donald Trump will arrive in Delhi in the most angry and aggrieved state of his presidency
James Astill | 21 Feb, 2020
Donald Trump (Photo: Getty Images)
EVER SINCE BILL CLINTON spent five days in New Delhi in 2000, a passage to India has been obligatory for American presidents. George W Bush visited twice, to sign the US-India nuclear deal in 2005, and then again in 2010. Barack Obama became the first President to attend the Republic Day parade in 2015. And all these visits were conducted in essentially the same vein. The President came to champion the new strategy of patiently, gradually binding democratic India into America’s orbit that Clinton had provided a first glimpse of during the Kargil War in 1999 when he became the first American leader to openly side with India in a time of conflict.
This ensured a consistent tone to all three presidential visits. American presidents came in a spirit of benevolence, exuding patience and—when faced with official reserve and opposition grandstanding in New Delhi—a degree of fortitude. Both Bush and Obama believed the US-India relationship had already outgrown its former ‘coupling’ with US-Pakistan relations. Both thought America and India had a vast amount to gain from much closer ties and that it was mainly exigent on the superpower to make them happen by opening up new strategic and commercial opportunities to New Delhi. And after a certain naïve exuberance in Washington over Bush’s initial outreach, both their administrations learned to appreciate that closer ties would happen at India’s cautious pace.
The formal US-India alliance that many American strategists wanted would not happen overnight. Consequently, neither Bush nor Obama oversold their efforts to a domestic audience—or even said much about India to American voters. Foreign policy is rarely a big vote-winner. And the US-India relationship was a bipartisan long-term project, even more insulated from the turbulence of American politics than mere diplomatic projects.
It is worth recalling this history on the eve of Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit to India: because it is indicative of what remains steady in the bilateral relationship, and what has changed.
Surprising as it might seem in New Delhi, given Trump’s intense and at times peculiar enthusiasm for tariffs, off-the-cuffs harangues and, for now, Narendra Modi, his posture towards India is more consistent with his predecessors’ than almost any other aspect of his foreign policy. On a strategic level—measured by defence ties and so forth—the two countries are still moving together; if perhaps with less focus and conviction than they would be under a more conventional president. The Trump administration’s reluctance to demand that India exercise restraint after last year’s terrorist attack in Pulwama was indicative of this. Though it excited some negative comment in Washington at the time; it was not markedly different from the Obama administration’s attitude to Indo-Pakistani tensions. Meanwhile, even among the protectionists in the Trump administration—including the President himself—no one has argued for an unwinding of the US-India embrace.
Surprising as it might seem in New Delhi, given Trump’s enthusiasm for tariffs, his posture towards India is more consistent with his predecessors’ than any other aspect of his foreign policy
Yet on a day-to-day level, the US-India relationship is more fraught and uncertain than at any time in the past two decades. That is down to Trump—who does not do bipartisan or long-term or anything outside the purview of America’s politics, which he has made turbulent as never before. And having spent most of the past three months fighting and ultimately escaping impeachment proceedings, Trump will come to New Delhi as thin-skinned, distracted, emotionally frazzled and desperate for a win as he has been at any time during his high-wire presidency.
He is prosecuting a campaign of retribution against his erstwhile accusers, in the media and bureaucracy—including through a purge of the National Security Council. He is at the same time in the process of launching a re-election campaign that consists largely of denigrating his enemies, real, imagined and unwitting: immigrants, minorities, Democrats. Humiliated and furious over the enduring stain on his presidency that his impeachment represents, he craves vindication, in the form of acclaim and successes to trumpet. For all the ‘Namaste Trump’ happy talk, Modi and his Government must be awaiting the visit of its fourth consecutive American President with trepidation. Trump’s aggrieved and unpredictable mood carries an obvious risk of embarrassment, or worse, for the Indian Prime Minister. But Modi appears, rightly, to see Trump as an opportunity, too. India may never have a better opportunity to ‘play’ an American leader to its advantage; a relaxation of the trade tensions Trump has stirred will be the minimum Modi must be hoping for.
DEALING WITH TRUMP diplomatically was always going to be difficult. He has an unshakeable idea of himself as a deal-maker with the guts to make big decisions off the cuff. Yet it was assumed that Trump would at least want to make rational trades. He was often said to be “transactional”, implying that he would give something to get something; that there would be a commercial logic and method to his foreign policy. Yet this has always been hard to detect; and as he becomes increasingly subsumed by domestic battles and inner grievance, it becomes harder still.
Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements have been marked, on the one hand, by his astonishing ignorance of the world and, even more baffling, his lack of interest in filling the gaps. The President is reported to have thought Bhutan and Nepal were part of India. In his first meeting with Modi in 2017, according to a well-sourced report by two Washington Post journalists, Trump knocked back the Indian Prime Minister’s concerns about Chinese aggression with the remark: “It’s not like you’ve got China on your border.” According to this account, contained in the newly published book A Very Stable Genius by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, ‘Modi’s eyes bulged out in surprise’ to hear this. No kidding—it seems the American President did not know India shared a border with China. (Given that he also did not know what historical event took place at Pearl Harbour, according to his then chief of staff, this is all too credible.)
On the other hand, in place of knowledge Trump has a set of implacable, though sometimes contradictory, biases. For example, he admires authoritarians for displaying the strongman tendencies he covets for himself. Thus, his craven praise for Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an—and also Modi, whom Trump appears to place in the same bracket. Adding to his enthusiasm, he is alleged to have business interests in at least some of these leaders’ countries (though not, it seems, India in any significant way). According to an account by his former national security adviser John Bolton, Trump’s eagerness to do personal favours for Erdog˘an invited strong suspicions of a conflicted presidential interest.
Another, even more important, Trumpian predilection is towards anything the President can spin as a triumph—no matter whether it actually is or not. Thus his enthusiasm for tariffs—which he hiked on around $7 billion of Indian imports last year. No matter how many times it is explained to Trump that tariffs are a tax on American consumers of imported goods (because they end up paying higher prices for them), he persists in claiming they are a contribution to the US treasury by foreigners.
This dogged misunderstanding illustrates Trump’s determination to see geopolitics as he sees business: as a series of zero-sum deals. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, suggests the nature of Trump’s business helps explain this. Real estate deals, he notes, are essentially one-off transactions, in which one party is liable to best the other. Unlike most business transactions, they are not intended to lay the foundations for a longer-term relationship. Indeed, that might explain Trump’s aggressiveness and unpredictability. Yet the President’s apparent indifference to facts—including the geography of South Asia and what tariffs actually are—is a different matter.
Mental health professionals have persistently sounded the alarm on his state of mind. Trump is said to exhibit the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder—which include an inflated sense of self-importance and a deep and persistent need for applause and admiration. This might appear to explain the way in which the atmospherics of any given situation, or rather the potential for Trump to spin them in his favour, are more real to him than objective truths. This is the key to his irascible behaviour. Trump will appraise any political or geopolitical scenario in terms of his own interests. And his appraisal is likely to be changeable, because coloured by his emotional needs, in the moment. That is why the turbulent run-up to his forthcoming India trip should be sobering for his Indian hosts.
TRUMP LONGS TO be popular. Yet his political method of winning approbation from his party faithful, which is to barrack, insult and spin offensive conspiracy theories about the other side, has ensured him an even greater degree of opprobrium. He announced his entry into mainstream politics by pushing a theory that America’s first Black President—whom Democrats revere—had been born in Africa. Visiting New Hampshire this month, on the eve of its Democratic primary election, he claimed to have been denied victory in the state during the 2016 election only through massive electoral fraud—for which, needless to say, there is no evidence. This is the character and method of America’s President. Despite having inherited and since presided over a strong economy and jobs boom—which he has exacerbated with a debt-fuelled stimulus—he is therefore historically unpopular. No American president has previously failed, as he has, to record an approval rating of 50 per cent since presidential polling began. No president has faced such a daily barrage of criticism, including commentary on his dishonesty, possible criminality and apparent parlous state of mental health, from his first day in office. Trump has invited this criticism; it drives him wild. And the circumstances leading up to, and arising from, his failed impeachment trial have made him wilder than ever.
Trump will appraise any political or geopolitical scenario in terms of his own interests. And his appraisal is likely to be changeable
Last December, he was put on trial by the Senate: thereby becoming only the third President to suffer that humiliation. He stood accused by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives of abuse of office and obstructing Congress’ ability to investigate his alleged abuse. It consisted of his well-documented—and initially admitted—attempt to extort his Ukrainian counterpart for a political favour. In return for the release of $300 m of promised American aid, Trump asked Volodymyr Zelensky to open a corruption investigation into one of his political rivals, Joe Biden (on the spurious basis that one of the former Vice President’s sons had business interests in Ukraine). In itself this was so far outside the boundaries of legitimate presidential behaviour that some of Trump’s fiercest defenders, on Fox News and Capitol Hill, were momentarily caught out. “If the president said, you know, I’ll give you the money but you’ve got to investigate Joe Biden, that is really off-the-rails wrong,” said one of his more slavish champions on Fox News, the presenter Steve Doocy.
