Can Trump Win the Global Swing States?

Harvard Ash Center
Oct 25, 2018 · 14 min read

by Niruban Balachandran and Vikram Janardhan

When Donald Trump won a number of key swing states in the 2016 election — Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and others — his success underscored that in politics, some states are more crucial to win than others. In foreign policy, as well, some states play a more decisive geopolitical role than others. This is more true than ever today, when a number of America’s potential country allies and partners seem to be up for grabs.

In 2012, the political scientists Daniel Kliman and Richard Fontaine first introduced the concept of “global swing states[i],” nations whose power on the international stage is increasing, each of whom “possess a large and growing economy, a strategic location in their region, and a commitment to democratic institutions.” They originally identified four countries as global swing states — Brazil, India, Turkey, and Indonesia.

However, a lot has changed in six years with a reconfiguration of global power, and today, nearly midway into the Trump era, we’d like to draw attention to four key global swing states that are currently experiencing political transitions in 2018: Mexico, India, Poland, and Indonesia. Each of these nations is home to a large, pivotal economy, and each is a diverse democracy with both outsized and geostrategic influence. However, the Trump Administration’s new U.S. National Security Strategy scarcely mentions either nation.

If the United States improves its bilateral outreach to these four emerging powers, we believe over the long term they will swing towards stronger partnerships with us, deepen their democratization, and reinforce the components of the rules-based international order: the interlinked global system defined by economic and political openness, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. In addition, they will swing further away from our adversaries, authoritarianism, and illiberalism, and will resist the temptation to participate in a counter-American coalition.

Given Moscow’s and Beijing’s threats to Washington’s web of alliances, as well as the backsliding of democratic and human rights around the world, the need to preserve the liberal international order is greater than ever. The best chance for strengthening the health and components of the order is to take the long view and secure the collaboration and partnership of these global swing states.


Mexico has been recognized as a democratic middle-income global power, an OECD member state, and trillion-dollar GDP economy. Keeping a large, relatively prosperous democracy like Mexico as a friendly next-door neighbor is critical, especially in a surrounding neighborhood of accelerating democratic decay (think Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and other rapidly-backsliding democracies).

However, the Trump Administration has put the U.S.-Mexico relationship at severe risk, both at the government and the people levels. For example, Trump’s false accusation that Mexico actively “promotes” illegal immigration, his administration’s policy of caging and separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border (described by Mexico as “inhumane”), threats of astronomically high tariffs on Mexican products, and the futile quest to force Mexico to pay for a border wall have all needlessly jeopardized Washington’s relationships with Mexico’s key government ministries.

Furthermore, a shocking recent Pew survey found that a 61 percent majority of the Mexican people now see the U.S. as more threatening than either China or Russia, perceiving “U.S. power as a major threat.” Even worse, “Trump registers the lowest confidence rating of any U.S. leader in Mexico since Pew Research Center began surveying there,” as well as the lowest confidence rating out of all 37 nations surveyed last year.

In response to domestic and international change, the people of Mexico recently elected the left-leaning populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, nicknamed “AMLO” as their new president, who will be inaugurated later this December 1. Contrary to some assumptions, president-elect AMLO has pledged to maintain the U.S.-Mexico relationship, despite the U.S. president’s caustic anti-Mexico rhetoric.

“Everything is ready to start a new stage in our societies’ relationship based on cooperation and prosperity,” wrote AMLO in a warm, optimistic, seven-page letter to President Trump this July, proposing mutually-respectful collaborations on issues of joint concern — especially trade, migration, development, and security. (The U.S. president, seeing a kindred spirit in AMLO’s populist anti-establishment leanings, reportedly likes AMLO so much that he has reportedly nicknamed him “Juan Trump”.)

But the initial warmth between the two leaders shouldn’t mask at least two future flashpoints in the U.S.-Mexico relationship: For one thing, even though the AMLO letter’s proposed joint infrastructure projects (such as regional high-speed rail links and advanced industrial corridors) will ostensibly trigger economic activity to reduce Central American migrants’ incentives to cross the border into the U.S., it is nevertheless unlikely that the Trump Administration will agree to cooperate much on these proposals. Instead, as a meticulous Congressional Research Service study reports, the Trump Administration prefers deep cuts in technical assistance to Mexico and Latin American states.

