As Donald J. Trump is sworn in on January 20, as the 45th President of the United States. the country remains as divided, perhaps even more so, than in the run up to the elections of November 8.
Washington’s pundits had expected, or hoped, that the president-elect would use words, tone or medium, and choose issues differently from the pre-election need to rouse the base of the Republican Party.
This transition period, between the November 8 election of the new president of the United States, and his inauguration into office on January 20, has been very different from the preceding one in 2009.
At that time, a historical presidency of the first African-American moving into the White House once built by slaves, rising from the embers of deep frustration and anxieties generated by the losses in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the financial crisis of 2008, was replacing a deeply unpopular president, with approval ratings in the 20s.
On this occasion, Donald Trump stirred up and tapped into winds of desire for change, projecting himself as the new messiah to effectively tackle concerns on jobs and immigration. But he will be replacing a president who remains phenomenally popular, with historically high approval ratings, in the 60s. Obama is also using his last days in office to preserve elements of his legacy on health care, climate change, voting rights, social justice and equality. He has often paraphrased Martin Luther King to articulate his belief that the arc of history is long, but bends towards justice.
Again, in 2008/2009 Obama had kept a low profile till the inauguration, going by the adage that US had only one commander-in-chief at any time. Following the 26/11 Mumbai attack, he made a call to the Indian ambassador to register his solidarity, but did not seek to raise the profile of his involvement. This time, the nature of projections following calls with world leaders, interventions on policies related to China (call with Taiwanese President on December 2), and Israel (vehement opposition to US abstention on UNSC vote on December 23) have been unprecedented.
There has also been unexpected continuation of aggressive responses to criticism and doubling down on many of the controversial policy choices articulated during the campaign.
The US polity remains deeply divided now on policy towards Russia. The president-elect has signalled that he would make an effort to improve the relationship, explore easing of the present sanctions and search for agreements to reduce nuclear weapons (even though he had tweeted on December 22 that the “US must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes”). In large segments of the media, Congress and among Democrats, however, there is antipathy on account of perceived Russian interference in the election campaign, role in Syria, and approach to European order and security. The nominees for secretary of state (Tillerson), defence (Mattis) and director CIA reiterated concerns related to Russia in their confirmation hearings before the Senate. Mattis said on January 12 that Putin was attempting to break NATO, and had chosen to position Russia as a strategic competitor. He argued for sanctions to be applied internationally to ensure Russian compliance.
On China, mixed signals continue. The telephone call with the president of Taiwan, comments in a press interview with Wall Street Journal on January 13 that the one China policy was negotiable, continuing critical comments about Chinese currency and trade practices, suggest a harder line. Tillerson, in his confirmation hearing on January 11, said that China’s island building in South China Sea was illegal, “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea”, and that China’s access to those islands should not be allowed. Mattis said that US departments need to craft an integrated plan to counter Chinese aggression in international waters. At the same time, the Trump empire and family have business links with Chinese entities. The first ambassadorial nomination has been to China.
Several keen observers have suggested that if the new president is seen as accommodating towards Russia, he must be seen as more hawkish in another theatre. Otherwise, the perception of his role as a reliable commander-in-chief is undermined. Similarly, then presidential candidate Obama, while criticising the American role in Iraq, had described Afghanistan as a war that must be won, and had increased the number of troops there soon after coming to office.
European diplomats and chanceries are exhibiting concern. Continuing comments about NATO being obsolete, and the need for allies to spend more on their defence are raising concerns, particularly in Eastern Europe. The UK is seen as making an attempt to exploit the breach, regaining the privileged relationship and special dispensation from the US, as it negotiates Brexit from Europe. The British Prime Minister criticised elements of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on December 28 on Israel and Middle East peace, has reached out to the president-elect and is working on being among the earliest visitors to be received by the new administration.
On terrorism, the president-elect and his team continue to project a strong posture. ISIS remains in the line of fire. However, the approach to Afghanistan, and consequently to Pakistan, remains to be fully articulated.While calling upon Pakistan to expel or neutralise externally focussed militant groups operating within its borders, Mattis also suggested the need for the US to incentivise Pakistani behaviour. Such attempts, however, have not really worked in the past. Obama administration had adopted a similar approach in 2009/2010, only to be disappointed later.
On India, there is, as expected, continuity from the present administration. There has been, since President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000, a broad and growing bipartisan consensus for the relationship. Mattis said that US policy should continue to pursue a long-term strategic partnership, and supported defence technology partnership, and India’s recently declared status of a Major Defence Partner. Both the national security adviser and foreign secretary have visited Washington since the election and met senior members of the transition team. However, there will be concern in India as H1B visa norms are likely to be made more stringent. US corporations have also become wary at the moment of investing outside US, in view of calls to ‘Make in America’ and ‘bring jobs back’.This could impact investment flows into India, especially if corporate taxes are lowered in US.
The initial phase of the Trump presidency is expected to be marked by controversy, confrontation and deep divisions within the US. Major rallies and marches are being planned in different parts of the country, and the iconic national mall in Washington DC. World leaders, corporate CEOs, and policy analysts continue to watch pronouncements and potential actions with some anxiety and a sense of uncertainty.
However, the essence of the Trump presidency still remains to be defined. The Bush presidency had been defined by an unexpected development, the 9/11 attacks, and subsequent responses to the attack. The Obama presidency had been defined by the 2008 financial crisis, and the reactions to the US overreach in Iraq. The Trump presidency will be defined once decisions begin to emerge through inter-department processes, based on facts as they are assessed by the new team, reactions to such policy choices, and to presently unanticipated developments. Once that overall parameter is defined, there will be greater clarity on how India’s interests can continue to be successfully navigated.
Arun K Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to the United States
The views expressed are personal