America First : The New Policy

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 3, Jul - Aug 2018
Page No.: 
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President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy and its impact on the World Order and the need for India to pursue a consistent policy
Ajay Singh
Friday, August 3, 2018

Breaking Existing Norms

It takes years, if not decades to establish international institutions and orders. And yet, destroying them is surprisingly easy, especially if you happen to be the most powerful man in the world. As Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, sets out on his policy of ‘America First’ - which is fast translating into ‘America Only’-he is dismantling existing institutions and establishments, reshaping global equations and threatens to bring in a New World Order.

It is not only his personal style of antagonizing long standing allies such as Canada, UK, Germany and France. He balances it out by supporting strong men like Putin and Kim Jong Un, whom he sees of his ilk. His disavowal of NATO, NAFTA, TPP, WTO and even the United Nations has sent jitters across the existing strategic and economic order. His unjustified walk-out from the US-Iran nuclear deal and the acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel threatens to hurl the Middle East into turmoil.  And the recent trade war which he has launched could disrupt the world economy and send it back into recession.

Peace or Nuclear War over Korea?

Trump’s handling of the Korean issue has been projected as a personal triumph with all the makings of a potential Nobel Peace Prize. Yet was his much-touted meeting with Kim Jong-un anything more than a lavish photo-op. Trump has projected it as a personal victory claiming that his threats (largely via Twitter) cowed Kim into the meeting. The reality is that his bluster took the Korean Peninsula closer to nuclear war than ever before. Kim’s meeting with his Southern counterpart Moon Jae-in had far more substance.

What has changed the position in Korea (which Korea? or do you mean Korean peninsula?) is the abrupt US decision to cancel the annual US-South Korea air and naval exercises citing ‘exorbitant costs’. These exercises provided a security measure to both South Korea and Japan, and helped keep both North Korea and China at bay. This could be a prelude to the removal of 23,500 US troops stationed in South Korea. Uncertainty around the US’s presence there will affect South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Taiwan and a host of other allies who would now have to look for other security guarantees (and assurances?).

The Isolation of Europe

If Trump’s actions in the Indo-Pacific have scared traditional allies like Japan and South Korea, he has also succeeded in bringing about a sense of isolation in Europe. Firstly, he has attacked NATO, calling it ‘obsolete’. This 70-year-old alliance was the bulwark of trans- Atlantic defense and has ensured peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War. In the recent NATO Summit at Brussels, his ultimatum, coerced other members to agree to increase defense funding upto 2% of their GDP, so that NATO allies, ‘pay more for their own defense.’ (It was also indicated that this target has to be reached by 2025)

He also attacked German (Chancellor Angela Merkel) for importing gas from Russia (in defiance of US sanctions against it).  (His agitation stems from the development of the Nord Stream 2 project which will add an extra natural gas pipeline Between Russia and Germany). Although Trump has claimed a ‘Victory’ that the NATO Summit was a “Success” the growing rift between NATO members is apparent. European allies may close ranks around Germany and France, though European unity itself has been sorely eroded after Brexit. 

The shaking-up of NATO comes on the heels of the disavowal of UN which has been termed as ‘bloated and inefficient.’  The US threat to withhold funding to the UN will shake one of the bulwarks of the present day World Order. Because whether ‘obsolete’, ‘bloated’ or ‘inefficient,’ both NATO and the United Nation have provided a degree of stability to the post-World War 2 era. The US too has used them to their advantage in the post-Cold War era, in order implement sanctions for arbitrary and often completely unjustified actions  such as the intervention in Bosnia - Herzegovina, the invasion of Iraq, sanctions against Iran, Libya and Russia and for its own  the ‘War against Terror.’

The Re-rise of Russia

All this is providing space for Russia – which is increasingly seeing itself in the role of the erstwhile Soviet Union- to exert its influence across Eastern Europe. Russia, after the re-election of Putin is fast reasserting itself. With rising oil prices its economy is stabilizing, in spite of the sanctions imposed upon it. Its success in hosting the FIFA World Cup has given it a publicity triumph. Its annexation of Crimea and salami slicing into Ukraine is now a de facto truth, and smaller neighbors such as Estonia and Slovakia are feeling the heat. It now seems a matter of time for Russia to emerge, if not as a superpower, but as part of a super-power bloc (along with China) which will slowly supplant US influence.

