World

Apprehensive World Leaders Need Not Worry Yet, the US’s Peculiar Political System Will Keep Trump in Check

At the end of the day,Trump’s policymaking will depend on the team that executes it, and, as of now, no one has a clue about what this team will look like.

US President-elect Donald Trump greets his running mate Mike Pence during his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, US, November 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

US President-elect Donald Trump greets his running mate Mike Pence during his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, US, November 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election has upended the conventional wisdom about political mobilisation and polling processes  in the country. It also threatens to upset the very world order that the US built, nurtured and currently dominates. The first question that comes to mind for other nations observing the outcome is: What are going to be the consequences of a Trump presidency ?

In many ways, they will be internal. In achieving his stunning upset, Trump first trampled on the Republican establishment’s leadership –House speaker Paul D. Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich – and then took on a formidable Democratic candidate and bested her. Former President George W. Bush and 2012 presidential contender Mitt Romney refused to support Trump. Analysts will be working hard to decode his victory for a while, but the heart of his win lay in winning the key rust-belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa which used to be the industrial heartland of the US and were won by outgoing US President Barack Obama in the 2012 elections.

Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan resonated well with the working-class Americans who felt that ‘foreigners’ (read non-white people) were taking away their jobs and those who had grown disillusioned watching as the rich became richer and the middle class stagnated and America’s infrastructure crumbled, even as the country spent trillions of dollars in wars abroad. Trump’s resilience became apparent as he overcame negative ads, put out by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, depicting Trump as an unhinged, racist misogynist. In some ways he turned Obama’s strategy inside out by  positioning himself as the candidate of hope and an outsider battling the elite Washington DC establishment.

Trump disdained the orthodox approach to election organisation by focusing on holding large rallies instead of concentrating on analytics. He left the Republican Party organisation to run its own campaign and turned the conventional political style of contesting US elections upside down by rejecting the high road and taking the low one of outrageous remarks against Mexicans, women and Muslims. And in the process consolidated his appeal among blue-collar white Americans.

In some ways,  the US election represents a nationalist wave that is also rocking Europe and led to Brexit earlier this year. It has been successfully used by politicians as diverse as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Shinzu Abe and Narendra Modi to consolidate power.

Like all nationalists, Trump was propelled to power because he was seen as the best person to address the electorate’s feelings of helplessness and insecurity.

America’s peculiar political system

Across the world, people are experiencing disbelief and a touch of apprehension at Trump being elected the US president. But we need to understand that now that he is president, America’s peculiar political system – designed by its founding fathers to prevent Trump-like populists – will kick into action. The system is based on a separation of powers which provides for checks and balances against arbitrarily instituted policies. The US president is only the first among equals when it comes to the US parliament (aka Congress) – the Senate and House of Representatives which comprise the Congress are also vested with significant power. Having stepped on many a toe in the run-up to his election, Trump may find that the Congress may not readily do his bidding, even though many of the Republican Senate and House members have come to power riding on his coattails. The US system has been deliberately designed to slow down someone like Trump and it will surely succeed at doing so if Trump seeks to upend established treaties and agreements and strike out in unexpected directions.

Trade and immigration

There are two key issues that have marked Trump’s rise – trade and immigration. Clearly the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is now dead in the water and with it goes the grand American strategy of confronting China on the trade front. Countries like Mexico are, of course, worried about the future of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But one thing is clear, the US stands to lose as much, if not more, by scrapping existing treaties than its interlocutors.

As for immigration, it will affect all countries, but some like India probably don’t have cause to worry because traditionally Indian migrants are highly educated and the demand for them is high in the US. It is the migrants from neighbouring countries, such as Mexico, who Trump has really targeted, people who his followers believe undercut the earning power of the blue-collar worker.

Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed the election results considering Trump’s call for better ties with Russia.

But though his election was formally welcomed in a slew of countries like Germany, Japan, Turkey, Britain, Israel and India, no one seemed to have a clear idea about which direction the US is now headed in. China, for its part, mocked the election with its news agency Xinhua poking fun at the fact that the “most divisive and scandalous election in American history has eroded voters’ faith in the two party system. “

The big worry for American allies like Western European countries, Japan and Korea, is that Trump has repeatedly criticised them for not paying enough for their defence and sponging off the US.  Japan and South Korea have additional reasons to worry because they are big exporters and the president-elect’s attitude towards free trade is negative, to say the least.

Trump’s victory has given the right wing in Europe a boost and in Israel, the right-wing elements believe that they could well see the end of the American support for a two-state solution in relation to Palestine.

What about India?

What does a Trump victory mean for India ? Actually not much. The support by the Hindu right-wing in the US will definitely register in his mind, but India-US relations are not on Trump’s list of priorities. The message he has from those who elected him is to fix things internally and set right the terms of trade that have impoverished the US and to get free-loading allies to pay for their security.

There are worries about H1B visas, but these are minor compared to the scale of possibilities that exist in the realm of Indo-US relations today. In any case, Indian firms are or ought to, move out of the BPO sector and go in for higher end software solutions. Mollycoddling them at a low level is not benefitting anyone.

Those who expect Trump to come down on Pakistan may be disappointed. Whatever his personal predilections may be, he is unlikely to cut off a state as dangerous as Pakistan. As they say, hold your friends close, but hold your enemies closer. Having invested a lot of time, effort and money in Pakistan, Washington is not about to turn its back on Islamabad and let it become a hotbed for potential terrorists wanting to take a pot-shot at the US.

What will definitely benefit India is a possible Russian-American entente. This could reduce the fatal attraction of Beijing for Moscow. If that happens, India can breathe a bit easier, because by itself it lacks the geopolitical clout to prevent the rise of a new Sino-Russian alliance in Eurasia.

It is true that in the end, it is political interests rather than personal predilections that drive the foreign policies of mature countries. In that sense, both the US and India need each other – one to check China in larger Asia and the other to moderate the Sino-Pak axis in South Asia. As of now, both have a congruence of interests in Asia and the Indian Ocean which are not likely to change in a hurry, and many of those interests have to do with the rise of China.

At the end of the day, Trump’s foreign and security policies will depend on the team that executes them, and, as of now, no one has a clue as to what this will be. Will it have any South Asian hands and Indian-Americans as the Obama Administration had? Who will be Trump’s sub-cabinet appointees and advisers ?

Trump, a showy, and possibly shady, businessman before his new job, could well be like Ronald Reagan, content to lay out the broad contours of his vision and letting a trusted team implement them. That, however, would require not just The Gipper’s fabled luck, but also a team of individuals like Jim Baker, George Schultz , Caspar Weinberger, Frank Carlucci and Donald T. Regan. But, unlike Reagan who had been an active politician for at least two decades before he became president, Trump is starting from scratch.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi