American presidential elections get international attention because of worldwide interest in who is going to become the most powerful leader on the international stage. The US presidential elections in 2012 were less exciting than usual, because of the widespread belief that President Obama would be re-elected. We are now witnessing party primary elections, in which a flamboyant billionaire with a mercurial temperament, Donald Trump, has captured worldwide attention. Trump, a property baron, owns a network of hotels, casinos, golf courses and other properties. He has, paradoxically, struck a chord among blue-collared workers, who feel their jobs threatened by immigrants. His populist response has been to advocate building a wall across the US-Mexico border and banning immigration of Muslims, whom he labels collectively as terrorists.
Hillary Clinton’s primary opponent, former Senator Bernie Sanders, has likewise, espoused the cause of ending free trade arrangements and called for tighter control over Wall Street. Sanders alleges that unemployed and blue-collar workers suffer, because of excessive trade liberalization and the unholy nexus between politicians (including Hillary) and the financial, business and industrial barons of Wall Street. The tactics Trump and Sanders have adopted have won huge support from insecure blue-collar workers, making life difficult and the competition unexpectedly tough, for Clinton. Despite this, Hillary is expected to win the Democratic Party nomination, unless she encounters difficulties, because of alleged misdemeanors during her tenure as Secretary of State. Trump could likewise sail through as the candidate of the Republican Party. A word of caution on the upcoming elections is called for. The Republican Party could land itself in a mess, if its establishment chooses to ignore the political verdict and nominates an eminent party politician to replace Trump as its presidential candidate.
Trump has moved far away from the Republican Party in his views on several foreign policy issues. He has criticized military intervention in Iraq, Syria and Libya and voiced his opposition to such military intervention abroad. He remains ambivalent on his approach to Israel, though he will inevitably fall in line with conventional thinking on the Jewish state. Interestingly, Trump vows to build bridges with President Vladimir Putin, while Hillary remains steadfastly hostile to the Russian leader. Both Hillary and Trump have suspicions and misgivings about China, with Trump repeatedly asserting that China got rich at the cost of American industry and its working class. The two frontrunners hold opposing views on liberalizing trade, with Trump claiming that liberalization damages the livelihood of American workers.
While Trump has expressed serious misgivings and suspicions about the Islamic world in general, he has expressed specific reservations about the behavior of Pakistan. Quite unexpectedly, Trump has answered his critics on their charge that he is anti-immigrant and racist by suggesting that he has great admiration for Indians, who are hardworking, intelligent and innovative. He has suggested that Indian students who come for studies in US universities should be allowed to stay on and work.
The eight years of the Clinton presidency included some of the worst years in India-US relations. The Clinton administration turned the heat on India to give up its nuclear program. It pressured Russia to end space cooperation with India. It promoted a worldwide effort to cripple our economy after our nuclear tests and failed. In its early years, the Clinton administration even made overtures to the Hurriyat in Kashmir. On the other hand, the George Bush presidency saw a remarkable turnaround in India-US relations. American pressure after 9/11 forced the Musharraf dispensation to sue for a ceasefire in J&K and end cross-border infiltration in the state. This continued till the last days of the Bush presidency. Global nuclear sanctions against India ended, as the Bush administration used all its persuasive powers to get the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group to end sanctions on India. Shortly thereafter, at US initiative, India was welcomed into new global economic forums, like the G20.
While President Obama had pledged to strengthen the US-India strategic partnership, his approach to India has been largely transactional, seeking greater Indian purchases of US weapons, while doing very little to turn the squeeze on Pakistan to end terrorism targeting India and Afghanistan. Intelligence sharing with India has been episodic and sometimes duplicitous, given the delay and reluctance with which intelligence information on the revelations of David Headley was shared with us. More importantly, the US is actively partnering Pakistan and China to bring about “reconciliation” with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Well-placed Afghans complain bitterly of the pressures they are facing from this US-China-Pakistan axis, to keep making concessions to the Taliban. Interestingly, even some in the Obama administration are concerned about what is transpiring.
The world is now seeing an opportunistic move by the Obama administration to persuade India to back US efforts to rein in the Chinese in the Western Pacific, given China’s expanding maritime border claims on South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. At the same time, the Obama administration is joining China and turning a blind eye to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Afghanistan. What the Obama administration is thereby doing, is to seek India’s support to curb Chinese maritime claims in the Asia-Pacific, even as its colludes with China to determine the future of Afghanistan, in a manner that furthers Pakistan’s regional ambitions. There has been much talk, but little action by the Obama administration to curb Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
Hillary has taken a personal interest in relations with India. Unlike her husband, and John Kerry, her viscerally anti-Indian successor, as Secretary of State, Hillary did respond in a friendly manner to India’s concerns and policies across both its eastern and western land and maritime borders. This was evident in her approach to India’s role in the ASEAN Regional Forum. She chose to call a spade a spade when it came to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism leading to the emergence of extremist outfits that threated Pakistan itself, with the words: “You cannot nurture vipers in your backyard and expect that they will bite only your neighbor”. In these circumstances, we can expect a more mutually beneficial relationship with the US, after the coming presidential elections.