Another crucial flashpoint is trade and investment — especially the yet-to-be-concluded NAFTA revision talks: If the tentatively updated NAFTA isn’t ratified by all three countries’ legislators, then Mexico will most likely look for stronger partnerships elsewhere, and the medium-term risk of a North American trade war looms large. We are also by far Mexico’s largest trading partner, but that could change: As Shannon O’Nell of the Council on Foreign Relations pithily summed it up, “China wins if NAFTA dies.”

Acknowledging that Mexico already leads with the world’s highest number of active free-trade agreements (FTAs) and has options, individual American business people and other citizen diplomats can still help bolster bilateral trade relations: For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently visited Mexico’s Senate to celebrate 13 years of business cooperation.

In terms of Mexico’s relatively nascent democracy, some worry that AMLO may remove institutional checks on executive power in order to achieve his policy objectives. For example, the historian and longtime AMLO-watcher Enrique Krauze believes that AMLO could “move toward annulling the division of powers and subordinating the Supreme Court and other autonomous institutions after restricting the freedom of the media and silencing any dissenting voices.” It’s therefore crucial for both Mexican and North American civil society stakeholders to advocate for continued democratic norms and practices. As Krauze puts it, “We’ve had a democratic experiment for the past eighteen years…I’m worried that with AMLO this experiment might end.”

Since the U.S.’s Good Neighbor Policy, by which President FDR famously remarked that “Hidalgo and Juarez were men of the same stamp as Washington and Jefferson,” the U.S. neighborly relationship with Mexico has usually enjoyed high bipartisan presidential support.

Mexico has had its fair share of 21st-century challenges in governance, inequality, criminal justice, and other issues. However, it is by and large a democratic, inclusive, a responsible global power, and a mature G20 economy. With every potential reckless tweet, the president would take us farther away from a 21st century “Good Neighbor” policy. Meanwhile, other Latin American nations are taking note, doubtlessly reworking the cost-benefit calculus of their own relationships with Washington.


It’s hard to overstate India’s importance to American interests on almost any measure. As the world’s fastest growing major economy, and soon to have the world’s largest population, it holds tremendous value to the U.S. in terms of cultural, business, military, and democratic ties. It is positioned to project power in the vital shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, and across the Indo-Pacific regional order more broadly as an example of democracy in a neighborhood with a number of troubling non-democratic states.

Since the Civil Nuclear Agreement over 12 years ago, New Delhi has steadily deepened its partnership with the Washington. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last June to Washington also reinforced an abiding commitment to strengthening both economies’ trade and investment ties. Both the U.S. and India are members of the Indo-Pacific regional architecture’s political pillar, the East Asia Summit, but the former should redouble its efforts to enable the latter to join the region’s economic pillar — the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC).

The recently-revived Quadrilateral — comprising the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia — was formed as a means for counterbalancing China’s threatening behavior in the region, but analysts from RAND and other institutions correctly conclude that India is the Quadrilateral’s most uncommitted member. For example, Modi’s speech at June’s annual Shangri-La Forum disappointed many, by neglecting to call out the military risks posed by Beijing to its Asian neighbors, and by not even mentioning the Quadrilateral.

By dedicating foreign policy assets and commitment to the Quadrilateral at this coming November’s East Asia Summit, New Delhi would certainly augment all four states’ influence in the region, but it would also be good for the world, demonstrating what large democracies are willing to do to protect the global commons.

Groupings like these may well make Beijing think twice about its activities in the region, which is why the U.S. should continue to support closer but rightsized military ties with India. It’s worth noting that India already conducts more naval exercises with the U.S. than with any other country. This September’s official U.S.-India Two-Plus-Two Dialogue was a positive step in this direction — in which U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis and their Indian counterparts External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman — agreed to increase the long-delayed communications interoperability of both nations’ militaries, as well as naval personnel exchanges and military innovation.

However, despite the seemingly positive trajectory of U.S.-India relations in defense and diplomacy, the Trump Administration has taken several actions in its first year in power that have thrown a wet blanket on our growing friendship.

Threats to curtail the H1B visa program, video leaks of President Trump mimicking Modi’s English accent, deafening silence on the murder of several Indian Americans, and protectionist trade policies all have New Delhi justifiably upset. As in the financial sector, the one thing investors and governments abhor most is uncertainty, and the Trump Administration has managed to inject the U.S.-Indian partnership with a strong dose of it.

