President Trump’s recent visit to India has been described as “a visit like no other.” The metaphor could be extended to say that Trump is a President like no other. As Sreeram Chaulia says in this thoroughly researched work, Trump is a “stormy petrel…an iconoclast who has thrown every known platitude and convention of American politics and foreign policy out of the window.”
The thesis that Chaulia effectively posits is that Donald Trump has fast forwarded what was already underway after the 2008 financial crisis – the climbing down of the United States from its perch as guarantor of world peace and anchor of the liberal international order. There was a fatigue with distant international commitments, a growing disillusionment with globalization and a general feeling that other countries were taking the US for a ride. Trump rode to power on this populist wave; in return he has promised to make America great again – by making trade fair and reciprocal, by cutting down immigration, by voluntarily giving up American power (and costs) in different regions of the world. In the fourth year of Trump’s first term, this ball is still moving and Chaulia wisely gives no predictions as to where it will stop. It is indeed difficult to say, whether Trump is re-elected or not, if the world will fully recover back to status quo ante – China’s rise, Russia’s resurgence and American fatigue in general may make a full reversal difficult.
The book has a second and more original thesis: that Trump’s disruption holds both an opportunity as well as a danger for emerging powers, a category in which Chaulia includes India, Brazil, Nigeria and Turkey and devotes a chapter to each. On the one hand, American leadership in their respective regions has served its purpose in geo-political terms. Yet these powers have also been restive under American influence, and not always got a fair deal under the so-called liberal international order, whether it be in the Security Council, WTO or in the Bretton Woods institutions; globalization, it has been argued, has actually increased inequalities among and within states. If Trump succeeds in his drive to bring America back to its shores and let the rest of the world take care of itself, these countries can build their own influence and regional linkages in their regions; the corollary being that they would also have to counter challenges, including Chinese influence, on their own. Sreeram Chaulia’s commendable and well-documented effort would be a useful guide to policy makers in these countries to maximise the advantages and minimize the dangers of this opening that the Trump Presidency has offered, perhaps unintentionally. As far as India goes, the recent Afghanistan deal, and American withdrawal, may be the first test of this thesis.