Varghese K. George
In the one month since his election as the 45th President of the United States, the one campaign promise that Donald Trump has certainly tried to live up to is to be “unpredictable”. But there is also a predictable pattern that is emerging from his picks for important administration positions to date.
Mr. Trump has selected a climate denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an Attorney General who has faced allegations of racism, a Labour Secretary who heads a company that employs a large number of low-wage workers and does not support wage increases, an Education Secretary who believes the American public school system must be dismantled, a Housing Secretary who believes the government has no role to play in combating housing discrimination, and a National Security Adviser (NSA) who has been a purveyor of conspiracy theories. “This is nihilistic,” said Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, in a TV interview recently.
By drafting a careful mix of people from the Republican Party old guard, billionaires who have no experience in public office, and a battery of former military officers, Mr. Trump appears to be striking a balance between his disruptive instincts and stability. After victory, he has reiterated his campaign promise of job creation and other relief for the middle class, and going by his choice of people for key administrative positions, it is clear that his efforts will be guided by old style trickle-down economics and a high dose of protectionism.
India-U.S. relations are spread across all departments and numerous autonomous institutions. However, of pronounced significance will be Secretaries of State, Defence, Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and the NSA. Of these five, four selections have been announced: Michael Flynn for NSA; James Mattis for Defence Secretary; investor Wilbur Ross, who once held a 30 per cent stake in SpiceJet, for Secretary of Commerce; and Rex W. Tillerson for Secretary of State. The first two are former military generals, both with field experience in Afghanistan, and consequently, close links with the Pakistani Army.
American politicians have increasingly been tired of Pakistan’s failure to rein in terrorism, but intelligence and military leaders have been more forgiving for tactical reasons. It is unclear how Cabinet members with operational experience will conduct themselves in roles that have been traditionally held by civilians. “It can cut both ways. They could be lenient towards Pakistan. They could also be tough because they know best what is happening there,” a diplomatic source, who is tracking the administrative transition, said.
Mr. Flynn is tough on Pakistan in his book The Field of Fight: “Countries like Pakistan need to be told that we will not tolerate the existence of training camps and safe havens for Taliban, Haqqani, and al Qaeda forces on their territory, nor will we permit their banks and other financial institutions to move illicit funds for the terror network. They are going to have to choose, and if they continue to help the jihadis, we are going to treat them harshly, cutting them off from American assistance, and operating against enemy safe havens.” Mr. Mattis has appreciated Pakistan’s help in Afghanistan in Congressional hearings earlier. Mr. Trump has said he would work with the Pakistani leadership to resolve regional issues.
To the east of India, Mr. Trump has chosen to play the bad cop himself with China while picking Terry Branstad to play the good cop as U.S. Ambassador to China. The Iowa Governor has deep links with the Chinese Communist Party, and Mr. Trump said, half in jest, at a public rally last week that Mr. Branstad always asks him to be soft on China. “One of the most important relations we must improve, and we have to improve, is our relationship with China,” Mr. Trump said. “The nation of China is responsible for almost half of America’s trade deficit… they haven’t played by the rules and I know it’s time they’re going to start.”
The Trump transition process has not signalled anything India-specific, but its efforts on the east and the west will have direct implications for India. China has largely ignored Mr. Trump’s telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen but could be looking for an opportunity to hit back. India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will be an immediate collateral damage if U.S.-China relations go south. “In any case, India will have to start from scratch now to convince the new administration its case for NSG,” an Indian source said.
Mr. Tillerson, the choice for Secretary of State, does not have a record in diplomacy that could serve as an indicator of his priorities. But if his reportedly close ties with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin indeed result in a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations, that would be good for India at a broad, strategic level.
In commerce and trade relations, India could be headed for some tough times with the U.S. as the new administration pushes ahead with its ‘America first’ agenda.
“Buy American, hire American,” Mr. Trump said at a rally last Thursday, threatening to take action against the “misuse of visas.” Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions is a long-time proponent of the view that companies are misusing the H-1B visa programme to import cheap labour into America. Once the name for USTR is announced, that picture will be clearer.
Significant strands for India
Conceptually, there are two discernible strands in the emerging Trump team that are of significance to India. One is the notion of a cultural coalition between India and the U.S. that Mr. Flynn and Stephen Bannon, who will be the chief strategist to the new President, could sympathise with. The Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) headed by Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar, an Indian-American businessman, promotes this idea. On the other hand, Mr. Trump and his Commerce Secretary pick could seek exacting transactional relationships with other countries. Mr. Trump says that other countries have been fooling the U.S. for long.
Trump’s America is still in the making. When former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of unknown unknowns, who would have expected a Trump presidency?
Varghese K. George