By Rajan Philips –
No one in America would have noticed their roving Secretary of State taking off on an official visit to Asia during the last week of the current presidential election campaign. For that matter, even in Asia far more people would be following the US election than paying attention to Mike Pompeo’s visit to their countries. In India especially, there is likely to be a very keen interest in the US election if only because Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate for Vice President, is the American born daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Mr. Pompeo of course belongs to the Republican Party. Not merely he is not a formally apolitical diplomat, he belongs to the right wing faction of the Republican Party – the infamous Tea Party faction. A former Congressman, Pompeo has future presidential ambitions and was strongly encouraged by the Republican Party to run for the Senate seat in Kansas this year. He decided not to. So, what is he doing now visiting India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia, and Vietnam? Especially India, with Defence Secretary Mark Esper, on a so called ‘2+2 dialogue’ visit – diplomatese for bilateral meetings between the External Affairs and Defence Ministers of two countries?
Did either Prime Minister Modi or President Rajapaksa ask Secretary Pompeo, “You think Trump will win?” The way Boris Yeltsin is said to have asked Bill Clinton as they shook hands on the steps of the White House, “You think OJ is innocent?” This is according to CNN’s Larry King, in 1995, during the OJ Simpson trial that transformed the Atlanta (Georgia) based CNN into a global gossip machine. The November 3 presidential election is being described as hugely consequential, and the results will be consequential for Pompeo himself. There is not much certainty that if Trump wins he will keep Pompeo as Secretary, and he will certainly be out if Trump were to lose. Three times out of four the chances are that Mr. Pompeo may not remain as Secretary after the January inauguration of either the incumbent, Trump, or challenger Joe Biden.
A Trump second term will ensure the continuity of unpredictable chaos in US foreign policy. A Biden victory, on the other hand, will likely restore it to the pre-Trump era, perhaps more in tone and style than in substance. Far reaching changes under a Biden presidency are likely to be mostly on the domestic front, at least in the short term. Reversing the Trump legacy in global affairs will take time. There will not be much of a reversal in substance, in America’s policy towards China and Asia.
If there is a pattern to Trump’s foreign policy, there are also about five aspects to it. First, the repudiation of everything that Obama did; to wit, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Second, Trump’s rhetoric of making America great again, a bigoted and racist version of the old isolationism and unilateralism. Third, the straining of America’s ties with its traditional western allies all of which are constitutional democracies given to disciplined and institutionalized decision making in internal and external affairs. Trump’s bullying and browbeating of NATO, its member countries, and leaders are in this category. Fourth, making new connections with regions and governments which are more autocratic and with whom agreements can be reached through personalized transactions without little or no institutional engagements. Trump’s personal admiration for Putin, his “good feelings” for Erdogan and Duterte, the mutual-admiration diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and the recent agreements involving Israel, the small Gulf States and Sudan under American auspices, are examples of Trump’s global initiatives. It is also not beyond the pale for Trump, to look for business opportunities for his private enterprises in the external deals he makes for America.
India, China, and America
The fifth and final aspect of Trump’s foreign policy involving China draws on all of the above and ratchets them up into the uniquely Trumpian tariff tantrums. Nonetheless, there is considerable consensus within America and the western hemisphere – about being tough on China. There is also a quiet and begrudging admission in the West and even in China’s officialdom that Trump’s impulsive tactics have been effective. The difference under a Biden Administration would be in taking a multilateral approach towards the Asian power unlike the personalized style and unilateral thrust that Trump has been wielding. The rest of Asia is caught in the middle, with the difference that East Asian countries are more directly implicated than South Asian countries.
India, unmoored from its old Cold War, Soviet era alliances that excluded the US, is now central to the US response to the rising Chinese challenge in Asia. In addition, the Modi government and Trump Administration have much common ideologically, and the recent border skirmishes between India and China have given the US a reason to take India’s side and protest against China. Secretary Pompeo did just that quite vehemently on this visit. The bilateral meetings generated a quite a collection of agreements, including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on geospatial cooperation (BECA). Indian officials are pleased with the visit of the two powerful US Secretaries a week ahead of the presidential election to sign the BECA. They view it as a “demonstration to the world at large” of the importance that the U.S. attaches to India.
From New Delhi Pompeo shuttled to Colombo to “underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Once in Colombo, Secretary Pompeo added: “That’s quite a contrast to what China seeks. We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner.” This was after President Rajapaksa had made it clear that “he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be,” according to the statement issued by the Presidential Media Division. The President had also indicated that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is “determined by several conditions including historical and cultural relations and development cooperation.” He made it a point to note that “China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war … (and) that Sri Lanka was not caught in a debt trap as a result.”
