Modi-Trump and meeting – what’s in store?


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Indian media speculation over likely meeting between Trump and Modi has been making news quite frequently recently.

Indian media is bound to hype the event from blinkered/myopic prism of two points – H1B Visas/ immigration and Pakistan to be declared as a terrorist state. To restrict the event merely to two issues or Security Council and NSG membership issues in a half an hour meeting in White House,  Washington DC, as opposed to Trumps’ week-end Mar-a-Lago Estate, may not yield positive outcomes for both sides except for photo opportunities. Modi faces a ‘very big test’ to deal with “Trumpian unpredictability.”

Wise must learn from lessons of others.  Over 55 Heads and representative of Arab and Muslim countries attended the Riyadh Summit in Saudi Arabia including Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan. Pakistan is ‘embarrassed’ over ‘cold shoulder’ to Nawaz Sharif by Trump. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s failure to have a dialogue (as strategic frontline partner in Afghanistan) has come under criticism by his rivals .

Fundamentally or conceptually viewed, there is lack of convergence at grand strategy level: Trumps “America First” Vs. Modi’s “Make in India” grand strategy. Creating and exploiting opportunities in the above framework for making deals in common areas of agreement cannot be rushed through.

Let be briefly review events since January 2017. As early as February 2017, news reports speculated likelihood of early meeting in May. After Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary, visit in March 2027 to Washington DC, Indian media reported likely meeting in May ahead of meeting on the sidelines of G-20 Summit on 7-8 July at Hamburg. As per US reports, Trump may meet Modi in the later part of the year.

During his first 100 days in office, Trump hosted 16 meetings with foreign leaders to include: UK’s PM Margaret May, soon after inauguration; Mexican President on Jan. 31; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Treadu in February; Israeli prime minister Netanyahu soon after; Japanese Prime Minister Abe; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Jordan’s King Abdullah II; Egypt’s president Sisi; China’s president Xi Jinping, Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; President of Colombia; crown prince’s of the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and so on.

Next, Trump, during the first nine-day five stop foreign tour to the Middle East, met dozens of leaders of the Muslim world followed by meeting with Israel’s Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas.  It is followed by meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. In Brussels, he addressed leaders of the 28 NATO countries and met newly elected president of France, Emmanuel Macron. In Sicily, he will participate in the annual summit meeting of the Group of 7 powers, an event that typically also draws dozens of other leaders who show up for meetings on the side.

What does it imply? Simple! India and South Asia are least important on the Agenda of Trump Administration. American foreign policy is naturally unfolding out of Trump’s grand strategy.

For example, radical Islam, trade wars (TPP, NAFTA, EU etc), military alliances like NATO,  migration, China, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation issues, North Korea, Iran, Turkey, Middle East, G-7 and G-20 have precedence over all others. Yet, Trump is to build bridges with Putin of Russia.

After all, US strategic concerns in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region have been the least or last concerns necessitating Trumps urgent consideration except for Afghanistan. So, Indian media must refrain from raising people’s expectations consequent to meeting between Trump and Modi.

Be that as it may, Trump’s foreign policy approach has been critically examined by many American think tanks. Many of them believe that Trump has plunged America’s into utter confusion and disarray. India and Modi should, therefore, tread cautiously and be prepared to face outcomes.

As per American observers, Trump would be willing to cut deals with any actors that share American  interests and regardless of whether they share — or act in accordance with — American values. They term it as the central feature of Trump’s grand strategy: “amoral transactionalism”.

Trump’s approach to foreign policy is “tactical transactionalism,” that is “a foreign-policy framework that seeks discrete wins (or the initial tweet-able impression of them).

In the battle against radical Islam, for example, Trump has said: “All actions should be oriented around this goal, and any country which shares this goal will be our ally.” The biggest perceived opportunity, in this regard, is for a strategic realignment with Russia — a country Trump and some of his advisors see as a natural partner in the fight against Islamic extremists — and, perhaps, China too.

In South Asia, Pakistan, viewed as the “Global Epi Center of Terrorism”, remains the US strategic front line state against terrorism due to tactical and logistical imperatives. If past is a mirror reflection of future USA strategies, it cannot make a U-turn and abandon its frontline partner Pakistan.

Moreover, Trump’s personality traits have been exhaustively covered in the US media – mostly negative.  Some of the negative adjectives include: Erratic, Mercurial, Impulsive, Narcissist, Dishonest, Heartless, Reckless, Imprudent, Utter lack of regard for truth, ‘Machiavellian’ negotiator and so on.

Trumps choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them, often in tweets, are extraordinary. He makes wild, paranoid and unsubstantiated accusations – spins conspiratorial theories and retracts them also. The Washington Post finds that during his first 41 days in office, he made 187 false or misleading claims, an average of four lies a day. And when Trump is caught out, he displays a brazen disregard for the truth. Unpredictability is his norm.” The only consistency is inconsistency – speaks in one voice during the afternoon and different voice in the morning.

American think tanks and analysts believe that Trump’s approach to matters of state flows out of his background. As a real estate investor, golf course developer, casino owner, product brander and television personality with no prior experience in government or in competing for elective office, Trump is a pragmatist deal maker, who focuses on wins for himself and America in bilateral meetings.  His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, his craving for adulation is legendary. He’s still the same old, uninformed, easily manipulated, egomaniac. Few believe that Trump’s own self-interest is first and foremost.

Donald Trump is, by his own admission, not terribly analytical or deliberative. In a recent Time magazine interview, he declared, “I’m a very instinctual person, but my instinct turns out to be right.” Unfortunately, when it comes to foreign policy, his instincts often contradict one another in potentially dangerous ways.  Trumpian unpredictability seems not to take account of trade-offs at all. It creates more problems than solutions; and carries enormous risks.

Nonetheless, it helps to establish a family connection as evidenced in the relationship between with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and Senior Advisor, with Israeli Prime Minister, besides Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada invitation to  “Come From Away,” Broadway show about Canadians and Merkel invite to Germany to Ivanka to join a panel on women’s entrepreneurship.

India needs to use its legendary “Chanakyan” skills to create opportunities bilaterally. Can Modi by going to USA use his charm diplomacy to win over Trump? Not easy! A lot of ground work needs to precede Modi’s meeting with Trump. There is convergence on “Fight against Radical Islam”. How to exploit it is the biggest challenge! Also, deals in NSG membership prefacing agreements on Nuclear Reactors.

Of course, Modi may like to enlist the support of India-Republican Diaspora particularly Shalabh Kumar, Chicago-based Indian-American industrialist, who was Trump-Pence Asian Pacific American Advisory Committee (APAAC) and the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, to work out economic and technology strategic partnerships.

Also, services of the Lodha Group in Mumbai, and Panchshil Group in Pune – promoters of Trump Towers in India – may be involved in back-channel business deals with real estate firms with family links to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, for investments/partnerships of a chain of “Trump Towers” in all major cities.

Viewed in such a framework, Modi’s meeting with Trump should not be rushed through for the sake of photo opportunity. In retrospect, Modi and his team must have a strategy to make deals on various counts.

Of course, the focus should be on economic and technology partnerships, particularly defense and space, that is mutually beneficial. To sign such partnerships and investments  “Agreements” takes time and cannot be rushed through for cosmetic purpose. Modi may like to wait for Trumps new US Ambassador.

Viewed in the above framework, American offer of meeting between Trump and Modi may be more appropriate with one-on-one meetings on the sidelines of G-20 Summit in July in Germany.