What can the subcontinent expect from President Donald Trump? Bewilderment, for starters. If the new occupant in the Oval Office is unfamiliar with Russia, China, the workings of NATO, nuclear deterrence, and the impact of trade compacts, do not expect him to be well versed on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and Kashmir.
True, most incoming presidents are strangers to the subcontinent, but Trump is a special case. He did not take his homework seriously during a lengthy presidential campaign, and one of the many questions surrounding his ascension is whether he will apply himself to the monumental job ahead. The same questions applied to President Ronald Reagan, who fared well when surrounded by savvy advisors, and stumbled badly when given awful advice.
Trump will also be greatly dependent on the people around him for expertise and wise counsel. His inner circle of advisers consists of family members and a small cohort who stuck with him through thick and thin: Rudy Guiliani, Newt Gingrich, General Mike Flynn, and Jeff Sessions. Their abilities to handle the affairs of state are equally questionable. Guiliani is mentioned as a possible Secretary of State, along with John Bolton. Both have empathy deficits, confusing diplomacy with boorish behaviour. Their ties to Democrats on Capitol Hill are frayed, to say the least, and would encounter bruising conformation battles. Perhaps better-qualified candidates will come to the fore.
Below the top tier, where all of the diplomacy toward South Asia takes place – except for crisis management – the applicants are a mystery. If the top tier appointments have little standing, recruiting quality help will be extremely challenging. Many high-ranking officials in previous Republican administrations have sworn off working for Trump. The Heritage Foundation will be heavily involved in job placement, with Old School Republican internationalists continuing their retreat from the corridors of power. Obstructionists and deconstructionists will now have a go at making policy.
US presidential diplomacy is likely to return to the cue card era of the Reagan administration. Do not expect major initiatives toward the region in the Trump administration. The trend lines toward India and Pakistan established during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations are too deeply grooved to change, but there could be differences in degree rather than course corrections. New Delhi could find it has a less persuasive advocate in the White House for its pursuit of NSG membership, and an unsympathetic ear to Prime Minister Modi’s 'Make in India' campaign. Pakistan faces a bigger problem: a less tolerant executive branch for hosting Jaish and Lashkar cadres that carry out attacks against India.
Pakistan’s talking points have long since lost traction in Washington. If there is not evident change in Rawalpindi’s stance toward anti-India groups, the Trump administration and Capitol Hill could react very strongly when the next attack happens. One key variable is how much overt effort Rawalpindi makes to stop cross-border violence. A second is the scale of the attack.
Washington no longer pretends to have the carrots to influence Rawalpindi’s choices, but it still has more sticks. The 'nuclear' option is declaring Pakistan to be a state supporter of terrorism – a decision many in India would applaud, until they deal with the consequences.
US-Pakistan relations are a sad tale of mutually unrequited hopes. US-India relations are a positive work in progress that could also be defined by mutually unrequited hopes. One test of the relationship during the Trump administration could come with increased friction – perhaps of a serious nature – between Washington and China. In which event, boosters of the US embrace of India would expect something more than studied neutrality.