What the president should realize is that India possesses far more potential as a long-term ally with shared democratic values. This is particularly true with respect to Beijing, clearly the greatest risk to cohesion in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing is playing the long game, steadily increasing the quantity of its foreign aid, cultural, exchange, and elite-to-elite diplomacy in its desired geographic spheres of influence, and is making calculations about what Washington is likely to do. A strong U.S.-India alliance is perhaps the most potent counterweight to such ambitions.


Poland is important to the U.S.: it is the European Union’s fifth largest country, a NATO member state, the only EU economy to avoid a recession during the 2008–09 global economic crisis, and its military one of the Pentagon’s staunchest security allies in Europe.

You are the people who know the true value of what you defend,” said President Trump in a speech last July in Warsaw. Trump also complimented Poland for achieving its NATO spending target, and to everyone’s relief, reiterated the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all.

However, Poland’s democracy, long a beacon of successful post-Soviet reforms in Central Europe, is now gravely at risk. The newly-incumbent far right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, ruled by chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski and inspired by increasingly authoritarian head of state Victor Orban of neighboring Hungary, has sent Poland’s democracy rapidly backsliding toward illiberalism in a stunningly few number of years.

Unfortunately, Freedom House’s most recent global report ranked Poland as experiencing one of the world’s largest measurable one-year declines in political rights and civil liberties: “The government passed legislation that has politicized public media, neutered the constitutional court, handed the security services sweeping powers of surveillance, and restricted the right of public protest.” Pro-PiS extremist right-wing youth groups have also filled the vacuum opened by the lack of civic education and support for pluralism in schools. As a result of these declines, the European Union has officially warned Poland about potential sanctions, parallel to Hungary’s: A shocking reversal from the high esteem in which Poland’s democracy has long been held.

Understandably, PiS’ disturbing antidemocratic governance has been met with mass pro-democratic streets protests by indignant Poles, evoking Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement whose workers and intellectuals dislodged the Soviet Union’s occupation not long ago. In a recent Journal of Democracy essay aptly titled “Can Poland’s Backsliding Be Stopped?”, scholar Wojciech Przybylski explains, “Ideas have consequences…Trust in the liberal institutional framework has suffered due to several broader trends, among them securitization and confusion about the state of democracy in countries once viewed by Poland as democratic exemplars (including the United States, the United Kingdom, and other EU member states).”

Although on paper Warsaw still wants to “stand with the West,” re-establishing America’s and related allies’ moral leadership in the rule of law and human rights is essential. Kaczynski has been relentless in taking a sledgehammer to these liberal democratic values. In this vein, the backsliding of post-Soviet Central European democracies like Poland and Hungary are evidence that the durability of even successful democratic transitions is by no means guaranteed.

Unfortunately, there is a related concern for Poland and its neighbors: the returning geostrategic ambitions of Moscow in its former sphere of influence, Central Europe. For one thing, Poland is concerned about its reliance on Russian energy, natural gas in particular. Russian projects such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would increase the flow of Russian gas to EU member states. In response, imports of U.S. liquefied natural gas to Poland are on the rise, as Warsaw seeks to diversify its supply.

Finally, there are also legitimate concerns that Moscow will likely interfere with “sharp power” operations in Poland’s parliamentary elections next year. For example, last July, a mysterious automated Twitter bot-net “suddenly began trending on Twitter, all attacking the thousands of Polish street demonstrators,” and firing missives from fake Twitter accounts at a max of 200 tweets per minute. The risks to Poland’s digital democratic pillars are still clear and present.

Although President Trump has rightly applauded Poland for both achieving NATO’s spending target and moving toward fuel independence, his administration should now go one step further and articulate strong support for Polish democratic institutions, as well as deeper people-to-people relations with Americans through educational, business, journalism, and military exchanges. Doing this will ensure that Polish-American relations remain ironclad through mid-century, and that Warsaw remains a moderating, democratic influence in the wider Central European region.


The U.S. and Indonesia are the world’s second- and third-largest democracies, and the latter, with 260 million souls, has emerged on the world stage as an economic success story. Indonesia also draws strength from its cultural diversity: Although it is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country by population, its people represent 360 diverse ethnic groups, dozens of religions, and speak 707 languages across 13,000 islands. Given its size, geopolitical power, and de-facto leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it can also be a regional counterweight to Beijing and pillar of the postwar liberal international order.

As a G20 economy, Indonesia has kept impressive pace with the other developing economic powerhouses, and stands today as the world’s seventh largest economy. Part of this can be attributed to geography: the Strait of Malacca provides passage for more than one third of global trade, and Indonesia is the only major power that straddles both the Pacific and Indian Oceans — the equivalent distance from London to Afghanistan.

