Modi Must be on His Guard When He Meets Trump

In less than two weeks, Narendra Modi and Donald Trump are going to meet for the first time. Modi is scheduled to land in Washington DC on June 25 for a two-day visit. Official talks will take place on the second day. According to a June 12 press release from the Ministry of External Affairs: “Their discussions will provide a new direction for deeper bilateral engagement on issues of mutual interest and consolidation of multi-dimensional strategic partnership between India and the U.S.”

An official statement from the White House stated that Trump “looks forward to discussing ways to strengthen ties between the United States and India and to advance our common priorities:  fighting terrorism, promoting economic growth and reforms, and expanding security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Both statements are encouraging for the sense of normalcy they convey. But for better or for worse, nothing is normal anymore in US-India relations.

Perceptive observers have often pointed out that Donald Trump does indeed have a consistent world view. It’s one where trade is a zero-sum game and allies and partners are ripping off feckless American leaders. Trump’s world-view is also remarkably child-like: He seems to believe most problems are simple and that only the stupidity and corruption of US elites are preventing their resolution. While this belief system hardly lends itself to a coherent strategy, it is one that Modi will have to grapple with when he meets America’s president.

It won’t be easy. Both during his campaign and Trump has repeatedly singled out India as one of those countries ripping off America. He’s backed protectionist impulses on trade and immigration and incorrectly named India as an unfair beneficiary of the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump’s volatile actions and transactional views have also put into question his commitment to maintaining the US presence in Asia. Even on counterterrorism, the one area where some might hope Trump’s Muslim-bashing will make him a useful (if uncomfortable) ally, there ought to be serious doubts. Trump’s decision to back the Saudi side in the Qatar crisis, against the advice of his own team of professionals, means his terror targets will frequently be Shia groups based in Iran.

This last point ought to remind us that Donald Trump is a stubborn man, frequently wont to ignore the counsel of those who know better. No doubt Modi’s team are advising him to be business like, to hold his ground, and to be prepared for anything.

The Modi-Trump meeting on June 26 will at best be like an awkward first date.

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