Lame ducks are honest fowl. Officials of an outgoing administration in Washington are generally prone to a degree of frankness that they lacked when their authority was complete. Thus a member of the lame duck Barack Obama administration has publicly singled out China as the reason that India was unable to become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group last year. And, it follows, India was able to join the Missile Technology Control Regime because Beijing is not a member of that body. While this is hardly a surprise, even New Delhi had publicly blamed “one country” for the failed NSG bid and there was little illusion as to the fact this was the Middle Kingdom. This comes on the heels of the Obama administration’s sanctioning a set of Pakistani entities involved in that country’s missile programme. The administration kept silent when the US Senate accused Lashkar-e-Taiba of killing US soldiers in Afghanistan. It also called out Israel on the settlements in the West Bank, though noticeably continued to advocate its failed policy of appeasement regarding Beijing’s takeover of the South China Sea.
The Obama administration’s end-of-term declarations matter only in two ways. One, they show what the actual, underlying beliefs of the US bureaucracy were as opposed to expressed policies — suitably muddied by geopolitical requirements and personal biases. Two, they hopefully leave an imprint on the next administration’s thinking. This seems extremely unlikely given the seeming determination of the incoming regime of Donald Trump to overturn whatever the Obama administration has done. However, when it comes to taking a hard line on Pakistan and on China it is hoped that there will be greater continuity than there is likely to be in, say, climate change and the Iranian nuclear deal. Definitely on China, the comments of Mr Trump’s nominations for the secretaries of defence and state go much further in warning Beijing than those of the Obama administration. There remains some ambiguity about Pakistan, but the statements so far make it clear that Mr Trump’s nominees see Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups as the core of the South Asian problem.
The test will be what happens when the Trump administration comes to power and the rubber hits the road. Traditionally when a president-elect comes to power, clear and unsullied intentions become diluted and sometimes warped by the realities of diplomacy, security and so on. Pakistan has long been an example with the US privately admitting to that country’s perfidy but then ignoring the same because of its fears of the country’s stability or interest in its geopolitical utility. Trump, for all of his other eccentricities, seems to be cut from a different cloth, a person who wants to implement what he says. In less than a week the world will be able to judge if this will be a US administration which is true to its rhetoric from the first day.