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The US at an Inflection Point

Diplomatic Monologue
Amit Dasgupta


New Dehli: It’s over. Notwithstanding astrological predictions of a second term for Trump, Joe Biden, 77-years old, will be the 46th President of the United States and the oldest to occupy the White House.

But the handover or transition will not be smooth and gentlemanly but acrimonious because Trump – bad loser that he is and behaves like a spoilt brat – would spend his time, energy and money leveling baseless charges of electoral fraud. His legal aides have already started preparing dossiers to file multiple lawsuits in a bid to overturn the results. Even staunch Republicans are now jettisoning him because of the embarrassment and harm that he is causing to the Party.

The lawsuits will divide America further. How this will damage the Republican Party in the long-term remains to be seen. Trump will continue to be belligerent, combative and disruptive. It is not that covets the post of US President but rather that he dislikes being denied what he believes is his right to own.

Biden knows he has a significant challenge on his hands because Trump leaves behind a deeply divided nation and a promise of continued interference. Biden’s priorities, consequently, would be domestic: the raging pandemic, systemic racism, an inadequate health care system, rising unemployment and inequalities, and a deeply polarized America.

For Biden, the coming years would be of sleepless nights, grassroots communication and significant policy changes that deconstruct and replace the worldview his predecessor had created. This is not going to be easy but the direction he sets would determine the future history and global standing of America. Biden realizes that what is asked of him is to re-transform America and Americans.

In his victory speech, Biden made it clear that his Administration would work for all Americans. He is deeply aware that the US has been drawn into an inflection point in history for never before, since the days of a white supremacy that America has faced a divide so sharp.

Biden would also be mindful of the fact that Trump and his what has now come to be known as ‘Trumpism’ has strong support among several Americans.

What would the Biden Presidency look like?

Everyone across the globe is speculating as to what the Biden Presidency holds in store because the US is the pre-eminent global power. It has, for decades, determined the strategic shape of the world.

With the US at an inflection point, Biden’s priority is not likely to be foreign and security policy. Of course, some foreign policy actions of Trump that he would quickly overturn, such as, Trump’s dismissive approach towards climate change, the hard-fisted relationship with the UN and other multilateral agencies, and on NATO.

There are other areas in which he would opt for a more conciliatory and dialogue-based approach, such as and especially, on China. If he is to address domestic issues, a combative China strategy would be a major distraction that he would prefer to avoid.

This would suit Beijing well. On Iran, Afghanistan and other flashpoints, he would rely on handpicked advisors to head key portfolios, such as, security, defence and foreign affairs.

What Biden would, most certainly, remove from the equation is uncertainty that characterized his predecessor’s tenure. Biden would be largely predictable and thus, in many ways, old-world.

Furthermore, ‘the Biden way’ would reflect his approach to life.

He has suffered personal tragedies and they would influence the way in which he would address the great American divide. Deeply religious, it is highly likely that he would adopt the mantle of the healer of wounds and engage in an embracive consultative process to demonstrate empathy, sensitivity and understanding of what is affecting people.

Biden recognizes, as Mark Twain so wonderfully put it, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect’.

Great democracies embrace the thoughts, dreams, aspirations and angst of all people. True leaders recognize how important this is.

What it means for India

New Delhi had gone out of its way to build a cozy relationship with Trump, including breaking protocol when Prime Minister Modi publicly endorsed Trump for a second term during his visit to the US.

A Trump defeat is, consequently, embarrassing for New Delhi. Repeated statements that India and the US are ‘natural allies’ and that the relationship enjoys bipartisan support does raise doubts as to what this bipartisan support really means and whether its robust character and intensity are predictable.

If New Delhi believes it would be business-as-usual, it would be sadly mistaken. On a variety of issues, including China and Pakistan, the Biden Administration is likely to approach matters with new eyes. Islamabad’s recent decision to handout jail terms to Hafiz Saeed, the 26/11 terror attack mastermind, is not as a consequence of pressure from India but rather a blatant attempt to woo Washington with assurances of strong action against terror suspects.

Islamabad has already reached out to Biden expressing hope that Pakistan and the US could work together on multiple issues.

On China, the Biden Administration is likely to take a more moderate view. While they would be firm, they are not likely to be combative.

This could raise questions with regard to Quad or even the Malabar exercises. Indeed, it would be realistic to assume that with regard to Chinese incursions into Indian territory, Washington is likely to advise that New Delhi and Beijing sit across the table and sort things out mutually.

New Delhi has anticipated this and consequently, has been having a series of hitherto inconclusive engagements with Chinese counterparts. At the same time, should hostilities flare up, Washington is likely to intervene but mainly to ensure that the global community and economy are not engulfed in yet another crisis.

What should concern India more is that Beijing and Moscow delayed congratulating Biden.

Did they consult with each other? If they did and Moscow did not forewarn New Delhi, it is clear indication that India has alienated and distanced Russia.

This is detrimental to India’s long-term interests and needs urgent course correction.

A great opportunity is provided to India to introspect and revisit its foreign and security policy and indeed, its alliances. With Trump gone, New Delhi would need to recalibrate its engagement with major powers and how it would deal with the deep crisis that China represents and Islamabad can draw India into.

A new chapter is in the making. Though Trump will fight long and hard, India needs to open conversations with the new Administration before they are preoccupied with other pressing issues. As the masterful chess player Alekhine once advised aspiring young players, ‘When you move your first piece on the chessboard, you should already have a plan in your head as to how you would end the game’.

Foreign policy cannot and should never be reactive, especially when the stakes are high enough to threaten strategic national interests.

(Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed are personal.)


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