The world has gotten to be a more interesting place. America’s reaction to Trump’s success at the election was akin to survivors at an aftermath of a car wreckage; numbly sifting through the debris in horror questioning how and why it all happened in the first place. Despite the sheer un-believability of the situation however, not all is lost. There are promising signs that the United States can survive a Trump presidency. To understand why we need to look to other countries for inspiration.
Asia’s leaders, India’s Modi, China’s Xi Jingping and Philippine’s Duterte have all exercised a similar brand of tough talking strong-armed leadership, but it is with Modi that Trump shares the most similarities to both in character and circumstance. America is the most prosperous democracy in the world and India the largest. Both men have made controversial statements against Muslims and both were viewed as outsiders to the political establishment who prophesized that their impending leadership would bring much chaos and doom to the country. However, Modi’s performance as prime minister is for the most part looked upon favorably by critics and people alike. Can Trump take a few cues?
Modi has been one of the few prime ministers to not just realize but also implement an effective foreign policy agenda that has dramatically shifted for the better, the way in which India engages with the rest of the world. His strong policy skills were seen at the very start of his incumbency where he generated much goodwill by inviting South Asia’s important leaders to attend his inauguration. This allowed the region to be invested in a new path ahead for India. However, he did also preside over some of the worst Hindu- Muslim riots in India as Chief Minister of Gujrat. His inaction and insensitive comments during these times barred him from entering America on grounds of human rights violations. But he has learnt from these mistakes and as Prime Minister, he has strongly solidified India’s stance against Pakistan’s ever present threats of terrorism by conducting surgical strikes, thus showing the Pakistanis that he is very prepared to do what he threatens. His strong actions and successful counter-terrorism operations have helped (to some extent) to de-religionize the issue of terrorism. It gave all Indians a chance to freely rally against terrorism without any threat of self-prosecution or internal finger pointing. Furthermore, the government’s implicit support of Muslim women to fight polygamy, gender segregation and triple talaq (the practice that allows Muslim men to easily divorce women by saying the word talaq or “I divorce you” 3 times), is a subtle and intelligent way to ensure that Indian Muslim men slowly but surely turn away from the lures of terrorism as they become more involved in accepting the dominance of Muslim women’s role in their lives.
Trump however has gone about this the other way. From his remarks on banning Muslims to criticizing the behavior of a slain Muslim soldier’s mother, his campaign has personalized the issue of terrorism to specific groups of people causing one half of America to turn against the other. It is possible though that like Modi Trump realizes the benefit of staying on the right side of the fight once he assumes office. But for Trump to make a real breakthrough with terrorism, he will need to attack the heart of the issue and that is also like Modi to change the reactionary way in which America engages with the world, particularly the Middle East. To do so America might need to seek help from its favorite enemy, Russia. Russia’s image in the Middle East is that of a country which stands up for its friends. America’s image in the Middle East is that of a country with an annoying habit of pressing its beliefs of democracy and human rights on the rest of the world at every given opportunity, and then using these very tools to dispose of the puppet leaders who have fallen from grace. For Trump to succeed in the Middle East, Ilan Goldenberg, a director at the Center for New American Security argues that Trump will need to work with Putin to help Assad crush anti-government forces and allow for an Assad led regime in Syria however unconscionable that may be. If America, Russia and Syria work together as a team that will generate more cooperation from Iran in efforts to completely defeat ISIS but should America throw the Iranian nuclear deal in the mix then everything goes for a toss. This is certainly a tough choice to make. Can things be different under a Trump administration?
Trump’s admiration for Russia’s toughest man has been duly ridiculed throughout the campaign season but his quirky affection for Putin could actually break the ice and allow for a frank and productive dialogue to take place between the 2 leaders. Something that is needed now more than ever. The United States can avoid Sophie’s choice by questioning why Russia needs Syria so much in the first place. The main reasons are to protect Russia’s naval base at Tartus (its only naval base in the Mediterranean), fighting Islamist groups and most importantly maintaining the image of Syria as a key Russian ally. It is therefore foolish to ask Russia to leave Syria because that is unrealistic but can all or most of these benefits still be provided to Russia in an “Assad-less” Syria? Can Trump work with the Syrian people and Russia to come up with a credible alternative to Assad who will be happy to exchange mass genocide of his people for maintaining Russia as an ally? Can America still defeat ISIS and destabilize Iran’s nuclear program? Perhaps the best shot at succeeding in these attempts lies in the United States tackling these thorny problems via a coalition of close allies such as Japan and Jordan who have personally experienced tragedies at the hands of ISIS? However, whatever the solutions are, there is a high chance that Trump will be keen to reset the tone of American- Russian relations and get the ball rolling in the right direction given his mutual admiration for the Russian leader.
The United States is now at a crossroads. A vote for Trump is perceived as a vote to make America Great Again, to refocus attention back on the rising political, economic and social problems at home. But if Trump goes about his foreign policy agenda, that will mean the scrapping of the TPP, the abandonment of treaties with the remaining strong allies, and a rudderless plan for tackling ISIS. In short, the scent of America’s decaying influence on the world will become even stronger. This is not something America can afford. Trump was very perceptive to suggest that the US needs to reassert a more equitable distribution of responsibility amongst its allies, but should he actually flex the muscles of tough talking political rhetoric made on his campaign, that will unravel the years of hard work spent by Washington in ditching its “Its my way or the highway” attitude. This is where Trump will need to exercise some of the Modi charm. Tough domestically and charming internationally. Modi has visited 42 countries in 2 years and spent 113 days outside of India, far more than any of his predecessors. He is known for his strict implementation of policies back home but is also able to project an image of an India that is both modern and accessible. Modi has implemented the most powerful clean-up drive in the history of modern India- the eradication of black money. He has rightfully received scathing criticism for the sloppy implementation of this monumental policy, but in the long run his actions will be remembered as that decisive moment that turned around India’s image as a land of unrealized potential. Trump will similarly need to do a massive clean-up drive as well though his goals will be different.
The first 100 days of Trump in office should see him reaffirming America’s ties with its allies and actually putting together a solid plan for a more proactive foreign policy that for the last 10 years has centered on terrorism. Obama has paved the way for him in this regard. The TPP brings up fears of job diversion and unequal distribution of trade which critics think will only exacerbate the unemployment and inflation fears in the United States, but this does not necessarily have to be the case. As Stanford economic Michael Buskin says that should the TPP allow the natural forces of economics to happen, the right level of trade can be achieved which would benefit all parties. He also makes an important point about how China will eventually join the TPP. This will have the effect of reducing the influence of China’s state owned enterprises and force the rest of South-East Asia to bell the cat should China flout the rules. The TPP therefore does have the potential to temper an aggressive China, which would of course be in America’s best interests but to move in this direction, it is important that America lead the efforts in ratifying the agreement.
For all this to happen though, Trump will need to possess a certain nuance, a certain subtlety of character that he has sorely failed to demonstrate so far. These are no easy tasks by anyone’s standards, and especially for one such as Trump. But there is still hope. Trump’s win at the ballot is evidence of his ability to succeed despite the odds, a streak he has displayed throughout his life. Let us hope he can bring this quality to an America where the stakes are now higher than ever before.