Until recently, it had long been presumed that America will continue to devote considerable financial and military resources toward conflict resolution and lead the way toward finding solutions to the world’s most intractable problems. That presumption began to disintegrate under the Barack Obama administration and has accelerated under the Donald Trump administration, where anything that does not place the United States in an automatic first mover position is apparently not worth pursuing. Diplomacy (whatever that means today in Washington), the disbursement of foreign aid, and the delivery of disaster assistance have all been reduced to a series of business decisions, wherein a zero-sum game is the defining logic.
Under the Trump administration, the US is deliberately upending long-held positions and relationships—whether moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, withholding aid from the UN, or dissing one of its closest allies—the UK—in favour of what can only be thought of as radical approaches to what were not long ago conventional issues. That has naturally created an unstable environment in which to proceed, which, from Mr Trump’s perspective, is seen as the preferred modus operandi. He surely believes that from this self-induced chaos will emerge a new order in which all the chips will only fall squarely in the US corner, and any American adversary will be left shivering in the dark.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, in a multilateral world, in which alliances are already prone to shift and the spoils go to those nations with demonstrated dexterity and lightness of foot. For example, assaults on national treasuries and pride (such as against the Palestinians and Pakistan by withholding aid) have consequences, whether Mr Trump thinks that matters or not. In the case of Pakistan, China should be expected to pick up the slack. Between July and November last year, Chinese investment in Pakistan was already 20 times that of the US for the same period ($837 million versus $43 million). In direct response to the announcement of the withholding of $255 million in aid earlier this month, the Chinese government announced it would expedite the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (part of its One Belt One Road initiative).
China has so far become a primary near-term beneficiary of Trump’s unique view of the world. It is already in the middle of a global charm offensive, flexing its soft power muscles, dispersing increasing amounts of foreign aid around the world, and ramping up diplomacy in places where it has little inclination to do so previously. For example, Beijing hosted both Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians’ Mahmoud Abbas last year. While recently referring to China and Russia as America’s “new” primary adversaries (now that the Islamic State has been largely defeated on the physical battleground), Trump is simultaneously creating a pathway conducive to even greater Chinese influence in a world which is craving a meaningful alternative to the US. The same certainly holds true for Russia, which is enjoying unparalleled influence in the Middle East as a result of its central role in defeating the ISIS in Syria.
As India continues its transition from being a balancing power to a leading power, the US pivot away from the world certainly represents an opportunity, consistent with New Delhi’s ongoing jostling for position on the global chessboard vis-à-vis China. India should do more of what it is already doing—proactively engaging the Asia region and the rest of the world, using its substantial soft power to strengthen existing relationships, and seizing opportunities as and when they arise with friendly nations. India’s growing relationship with Japan is a perfect example of this practice in effect.
There are really only three nations poised to pick up in a meaningful way where the US is leaving off around the world: China, India, and Russia. Given historical precedent and present-day realities, China and Russia have some baked-in advantages, as well as baggage. India’s engagement with the world is being welcomed in many quarters, but the opportunities being created by America’s abandonment of its own lofty position in the world will only last for a limited time. New Delhi should act swiftly to capitalise on it.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of Virtual Terror.