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'By Trump's standards, it was an enormous success'

By NIKHIL LAKSHMAN
February 27, 2020 10:28 IST
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'Flattering press, nice photos, no major gaffes.'
'Both sides will be very happy as they are clearly measuring 'success' by a different yardstick than the world used in the past.'

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with United States President Donald J Trump at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad, February 24, 2020. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi with United States President Donald J Trump at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad, February 24, 2020. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters
 

Daniel S Markey -- Senior Research Professor in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC -- is a distinguished observer of the India-United States relationship.

"India-US ties will suffer politically if the two sides no longer believe they share core values, and while this may not be an issue for President Trump, there is obvious discomfort in the US Congress over the direction that PM Modi is taking India," Professor Markey tells Nikhil Lakshman/Rediff.com about the impact of President Donald J Trump's 36 hour visit to India.

While President Trump played glowing tribute to Mr Modi and India, he also said the US relationship with Pakistan is very good and his government is working with Pakistan to crack down on terror groups.
In January he met with Imran Khan in Davos and said US-Pakistan have never been closer -- while in Ahmedabad he said America loves India and will be a loyal friend.
In your opinion, how is America strategising its relationship with both these countries with traditional animosities?
Is the balance tipping towards India?
What about America's need for Pakistan more than ever since Trump is looking at a US draw down of troops in Afghanistan before the November election?

Ever since the George W Bush administration, strategists in Washington have attempted to 'de-hyphenate' relations with India and Pakistan.

Above all, this has meant avoiding being held hostage to Indo-Pakistani hostility and aiming to build stronger ties with both New Delhi and Islamabad.

At the latter stages of the Obama administration and into the Trump administration, an 'India tilt' was evident.

The United States continues to see India as the essential counterweight to China in Asia, and an improved relationship with New Delhi is imperative, even if it never amounts to an alliance.

On Pakistan, the Trump administration has shifted from a sharply coercive and punitive approach intended to force a strategic shift by Islamabad on its use of terrorist groups to a mixed strategy, in which Washington has eased up on some of the pressure (for instance, by welcoming PM Imran Khan to DC and showering him with affection), while still keeping coercive tools at the ready (for instance, the continued gray listing of Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force list).

Looking ahead, there is every reason to anticipate that Washington will continue to try to play this balancing act, especially if it continues to believe that Pakistan is not spoiling the negotiations in Afghanistan.

President Trump's visit to India also demonstrates that he is able to draw closer to New Delhi even though he has nice words to say about Pakistan.

India will buy helicopters worth $3 billion. President Trump said he wants the US as India's leading defence partner --- is this the biggest success of the Trump visit even though the deal was almost done even before Mr Trump's arrival?
For a famously transactional President, isn't this meagre pickings from a State visit?

The trip to India did not deliver anything that traditional analysts of US foreign policy would consider a triumph or breakthrough deal.

But by Trump's standards, it was an enormous success.

Flattering press, nice photos, no major gaffes.

Both sides will be very happy, as they are clearly measuring 'success' by a different yardstick than the world used in the past.

Do you think a security relationship is the bedrock on which the India-US relationship in the 21st century stands? The sale of military hardware, military to military ties, etc.
Does this diminish the importance of other obstacles in the relationship like, for instance, the inability to reach a trade deal?

US policymakers tend to believe that a healthy relationship with India should be built on three pillars: Commerce, values, and geopolitics.

It will be more difficult to avoid trouble if the ties are only based on the geopolitical or security/defence pillar.

India will itself have trouble developing into a global power if it doesn't get its economy humming, and that will require reforms, to include greater openness to trade and investment.

India-US ties will suffer politically if the two sides no longer believe they share core values, and while this may not be an issue for President Trump, there is obvious discomfort in the US Congress over the direction that PM Modi is taking India.

To be sure, the United States has had strong, decades-long relations with States like Saudi Arabia that have been founded on relatively narrow bases. But those relationships are also subject to more frequent criticism and political squabbling in DC.

India is unusual for having enjoyed sustained, bipartisan affection for over two decades.

How will the Trump visit define India-US relations in the next decade?
Do you agree with President Trump's declaration that the India-US relationship has never been as good as it is today?
Do you see an actual basis to that assertion considering that the relationship has floundered for much of the last decade from the heady years of the Bush second term?

I do not agree that the US-India relationship is better than ever.

President Trump's hyperbole is intended to mask limited tangible progress in the relationship under his watch and it completely misses the major points of friction that have emerged over trade, as well as the growing American unease and concern over Indian policies in Kashmir and on the citizenship issue.

On the other hand, President Trump managed to get through his trip without a setback or embarrassment.

This -- and the fact that US-India relations have avoided a steep falloff or major crisis in the past three years -- counts as a success, considering the current state of US relations with many of its other partners around the world.

Looking ahead, this "non-failure" keeps the door open to new opportunities for progress in the future.

Finally, what are the three major gains if any for India and the US from this visit? Did it achieve anything beyond brand building for the two leaders?

First, continued progress on defence sales is good for the bilateral relationship and for India's potential as a great power.

Second, avoiding a contentious interaction over trade disputes postpones a showdown that would have been bad for both economies.

Third, seeing America's president express affection for India builds public support for closer ties with the United States, and over time, that should make it easier for leaders in New Delhi to pursue concrete policies that are more closely aligned with Washington.

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NIKHIL LAKSHMAN / Rediff.com
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