As the liberal world order and the architecture- alliances, trade regimes patterns and networks- that underpinned it is either in limbo or , even worse, is under threat after the assumption of Donald Trump to the highest office of the United States, Narendra Modi has met Trump ht in the country. The meeting which, especially in India, has been held to be “watershed”, comes in the wake of profound structural changes in international relations and world politics. These pertain to putative changes to system polarity, relative decline of the United States, the rise of populist tendencies or even forces across the Western world ( and even in India) and last but not the least, the rise of China and its trajectory. The rise of China and its impact on the international system and structure appears to be both along expected lines with some twists. The twist(s) come in the nature and form of the One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR) , of which the China Pakistan Economic Corridor( CPEC) is a component of.
The OBOR is a grand scheme of initiative which, if it pans out, is in the name of a game changer- regionally and globally. Prosaically, it is in the nature of “complex interdependence” and globalization with a Chinese ingress. While there are profound and structural impediments to OBOR’s reification and crystallization into practice, its conception, design and execution suggests that the world will be divided into blocs- if , to repeat, it gets translated into reality. Throw in Trump’s rather disdainful attitude and approach towards the post War world order, one immediate casualty is likely to be this order. Overlaying these putative developments is the conceptual tour de force that appears to undergird the foreign policy of the United States under Trump. Its thrust is “selfish realism” wherein the United States reviews its understanding of power and national interest(s). Whilst this does not mean isolationism, it surely entails a degree of retreat from world politics and “conservation” of power. The practical form of this retreat would lie in a diminished role for the United States in the world, lesser or milder commitments to alliances like the NATO and a pivot not to but from Asia, and a retreat from trade regimes and commitments.
It is here that India assumes significance for the United States. With its vast market potential, and its increasing power and heft, India would be sought by the United States not, it needs to be pointed out, as an ally but as a partner of sorts. This partnership’s centre of gravity, would most likely to be in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR) where the United States, along with India, Australia, and Japan would “ keep an eye” on China , so to speak and perhaps even check the country. Even though India would like an expanded relationship with the United States, and may even present itself to contain China, but it would appear that, as of now, the United States might not want to deeply contain China. Amongst India’s bucket list would also be to present itself as a partner in “counter terrorism”(CT)- aimed overtly against Pakistan, but yet again, it is doubtful that the United States will commit itself to the CT as India desires. The United States action toward this end would be more or less symbolic. The reasons pertain to Pakistan’s continued utility to the United States- especially in Afghanistan. While Pakistan might or might not be a swing state but it surely is a pivotal state.
The Modi Trump meet was then more style than substance- even though the media coverage in India of the meeting suggests that it was a watershed event. In reality, the media coverage was in the nature of brouhaha-, a noisy or overexcited reaction. The immediate significance of the event, besides the goodies announced, appears to be in the nature of signaling to the Chinese.
What then is the key take away from the Modi –Trump meet?
The real import of the meeting is that world order, international relations and world politics are in great flux, churn and thereby defined by fluidity. This is overlain by uncertainty of a different kind- the nature , drift and direction – of populism in many parts of the world. International relations are no more defined by a neat distinction between the “domestic” and the “ external”. The lines have blurred and each impacts the other in often unpredictable ways. Given all this, the shape and form of international relations, to quote a now obscure strategist, lies in the domain of the “ unknown unknown”. In this uncertain milieu, states appear to more teasing and sussing each other out than anything else. Both Trump and Modi appear to doing the same. All in all then uncertainty pervades international politics and relations and it will naturally impact the international system and structure. Predicting the form and shape of this structure at this point would be a mug’s game.
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org