The two sets of statements capture the unique bind that Sri Lanka is in as China and the US make their maneuvers for dominance in Asia. Add to that India’s sensitivity about its South Asian backyard. As well, there are internal factors contributing to Sri Lanka’s external dilemmas. The country is not a military power, except for internal putdowns. It carries nobody’s military bases, but endlessly labours under the illusion that every power in the world has a special strategic desire for Trincomalee. And it has serious pre-exiting conditions – fruitless historical preoccupations, highly poisoned internal ethnic politics, and a post-independence record of gross economic underachievement. All of which can be collectively overcome by a strong and rational leadership in government; in the absence of such leadership, Sri Lanka is left facing a set of mutually reinforcing dilemmas in its relationships with India, China, and America.
With India, Sri Lanka is constrained to have excellent government-to-government and elite-level relationship, while carefully nursing a deep seated political animosity towards the big neighbour. Political pandering to anti-Indian populism invariably carries the heavy economic price of missing out on business opportunities and bilateral trade advantages between two countries that share an enviably neighbourly and historically connected market area. After financing white elephant infrastructure projects, China is becoming the lender of first resort, and increasingly so for Sri Lanka’s debt repayment cashflow loans. All the while insisting that there is no debt trap and fancying that there is no limit to Chinese credit.
Long distance America is Sri Lanka’s biggest export market, as well as a major destination for its emigrant footloose families whose familial extensions can now be conveniently (and constitutionally) anchored in dual citizenships. Yet, thanks to the exportation of the island’s poisoned ethnic politics, anti-Americanism in Sri Lankan society has degenerated from the formerly stirring leftist rhetoric of anti-imperialism – to the now stifling paradox of hating anything that is official-American, while coveting everything otherwise-American for private progression.
This is a rough-sketch of the backdrop to Secretary Pompeo’s Sri Lankan visit. The missing elephant in this narrative is the novel coronavirus. It is the coronavirus that has become the perverse unifier of the world, and given the US and China another frontier to bicker about. China stands accused by the US as the originator of the virus, and Secretary Pompeo is one of the more ardent American accusers of China. But no country in the world has so messed up its response to the virus as the United States of America, and it is the virus more than anything else that has transformed the routine quadrennial American presidential election into a most consequential election in over hundred years. So, we return to the question that Modi or Rajapaksa may or may not have asked of Pompeo: “you think Trump will win?”
Who will win in America?
In a nutshell, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, winning 30 States and 306 Electoral College votes against Hillary Clinton’s 20 States and 232 Electoral College (EC) votes. Trump passed the EC threshold of 270 votes and became President, even though he lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly three million votes – 62.9 M to 65.8 M. Crucial to Trump’s victory were his unexpected wins by extremely narrow margins in three traditionally Democratic mid-western States, viz. Pennsylvania (20 EC votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10), yielding a total of 46 EC votes. If Hillary Clinton had won all three of them as she was predicted to, she would have won the presidency with 278 (232+46) to Trump’s 260 (306-46) EC votes. But Hillary lost the three States, and Trump won the election. The rest has been four years of Trump presidency.
This time the Democratic Candidate and former (Obama’s) Vice President, Joe Biden, is healthily leading all the national opinion polls, just as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. But once bitten, the Democrats and polling pundits are twice shy about making bold predictions of Biden win this time. However, in 2016 while leading nationally, Mrs. Clinton’s leads over Trump in the three States she lost were within polling errors and she was vulnerable to a minor surge in Trump’s votes and a drop in hers. That is what happened eventually in 2016, whereas in this election, Joe Biden is showing healthy leads in the three States that he should win, and in half a dozen other States which also Trump won narrowly in 2016 and where he is vulnerable now. Trump cannot lose any of them.
Although Trump was not predicted to win last time, there were factors in the background that were able to coalesce and push him over the victory bar. This time the same factors are either absent, or have turned against him. His novelty to politics was a significant attraction among many voters in 2016. This time he is not new and he has to run against his record as President. The worst part of his record is the way he personally and by his leadership responded to Covid-19. Covid-19 became the biggest challenge of his presidency and even whatever public life he has had, and it exposed the worst in him. After he won the 2016 election, Trump never exercised moderation in anything to expand his electoral constituency beyond the narrowminded and extreme political base that stands in unapologetic solidarity with him.
What should be surprising, even shocking, is that for all his outrageous deviations from the basic norms of civilized society and politics, Trump still commands 30% to 40% support within the American population. That is what the opinion polls constantly tell us. Are the polls missing something – especially the voices of racially marginalized people who are either suppressed from or unmotivated towards voting in elections? At least that part of it seems to be changing in the current election. In 2016, 136 million people voted in the presidential election, which is 55% of America’s voting age population. This year, the advance voting – in person and by mail, has reached 85 million, well past 60% of the total 2016 vote.
People have been waiting in long queues and over long hours in every City and in every part of America to cast their vote ahead of the election day. The long queues and long hours also tell the story of inadequate voting infrastructure – deliberately done to keep marginalized people from participating in the electoral process. Trump knew he was only going to win by keeping ordinary people as far away from voting as possible. In the end he may have provoked an unprecedented enthusiasm and surge in American voting. Is he going to win or lose? We will know before next Sunday unless it turns out to be a close and contested election like the 2000 (Bush v. Gore) presidential election.