Adding Fuel to Middle East Fires

Another area where traditional policy and accepted norms have been overturned are in the Middle East. Trump’s proposal to shift the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, overturns a long-standing US position that recognizes Jerusalem as a likely joint capital of Israel and Palestine in any future settlement. Any possibility of a peace deal, with the US playing honest broker, has now vanished even though Trump still talks about ‘The Deal of the Century’ in the Middle East which will be brokered by none other than his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to give it its full name) has further complicated the Middle East equations. Forged after a decade of negotiations, it successfully capped Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has kept its part of the bargain, and the other powers Russia, China, Germany, France and the EU still stand by the deal. But with the US imposing arbitrary sanctions on Iran – and also imposing sanctions on companies and nations that deal with Iran- this deal is virtually dead. In its place we have a resentful, belligerent Iran which will now assert itself in other ways.

A belligerent Iran will give rise to a belligerent Saudi Arabia, which has already sounded the alarm bells under its youthful ambitious leader Mohammed bin Salman. As Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia intensify their traditional rivalry, Saudi and Israel can come together as unlikely allies. With the subtle backing of USA, Israel may be tempted to launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities – perhaps aided by the Saudi government – which will provoke an Iranian backlash and hurl the region into an intensified war flames.

The US stance has just been a series of missile strikes on Assad’s bases after each suspected chemical strike, which threatened to bring it in direct confrontation with Russia. Russia moved in (complete with an Aircraft carrier firing cruise missile from the Mediterranean) to help its long-time ally Assad, and has emerged as the dominant foreign power in Syria. It is now clear that Assad will stay on as the President of Syria with Russian support.  This will enhance Russia’s influence in the region and also aid Iran’s establishment of a Shia belt across Iran, Syria and Lebanon; further inflaming Israel and Saudi Arabia’s suspicions about Iranian expansions.


The same disdain shown in the Middle East has been reflected in Afghanistan. While the Administration took over promising action against the Taliban and its supporters, US engagement in Afghanistan has virtually come to a halt. Around 12,000 US troops are still based there, but it is more a token force and virtually ineffectual. The economic package for the re-development of Afghanistan has stalled. And while Afghanistan reels under renewed assault from the Taliban, other parties are moving in. Russia and China are key players, attracted by both its mineral resources and strategic location. After crippling Afghanistan, the USA has ceded its strategic space there and virtually handed over one of the world’s most strategically important areas to Russia and China. They may actually help in the return of the Taliban, which means that at the end of America’s longest and most expensive war, the situation is back to where it was in 2001.

Implications for India

Indo-US ties have been assiduously nurtured over three Presidencies and by both the UPA and NDA governments. It promised to become “The defining partnership of the 21st Century.”  It is not that they are under threat, but the ‘Business-first ‘approach of President Trump implies that perhaps we should hedge our strategic bets.

The repeated postponement of crucial summits, such as the 2 plus 2 talks between Defense and Foreign Ministers of both nations, shows that India is no longer the priority it once was. The signs of friction are emerging. India’s ties with Iran are fast becoming the casualty of Trump’s decision to walk out of the Iran nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran. It demands that India reduce oil imports from Iran to zero by November, something which is not feasible since Iran is our third largest oil supplier and sells us oil in Indian Rupees. Already, Indian investments in Iran have suffered and the Chabahar port, which is the linchpin of Indian strategy to develop connectivity towards Afghanistan and Central Asia could become another casualty of US demands.

Another sign of US arm-twisting is its opposition to India’s acquisition of five advanced S 400 Triumf Anti-Aircraft – Anti-Missile systems from Russia at Rs 39,000 Crores. The US has recently passed a law called Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, (CAATSA), which seeks to deter countries from buying from Russia on whom it has imposed sanctions. US pressure has intensified on India to scrap the deal, which has only recently been inked.

The ‘trade war’ which the US has unleashed will affect Indian exports to USA (we have a paltry $ 23 Billion trade surplus which can be easily erased by purchase of US arms and technology.)  Recent US curbs will affect 40,000 Indian professionals working in the USA and also affect our software services sector. It is no consolation that India is not the only one to be treated in this off-hand manner. The ‘America First’ policy has put it in an isolationist, confrontationist mode with the rest of the world – friend and foe alike.

The US stance will give impetus to both Russia and China to take the lead in world affairs. It will also cement their ties together. India too is veering towards them, as it should. Similarly, regional alliances such as Japan- India- Vietnam and European alliances under Germany and France and even a Middle East nexus of Saudi-Israel-UAE  may arise. All this points towards a more fragmented and volatile World Order.

India should pursue the Indo-US relationship and simultaneously develop alliances with Japan, Russia and China with whom we are finding common ground on issues such as terrorism, climate change and world trade. Perhaps we can also use the situation to advantage by pushing forward for an enlarged UNSC to include Japan, Germany and India, which would be a truer representation of the emerging power centers of the world.