Trump’s ‘America first’ could work against India

If there is one message from President Donald Trump’s inauguration address from Capitol Hill on Friday, it is that the US, which has always decried protectionism by other nations, is heading for strongly protectionist times under the new dispensation. His clarion call that from now on it would be ‘America first’ as a cornerstone of all his policies has sent shivers down the spine of immigrant communities, including Indians who are reputedly the most well-off community per capita. His slogan ‘buy American and hire American’ could mean harder times ahead for immigrant communities who have considered America to be an El Dorado for them. In rhetoric which was typical of his campaign speeches, Trump told the tens of thousands present at his inauguration that every decision of his administration on trade, on taxes and immigration as also on foreign affairs would be made to benefit American workers and American families. Said he in a tone that sounded authoritarian yet egalitarian, “We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”

In words that sounded fiercely populist he added, “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength…we will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth.”

This may be fine as rhetoric and posturing before audiences but Trump will soon have to get down to brass tacks and take into account ground realities. Inexperienced in holding public office as he is, he would indeed have to learn the ropes quickly and pragmatically. The world needs the US as much as the US needs the world. Today’s world is one of interdependence. To say as he did that “for many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry….we’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own” reflects extreme naivety. The fact is that the ethnic Indians and Chinese in particular have, as immigrants, benefitted the American nation a great deal by their hard work and enterprise. Besides, the US has had an excellent deal in terms of commodity pricing while the developing world has suffered due to low pricing of their manufactured products. There is no denying that if the H-1B visas were to be tightened and outsourcing to Indian IT companies were to be leashed, India and Indians would be great sufferers, but the effect on the US too would be crippling. Likewise, Chinese companies have reached a level of indispensability. On the positive plane, those coming under H-1B visas into the US are likely to get a better monetary deal than now.

Former President Barack Obama was well disposed towards India and it remains to be seen how Trump’s equation develops with this country. In his inauguration speech Trump promised to unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism which he has promised to eradicate from the face of the earth. That should go well with India because Islamic terror is a major threat to India. But how that would translate in the South Asian region will be keenly watched.  It would depend largely on how the US responds to Indian sensitivities and how it deals with Pakistan in the Trump era. There is indeed no clarity on how Trump would deal with the Af-Pak issue and a tilt towards Pakistan would have grave repercussions for Indo-US relations. On the other hand, there is a possibility that the Trump administration may come down hard on Islamabad’s fuelling of terror against India in the region. India would indeed need to lobby hard with him as it did with Obama without taking anything for granted.

The Trump administration’s attitude towards China, Russia and Iran would also have implications for India. The US-China relationship which had improved during Obama’s presidency have not begun well under Trump. There is mutual mistrust which could well grow with Trump’s blunt and abrasive temperament and China’s overbearing disposition. Under Obama administration there was a level of comfort in New Delhi that the Americans wanted to build India up as a bulwark against an aggressive China. Whether that would be furthered or compromised under Trump is a big question mark. The Japanese also drew comfort from the fact that the US-Japan-India axis was working well and that it had also the tacit support of Australia. The possibility of an upswing in US relations with Russia under Trump has been well received in India. Obama’s later-day hostility towards Russia and the close US-India ties had, to an extent, soured Indo-Russian relations which could well be ready for a correction under the Trump administration. The improvement of US-Israel ties expected under Trump may also work to India’s liking since this country now has close military cooperation with the Israelis. All in all, Indo-US ties under Trump are yet to unravel but with some deft diplomacy, any wrinkles could well be ironed out. Largely, however, we are in a blind alley.

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