Most American Presidents have highlighted American Exceptionalism. Yes, the United States does have several exceptional features which have inspired millions all over the world cutting across national boundaries, race, religion and political systems: democracy, rule of law, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, a multi-lingual plural society, and upholding basic human rights. No rational person can find fault with these universal values if the US practices what it preaches and lets them influence the world by their own intrinsic strengths rather than try to impose them on others.
None can also object to Donald Trump’s much touted slogan: “America First” as long as he can tolerate others’ slogans: India First, China First, Russia First, Japan First etc.
Safeguarding the national interests of their respective countries, big or small, remains the sovereign duty of all leaders. Still, mature, responsible and pragmatic leaders strive to find common grounds and convergences with their counterparts to develop mutually beneficial relations. That’s how, an interdependent and interconnected world progresses and prospers. This truism gets reflected in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated idea: Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.
If pursuit and promotion of its long cherished values were germane to the US to have closer and warmer relations with others, India and the US would have been the closest buddies. However, that hasn’t been the case. While boasting of higher ideals, the US has never hesitated in courting and cultivating despotic rulers of totalitarian regimes who violated every human right and had no love for democracy. Despite international condemnation of the alleged killing of Saudi dissident and journalist of the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi Crown Prince MBS (Mohammad bin Salman) was feted at the White House. For decades, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was America’s closest ally in the Middle East, though he had over 85,000 political prisoners. During the 9-year-long Iraq-Iran conflict, the US supported Saddam Hussein and gave a blind eye when he used chemical weapons against the Kurds! More recently, American intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria hasn’t strengthened democratic forces; it has caused enormous loss of life and property and ushered in an era of lawlessness, chaos, violence and disruption of normal life of ordinary citizens.
The billionaire businessman turned President of the US never gets tired of claiming victimhood: all countries have been exploiting America, taking advantage of American trade policies; they have been exporting their products to the US with no/little import duties, but denying access to American products to their own markets by tariff and non-tariff barriers, thus enjoying huge trade surpluses. And he vows to stop this in his own unconventional and undiplomatic way. Globalisation: free flow of capital, technology, services and human beings to places with better returns was the economic mantra enunciated and propagated by the US; China and India have been the two biggest beneficiaries of globalisation. Ironically, while Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, and Narendra Modi have made a strong pitch in favour of globalisation at the World Economic Forum at Davos, US President Donald Trump is raising protectionist walls against foreign goods, disowning globalisation and attacking WTO that was set up to ensure free and fair international trade without discrimination.
Both Mexico and Canada have been at the receiving end—the NAFTA has been replaced by new bilateral agreements. Trump’s decision to impose restrictions on the import of steel and aluminium impacts not only China and India, but also the EU and America’s allies Japan and South Korea. There is a full-blown tariff war between the US and China, with the US having imposed 25% tariff on China’s exports worth $200 billion and China retaliating by imposing tariff on American products, including condoms and perfumes worth $ 60 billion (besides $50 billion announced earlier) and threatening to restrict export of rare earth which can cripple the American IT industry.
No American President has used brinkmanship as a powerful tool to test the resolve of his rivals and extract a favourable deal as has Trump. After publicly threatening to destroy North Korea in his speech at the UN last year, he met the North Korean President Kim Jong Un in Singapore. In his trade war with China too, he follows a two-track path: don’t shun talks, but keep the sword of tariffs hanging; it has produced mixed results. Before the forthcoming G-20 summit in Japan this month, Trump has publicly shot a salvo at China by saying if Xi doesn’t meet him and their summit doesn’t result in an agreement, tariffs on Chinese good worth $300 billion will go up! The harsh truth is that America’s trade war with China isn’t only about balancing trade; it’s to contain China’s rise and delay, if not stall, her emergence as the next Super Power.
“My way or Highway” and bullying, pressuring and intimidating your friends and foes alike to accept your word as the Gospel Truth leads to outrage, discord, disruption and heightens prospects of conflicts. Trump triumphantly claims that Mexico has signed a new deal thanks to his threat of higher tariffs. It isn’t diplomacy, it’s dadagiri!
While realising India’s potential to act as a counter-weight to China in the Indo-Pacific region and despite having exported defence equipment worth $17 billion in recent years, Trump publicly called India the “Tariff king”, has withdrawn GSP facility enjoyed since 1975, causing a loss of $5.6 billion and threatened to impose sanctions if India continues to import oil from Iran and goes ahead with its purchase of SA-400 Russian Defence system. It also demands India decontrol prices of several medicare items such as heart stent, knee implant etc which have social dimension.
So, does calling India a strategic partner, major defence partner and conducting strategic and commercial dialogue, 30+ Missions and 300+ Joint Military Exercises matter much? Doesn’t extra-territorial application of CAATSA and threat of imposition of sanctions reflect America’s insensitiveness to India’s national security and energy security?
Other signatories (P4 nations +Germany + EU) don’t agree with Trump’s reasons for withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), but can do nothing! For Trump, Netanyahu’s allegations carry more weight. Overwhelming use of American dollars for international transactions gives the US undue power to browbeat its detractors. Victims of Trump’s onslaught should explore prospects of trading in bilateral currencies. Won’t the pain of American sting be minimised if China, Russia, India, Japan and Iran agree to transact in each others’ currency? Can India and the EU begin paying for each others’ products in Rupees and the Euro? Isn’t it easier said than done? Where is the FTA? Is the rupee fully convertible?
Bullies bully more if you get frightened; they usually back off if you stand up to them. India should tell Trump: no more import of defence equipment unless the US transfers technologies as Russia did for BRAHMOS and no threats of tariffs and restoration of GSP. Having good relations with the US is in India’s interests, but she must not succumb to American demands. It’s time for our resolute leader to show courage and stand up to Donald Trump. Didn’t Indira Gandhi stand up to Richard Nixon?
The writer is a retired diplomat and expert on strategic affairs.