As the coronavirus pandemic dominates global news in the United States, progress toward the next presidential election scheduled to be held on November 3 moves slowly forward. President Donald Trump had no real opposition in the Republican party and is running for re-election. And it has now become apparent that former Vice President Joe Biden will be his opponent as the Democratic candidate for president.
What would a Trump victory bode for the future of US-India relations? What would a Biden victory bode? Let me answer each of those questions in turn.
Given the love fests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, in which Trump participated in September of 2019, and Trump’s ‘Namaste Trump’ event hosted by Modi in India in February of this year, it might be assumed that the future for US-India relations is a splendid one. This would be an incorrect assumption.
Both of these events were more symbolic than substantive. Trump’s participation in them undoubtedly helped to persuade some — perhaps many — Indian American Modi supporters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to cast their ballots for Trump in 2020. Trump’s campaign team took steps to ensure this by holding an event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in which a group of prominent Indian Americans announced their plans to work for his re-election and to mobilize Indian Americans on his behalf.
To understand the future potential of India’s relations with the US. with Trump as president, however, it is necessary to look beyond these political moves and to examine the present state of those relations and Trump’s personal style.
In a word, the best way to characterize the current relations between the US and India is “functional”. The relationship was relatively good for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. In fact, near the end of 2018, Alice Wells, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was quoted in the media s saying: “This has been a landmark year for US-India ties as we build out stronger relationships across the board.”
Then, in 2019, the relations went off the track in the first half of the year after the US and India got into a tit-for-tat tariff war after the US terminated India’s Generalized System of Preferences which allowed India to send certain goods to the US duty-free. There have been continuing efforts to structure a “modest” trade deal since then. It was thought there might be some type of deal done in September of 2019 while Modi was in the US by year’s end, and then during Trump’s India visit. But, as of today, there is still no deal.
This inability to get any meaningful trade agreement in place speaks volumes about India’s potential future relations with India with Trump as president. So, too does Trump’s style.
Trump’s campaign slogans this time around are “Keep America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” Trump is not a policy wonk and most of his effort will go toward “America First”. This involves making the US more isolated by withdrawing from international agreements, restructuring trade agreements, emphasizing building walls to stop immigrants at the border, using tariffs to block trade with countries who are taking away American jobs, and confronting businesses who are allegedlly stealing American trade secrets.
This perspective suggests what India can expect for its relations with the US if it has to deal with Trump for a second term as president. The relations will stay functional at best. As I have said before, that’s because the words partnership, cooperation and collaboration are not in Trump’s vocabulary. Nationalism, isolationism and protectionism are.
Joe Biden stands in stark contrast to President Trump both professionally and personally. Biden is a strategic thinker and doer with a solid eight-year track record of leadership experience as Vice-President in forging alliances that have made a difference around the world and he has also been a long-standing friend of India.
He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the Congressional passage of the Indo-US civic nuclear deal in 2005. At a dinner convened 10 years later in 2015 by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Biden discussed the tremendous joint progress that had been made by the two countries in the past and declared “We are on the cusp of a sea change decade.”
Early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in July of 2019, in laying out his foreign policy vision, Biden stated that the US had to reach out to India and other Asian partners to strengthen ties with them. The items on Biden’s foreign policy agenda for strengthening which are of importance for India include climate change, nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare.
During his vice presidency, Biden worked side by side with President Barack Obama to do things that would contribute to achieving Obama’s vision stated in 2010 of India and America being “indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.” In 2020, those challenges are even greater than they were a decade ago.
That is why it is so essential that India and the US develop a strategic relationship that enables them to become those indispensable partners. That can happen if Biden assumes the presidency on January 20, 2021. It cannot happen if Donald Trump remains as president for a second term.
The results of this upcoming election in the US matter greatly for the future of the United States. They matter greatly for the future of India-US relations as well. Time and the American electorate will tell what that future will be.
(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)