But when it quickly became clear that was exactly what Trump had said to Zelensky, Republicans decided his attempt to strong-arm Zelensky wasn’t so irregular after all. In fear of Trump’s hold on their voters, Republicans in Congress—with one laudable exception—defended him ad absurdum. None of the 199 Republican members of the House of Representatives joined the Democrats in voting to impeach Trump. Of the 53 Republicans senators, 52 used their majority to ensure the ensuing impeachment trial was nastily partisan, brutishly rigged in the President’s favour (this was the first impeachment trial to which no witnesses were called to testify) and extremely short. Trump was acquitted in a couple of weeks. Among the self-serving arguments Republican senators advanced during this farce, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted to bar witnesses from it—and then had the gall to lament that the trial was a partisan stitch-up; Senator Marco Rubio of Florida suggested that even if Trump might be guilty, he saw no benefit in voting to convict him.
MEANWHILE, TRUMP WAS raised to such a peak of indignant fury over his impeachment, that 350 psychiatrists and related experts signed a petition claiming that his mental health had become a national security threat. “We are convinced that, as the time of possible impeachment approaches, Donald Trump has the real potential to become ever more dangerous, a threat to the safety of our nation,” wrote the petition’s organisers. The President’s post-impeachment behaviour suggests his acquittal has not had much of a calming effect. He has sacked or sidelined the handful of officials who dared testify to the House of Representatives about his attempted shakedown of Zelensky—including Gordon Sondland, the erstwhile US ambassador to the European Union, even though he had contributed a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration fund. He has fulminated against the conviction of one of his former associates, Roger Stone, for lying to Congress over his indirect contacts with the Russian effort to boost Trump’s 2016 election chances.
Trump has additionally devoted himself to derailing the Democratic presidential primary, including by holding incendiary rallies, at which he spouts abuse against his would-be Democratic challengers. The President has never been more powerful. Republican voters are with him and he has cowed almost every Republican politician into submission: unchecked by Congress, he is now free to misbehave more or less as he wants. After Trump attacked the judge presiding over Stone’s trial and conviction, even his Attorney General Bill Barr—who was hitherto the President’s most amenable accomplice in the government—said Trump had gone too far. Fat lot of difference that made: Trump has never seemed angrier, more irascible and emboldened than he is now.
More than likely, his forthcoming India break will do him good. He can expect no prominent criticism in India and a lot of praise. Indian courtiers are better at that than Americans. And by ensuring that Trump’s big public appearance is in his own loyal Gujarat, Modi has taken steps to insulate the President from the Indian Prime Minister’s own wobbly ratings. Above all, as Trump heads into full-on re-election campaign mode, he needs wins to salve his wounded ego and trumpet to his supporters. This, more than any Indian promise to buy American agricultural products or oil, suggests Trump’s visit is likely to be judged a success. It may well see the signing of a parcel of small trade agreements, dressed up as a ‘trade deal’.
The American President will give an enthusiastic endorsement to his admired Modi. He is unlikely to put him under any pressure over Kashmir or other of his recent troubles. With luck, too, the trip will pass off without Trump saying anything disparaging about Indian culture or confusing Congress’ dynastic rulers with the Mahatma.
Even so, official India must be counting the days until it can again deal with a more conventional American leader. While illustrating the durability of the US-Indian partnership (if it can withstand Trump’s quirks, it can surely withstand anything), this President has brought more strain and distraction to it than any of his recent predecessors. Any one of Trump’s likely Democratic rivals would be less of a handful for New Delhi. While maintaining much of the pressure he has brought to bear on China, on trade especially, they would likely unwind Trump’s trade assault on India. Notably, Congressional Democrats led the opposition to Trump’s decision to end the preferential trade terms India had formerly received, amounting to duty-free imports worth $5.6 billion a year. Yet how likely is Trump to win another term in November?
Notwithstanding his unpopularity and divisiveness, this is alarmingly likely. His unpopularity virtually ensures that he will win a minority of the vote—and quite likely as in 2016, millions of votes less than his Democratic opponent. But the oddities of America’s electoral college, in which the aggregate of a candidate’s state victories matters more than the national popular vote, mean Trump could easily win re-election all the same. The Democratic vote is “inefficiently” concentrated in states such as California and Massachusetts; the smaller Republican vote is more widely distributed, making it easier to secure a winning electoral majority. And polling in the key battleground states—such as Florida and Wisconsin—suggests Trump would be competitive there with any of his likely Democratic challengers.
Republican voters are with Trump. And the more his Democratic opponents lambast his wild behaviour, the more unquestioningly fervent is the Republican support for him. Thereby Trump has hit upon a political formula that rewards him for ever more outrageously provocative behaviour. It is a frightening prospect, still eight months from the general election. Indeed, the biggest beneficiary of the President’s forthcoming trip to India may be his own country. He is only due to spend a couple of days in India; if Modi could somehow manage to extend that by a bit, millions of Trump-exhausted Americans would be eternally grateful.