The world is waiting for the elections to be over in the United States so that there can be some finality of what could be in store for the next four years. In the immediate reckoning just as how Americans are hoping for an orderly transition in the event of a change at the helm many in that country must be quietly pondering of what is in store globally should mayhem break loose in the aftermath of November 3.
Fear of adversaries trying to fish in troubled waters is very much there as nations in troubled zones will keep an extra watch on the intentions of belligerent and aggressive neighbours who might try to take advantage of an unsettled Washington. This scenario is something that countries in the Asia Pacific will be keeping a close watch in the days to come.
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Foreign policy is a different cup of tea. Those who expect sudden shifts from a particular track of the last four years forget the fact that changing the contours of international affairs is not like shifting gears in a moving car. The political campaign season brings about a lot of promises but once in the seat of power, a leader recognises the difficulties of manoeuvering the global minefields of diplomacy, which is one reason why candidates refrain from giving out specifics of change in foreign policy.
The slogan of Make America Great Again of President Donald Trump in 2016 sounded an inward looking foreign policy that threatened multilateralism and undermining the decades-old American alliances in Europe and Asia. And with four national security advisors going through the revolving door, many are still wondering the broader parameters of Trump foreign policy, especially if the incumbent Republican is given another four years.
Critics of President Trump will grudgingly concede that there had been some advances in foreign policy even if the origins of some of them had been sowed in the past. Trump, it is being pointed out by foreign policy specialists, is perhaps one of the few American Presidents who decided to take on China on a multi-faceted front that included challenging Beijing’s unilateral declaration of maritime sovereignty in the South China Seas, called out the East Asian giant’s aggressive posturing in the Asia Pacific by taking sides with India in the latest border row, showed willingness to partner with the Indo Pacific nations such as India, Japan and Australia in meeting the adventures of China in the region and beyond, and drawing the line on what Washington considered as unacceptable trading practices.
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The intention to get on with a trade war via imposition of tariffs and cutting off technological access to some Chinese giants may not have addressed the structural barriers but still showed a determination on the part of the Trump administration to get tough. And politically too, the latest statement of Washington that what is happening with the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province may be close to that of genocide is an indication of the things to come to the leadership in Beijing should Trump have his second innings. Xi Jinping is aware that matters could only get worse if Joseph Biden gets to the White House — not only the rhetoric on the Uighurs will get sharper but all of human rights that would include Tibet.
Conservative supporters of Trump make the point that true to his word the President has not started any foreign wars in his first term although he is yet to redeem on his another word of bringing home “all the boys” currently stationed in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Trump, the argument goes, may not have got rid of the ISIS, the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria, but he has indeed delivered a stunning blow by killing its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and substantially reduced the land space of the terror outfit’s operations. It is still clinging on to pockets in Syria and Iraq but nowhere near what it controlled a few years ago. And there has been broad bi-partisan support for the decision to formalize the move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as well as Washington’s efforts at normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates even if the first efforts preceded the Trump administration.
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President Trump has no apologies for calling out European and Asian allies to take on more of defence spending. Actually the “sharing of the burden” is not a new theme in American foreign policy as it dates back to the 1970s; but Trump pointedly turned on the heat on close allies in the European continent and with Japan and South Korea as if these countries were not contributing a fair shake to the defence umbrella. Leadership, it has to be realized, does not always come down to dollars and cents; President Trump somehow always wanted to give the impression to Americans that they are indeed getting a bang for the buck.
The Republican President has also been faulted for getting too close to dictators and leaders like Kim Jong Un of North Korea who run a brutal regime. Biden, who has served in the Senate Foreign Relations for several years, including chairing the panel, knows full well that waltzing with dictators and certified “thugs” has not been an exclusive preserve of only Republican Presidents; and in this case Trump will not be the first President to have established a close rapport with leaders who have ruled with an iron fist. Biden is aware of that long list of dictators in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America that Republican and Democratic Presidents have dealt with and propped up; and in the heydays of the Cold War especially if they had right wing credentials!
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Walking away from the Iranian nuclear deal was something on the cards even before Trump made it to the Oval Office; and with hardliners like the former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, matters came to a head that made the move rather inevitable. Allies of Washington were consistently making the point that Teheran was in strict technical compliance of the deal but all this fell on deaf ears. Now allies are telling President Trump that by walking away from the deal with Iran, the United States has facilitated that country to get closer to its objective of a nuclear weapons programme. And getting out of international commitments by way of abandoning the World Health Organisation, UNESCO, the Paris Accord and UN Human Rights Council, to mention a few , only revealed to many in America and elsewhere the short-sightedness of foreign policy.
It is a tall list for Biden should he come to the White House on January 20, 2021; and something that will be quite difficult to take on in the first few months. Globally Biden knows that the Trump administration miserably failed in providing leadership during the coronavirus pandemic; and this is just the beginning. Given what has transpired in the last four years, the new President’s focus will undoubtedly be on setting right what has all gone wrong in America starting with the virus and its economic and social ramifications. Biden is unlikely to get into issues of immigration—including H1B visas—as a top priority for the simple reason he would first have to build a broad bi-partisan coalition for anything to take place on this immigration front that has been eluding an answer for close to two decades now.
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Biden’s take on the future of India-United States relations is only along expected lines. In an opinion piece for India West, the Democratic nominee has laid out his positive vision for the future of the relationship between the two countries, taking into account the challenges faced by New Delhi including terrorism and the border problem with China. And in the aftermath of the final debate in Nashville, Tennessee where Trump referred to India’s air as “filthy”, Biden objected the language. “President Trump called India filthy. It’s not how you talk about friends and it’s not how you solve global challenges like climate change,” the Democratic nominee said in a tweet.
The Indian American community has indeed travelled a long way in the United States and close to three quarters of this eligible voting bloc will be casting their votes for the Biden-Harris ticket. But how much of all this translates into a deeper understanding between New Delhi and Washington remains to be seen. As of now all indications are that irrespective of who sits in the White House bilateral relations are bound to get stronger in width and depth. But to expect some quick fixes on H1B visas would be to miss out on the ground realities of Capitol Hill where considerable reservations remain even within Democrats on hi tech visas.
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations)
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