However, economic nationalism and protectionism in both the U.S. and Indonesia prevents commercial ties from reaching their full potential. “Simply preventing the economic relationship from getting worse is a worthy goal,” recommends Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council of Foreign Relations.

Neglecting U.S.-led trade and investment institutions in the Indo-Pacific region will inevitably result in the completion of an alternative “China-led” economic order, that is already marked by an alarming level of predatory lending to smaller states — the existing components of which are the Belt and Road Initiative, the BRICS’ New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its Silk Road Fund, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Beijing’s preferred alternative to the (formerly U.S.-led) Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As the annual host of the acclaimed Bali Democracy Forum, Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia consistently ranked “Politically Free” by Freedom House, defined as possessing open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, an independent civic life, and an independent media. However, although Indonesia is a democracy that is liberal and tolerant, it is also becoming more conservative and religious. With a watershed general election scheduled for 2019, the key long-range question is whether the country will swing toward illiberalism domestically, as well as toward Beijing’s proposed “China-led” economic order internationally.

There is clearly tremendous potential in future U.S.-Indonesia relations, but because of its postcolonial history and current search for its place in the world, like India, Indonesia will require some confidence building. As U.S. Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert has recently noted, “Indian and Indonesian domestic strategies of autonomy and nonalignment hamper deeper integration with the U.S. The national power possessed by India and Indonesia is more potential than actual, but nonetheless very real and worthy of attention.” Both the president and Congressional leaders would also be well advised to pursue deeper relations by making an official visit to Jakarta.

Renewing the International Order

President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric is hardly original, and his populist nationalism, fueled by fears about demographics and globalization, improbably produced an Electoral College victory. However, it remains to be seen if the president can convert this into policy success in office. In terms of foreign policy, he has largely impeded his own progress.

As witnessed in the UN General Assembly last week, much of global public opinion is almost universally repelled by him — for example, just 11% of German citizens express confidence in him according to the Pew Research Center poll. His proposed policies are likewise highly unpopular around the world– not much has changed since his inauguration. Meanwhile, adversary states that seek to reshape the order are increasing cooperation — for example, last month Beijing and Moscow cooperated on their largest joint wargames since the Cold War.

The U.S. may still have the world’s most powerful economy and military, but there are a number of very real — and frightening — crises in which the U.S. would have no choice but to work with nontraditional partners, such as a potential South China Sea armed naval conflict, a cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure, or Kremlin grayzone aggression in Eastern Europe. As Anne-Marie Slaughter has pointed out, Washington should pay as much attention to the international “web” (interdependent linkages) as it does to the international “chessboard” (competition and rivalry).

The four nations we have focused on here are especially vital. Although retrenchment and withdrawal from global affairs is attractive to Trump, if America fails to enlarge its constellation of allies to more definitively include the global swing states of Mexico, India, Poland and Indonesia, then these emerging global powers are likely to drift toward national values and policies that will weaken the U.S.-led international order, and hurt people in their surrounding regions over the long run. As Kliman and Fontaine wisely explained, global swing states might even swing toward an alternative, Moscow- or Beijing-led international order if they are persuaded by substitute benefits.

Indeed, the health of the components of the stable international order that we currently enjoy is by no means self-sustaining. As the scholar Robert Kagan writes, a democratic, pluralistic international order “will last only as long as those who imposed it retain the capacity to defend it…The better idea doesn’t have to win just because it is a better idea[ii].”

Today, a handful of nations hold the potential for reshaping the map of the international order. They will collectively either strengthen America’s capacity to lead on the world stage, or trigger its possible decline. To ensure the former, President Trump needs to demonstrate an ability to grasp these evolving complexities and craft a cohesive foreign policy doctrine that goes beyond a defense of “Western civilization”, and instead embrace an expanded web of mutually-beneficial geostrategic alliances.

Within these challenges lies an extraordinary opportunity to shape and lead the international order. Will he choose to seize it?

Niruban Balachandran and Vikram Janardhan are recent Mid-career MPA graduates of the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.

[i] “International Order and Global Swing States”, Richard Fontaine, December 18, 2012, Center for Strategic & International Studies,

[ii] “Why the World needs America”, Robert Kagan, February 11, 2012, The Wall Street Journal,

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic…

Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.

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Challenges to Democracy

Challenges to Democracy is the blog of the Democratic Governance Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School.