IPCS Discussion

A Mid-Term Assessment of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

15 Nov, 2019    ·   5630

Summary report of the discussion held on 11 September 2019 at IPCS

On 11 September 2019, IPCS hosted Dr Amit Gupta, Associate Professor, Department of Strategy and International Security Studies, USAF Air War College, for a talk on US foreign policy under President Donald Trump. This is a summary report of the proceedings.

US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy strategy can be assessed through three different geographical lenses:

1.     US in China
2.     US in Europe, including Russia
3.     US in South Asia 

Two aspects form important components of Trump’s foreign policy. First, is the recognition that Trump was elected in order to revive the economy. Second, Trump went against the orthodoxy of the Republican Party in terms of showing a strong military commitment and presence around the world. Trump made sure to pull out all the military deployment from areas of conflict based on the assessment that the George Bush Jr. and Obama administrations made the country's working class cannon fodder for these wars. This decision received popular support. Out of the voter share in the US military, roughly half the officer corps voted for Trump. It is important to understand the importance of this pattern. The US lost close to 54-59,000 troops in the Vietnam and Korean wars. Today, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the numbers run close to 5,000-6,000 troops. The difference is that in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are some 50,000 walking-wounded. There is no way to measure the numbers diagnosed or suffering from PTSD. 

There is though also a third, implicit foreign policy component that still goes largely unaddressed, that that is the country's declining power. This is a result of combination of factors. First, countries like China are ascending. Second, 90 years of fighting wars has diminished the US’ fighting capabilities and enthusiasm. Third, corporations, the government and citizens are still grappling with the fall-out of the 2008 recession. 

Trump wants very low interest rates for borrowing because the belief is that the housing market is in trouble, along with the manufacturing sector. The problem then is how to generate wealth. Given the precarious condition of the economy, Trump believes that US policy cannot sustain any further foreign intervention. 

US-China Relations

There was some anticipation that after disagreements and negotiations, the US and China would be able to arrive at world views with certain common values. This has not happened.

Trump maintains that China and Japan have exploited the US and hence the imposition of tariffs is a guaranteed way to hurt the Chinese. The problem with this plan was that it went against the economic orthodoxy of the West. None of the US economists were in favour of tariffs. They believed that applying blanket tariffs would hurt the economy. The terms of trade in the US cannot really be changed. In order to bring manufacturing home, one would have to double the prices of all products. Changing the patterns of trade in these two economies is therefore very difficult.

US companies are concerned about Chinese technological superiority which includes upcoming technologies like 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI), and their efforts at capturing the global market. Today, the leaders in 5G technology include companies like Sony Ericsson, Nokia, and so on. Among other players like South Korea and Singapore, the Chinese are expected to be the top consumers and exporters of these upcoming technologies.

The crucial aspect of the ongoing trade war between China and the US is not which country will hurt the most economically but who will be able to sustain the longest, and China here seems to be the obvious answer. Trump will be up for elections soon, and any wobbling of the economy spells trouble. The US counter-strategy against China is to spread the narrative that the Chinese economy is going into recession. However, in reality, for China to go into recession, there has to be huge dip in the economy from the current 5-6 per cent growth rate to -1 per cent, which is highly unlikely at the moment. To evade tariffs, even if China were to increase its consumption demand for agricultural imports from the US, the increase cannot be tenfold. The current US strategy of handling the trade crisis thus needs revision.

Another concern for China is whether the US is willing to open up its economy to enable Chinese firms to invest in American companies. This would enable China to make use of almost US$ 4 trillion in treasury reserves.

Europe and Russia

The Germans are the de facto leaders of Europe, and Trump is not talking to them. However, Trump understands the importance of Russia. This goes against the traditional Democratic and Republican thinking on national security, especially in light of John Bolton’s war-seeking outlook.

The British are no longer an asset in Europe. They were an asset back in the 1990s as a way to get into the European market, which is how London became a financial centre. Now, the financial hub of Europe has moved out to three cities – Dublin, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt – and all three are EU members.

There are various point of contention between the US and Europe, such as climate change, Iran, or China. China has put 40 billion Euros worth of investment in Britain and this figure is only likely to increase after Brexit. The Europeans are also not really buying the idea of the security threat posed by Huawei.

US and India

It is important for India to realise where it fits into the global scheme of things. The US does not share cultural or emotional ties with India in the way it does have with Britain or Europe. There is no tourism bonding India with the US. Ultimately, the US-India relationship is caught in two things: government-to-government relations and military-to-military dynamics.

For example, there are 30 items in the 'Make in India' campaign. However, the Indian government focuses on only one: defence. In the Obama administration, a deal to build 200 community colleges and polytechnics in India was signed. This would have meant one-year courses in roofing, plumbing, electrical work, sanitation, laying pipes and buildings, etc. This could have led to an increased impetus for self-employment in India.

As far as military-to-military relations are concerned, India talks a good game but does not deliver. There still are uncertainties around the Quad. Additionally, it will be difficult for India to be a significant military power because India is not investing smartly in defence.

India’s priorities are thus not clear. For example, what is that one important deal it wants with the US? Is it permanent membership of the Security Council, special technology transfer, or a free trade agreement? The reason for this could be the lack of a larger geostrategic vision for India. There is no coherence on what India wants to achieve.

What does work well in the India-US relationship is the Indian diaspora in the Gulf. US$ 69 billion is sent annually to India by its diaspora in form of net foreign income from abroad. That makes India the biggest recipient of money from its diaspora in the world, with China being number two. This relationship has to be built further, especially with the US. The second area of opportunity is the growing number of Indian students in US universities. Third is the growth of Silicon Valley in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and so on. Finally, the influence of Hollywood and Bollywood in both countries is a factor worth consideration. 30 per cent of Hollywood movie revenues come from the US domestic market and 70 per cent from international viewership. One can see a growing number of Indian producers, actors, and directors investing in Hollywood.


Rappourtered by Shivani Singh, Researcher, IPCS