By MR Josse
GAITHERSBURG, MD: Launching this new column from the United States, following a month’s hiatus since putting my Kathmandu-datelined ‘Geopolitically Speaking’ column permanently to rest, I believe it appropriate to focus on American President Donald J. Trump’s maiden 9-day diplomatic foray.
Trump has returned home to a house that is as polarized as ever, with much of the establishment/elitist media homing in on his serious problems at home – when they are not busy reminding their readers/viewers about his purported diplomatic fumbling while abroad.
Although in the cacophony of dissent and diversion created by political rivals and media pundits it is difficult not to get befuddled by what Trump did or did not achieve on his first diplomatic mission in attempting to give concrete shape to his “America First” doctrine, a sense of how messy the domestic situation is can be gleaned from the Washington Post’s report on Trump’s plans for a drastic staff shake-up to contain the Russia crisis that threatens to consume his presidency, as also by a CBS story that highlights that on his first day back home, Trump lashed out at “fake news media” and White House leaks.
To be sure, there seems little doubt that Trump will continue for the foreseeable future to be besieged by myriad or serial challenges, including those thrown up by Democrats and their supporters who, even today, do not seem to have accepted the fact that Trump emerged the clear winner in the 2016 presidential election.
Be that as it may, I was struck by a bunch of revealing if underplayed facets of President Trump’s first foreign excursion that I maintain have considerable bearing on how South Asian politics and diplomacy in the next few years are likely to play out.
First is the tell-tale fact that Trump’s two very first stops were Saudi Arabia and Israel, countries whose relations with America during the Obama administration were visibly strained, due, among other things, to strategic differences of policy over Iran. While Trump’s frontal verbal assault on Iran found full-throated resonance in Riyadh and Jerusalem, it came as a reminder how out of synch with today’s America India is, not least because Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during the US presidential election season in 2016, openly latched on to what he presumed was the trundling Hillary Clinton/Democratic bandwagon.
In my considered estimation, the above fact and the related one that India today hardly figures in the Trump administration’s scheme of things – reflected, for instance, in India’s conspicuous absence in Trump’s diplomatic engagements, at home and abroad, to date – suggests that Indo-American relations have plummeted from where they seemed to be during the heady years of the Obama administration when there was open and continuous diplo-babble about an alliance or strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
If to those considerations one factors in Trump’s declared reluctance to reflexively champion ‘human rights’ issues rather than America’s core realpolitik concerns, and takes into account the convergence of transparent strategic interest between the United States and China, underlined so well vis-à-vis North Korea’s untrammeled nuclear/missile ambitions, it would seem to logically follow that Trump’s America will not be as keen to support India’s anti-China maneuvers, be they relevant to Tibet or even Nepal, as appeared to be the case in the recent past.
But, will our perspicacious foreign policy wonks have figured this out – or will they still continue the hew a pro-Modi line as far as Nepal’s foreign relations are concerned? In any case, while on this theme, I am tempted to assert that the issue of how much India figures in Trump’s worldview, during the recent four-day eight heads of mission conference in the Indian capital, must have been a key point of discussion. Interesting, to be sure, was a Global Times commentary on the conference including its assessment that “India’s influence is currently limited to South Asia and the Northern Indian Ocean region” – and no more!
Amid the tidal wave of generally negative commentary and reportage of Trump’s first overseas excursion, two write-ups that took a contrary view, with justification, caught my notice: one in the Washington Post by Newt Gingrich, Georgia Republican and former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the other a piece in the Wall Street Journal by columnist Daniel Henninger.
Gingrich, whose book “Understanding Trump” is to be published later this month, argued quite credibly that “a titanic foreign policy shift” has already occurred on Trump’s watch, implicit in his speech in Riyadh wherein he “implicitly repudiated the approaches (on the Middle East) of his immediate two predecessors and promised instead what he characterized as a ‘principled realism’ based on a clear-eyed view of America’s interest, security and limits.”
While Trump’s hard-hitting speech was to followed days later by the carnage of mass slaughter by an Islamic radical in Manchester, it not only reminded the world that Trump’s eye is firmly fixed on making America safe, but, as Henninger explains, through his exhortation before an assemblage of the leaders of the Islamic world in Riyadh, has rightly highlighted the fact that “any discourse over human rights “must include the right not to have one’s life ended by acts or organized terrorism.”
Before concluding this maiden column of American Angle, I cannot resist the urge to make a comment, even if only in passing, about Prime Minister Prachanda’s throwing in the towel before going ahead with the second phase of the local government election – viz those slated for the southern segment of the country on June 14.
I see no guarantee that his purported successor Sher Bahadur Deuba will be able to ensure those polls are conducted – given the stance of the Madeshi leadership and their backing by Modi Inc. Who knows, Deuba may have, once again, to acquire the moniker of a political incompetent? I guess a lot will be happening in Nepal between now and June 14.
(Note: The column was received before the announcement of its postponement for 23 June-Ed.)