Some Democrats would want Biden to go after Donald Trump and find every skeleton in the former President’s cupboard. There is the pressing issue of impeachment. If it goes ahead, will that heal America or further polarize it? Remember that there are millions of Americans who still swear by Donald Trump and they should not be dismissed out of hand.
We are trained to look behind and beyond the headlines.
Indian Americans are moving and shaking America. Apart from Vice President Kamala Harris, 20 Indian Americans are in the Joe Biden White House team, the most of any immigrant community.
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act replaced a national-origins quota system with a preference-based system related to skills and family relationships.
In large measure, former President Donald Trump was defeated by the Chinese virus.
For the first time in my memory, I went to buy a refrigerator in New York in November 2020 and was told that I would have to wait 8 weeks owing to supply side disruptions caused by the trade war between the US and China. After four months with my family and friends in the US, I can assure you that unemployment hurts. Sure, you get the dole or unemployment benefits, but what do you tell your family?
Joe Biden will need to tackle several issues all at once:
1) The virus. He has promised 100 million jabs within his first days in office (400,000 Americans are dead already and the number is growing).
2) The economy. 20 million Americans lost their jobs in the first four months of last year. Employment picked up, but has plateaued since. 10 million Americans are still unemployed and millions more underemployed. Biden will spend madly, to stimulate the economy. Money in American pockets means they will spend it in shops and restaurants, they are not used to depositing it in the bank.
3) Domestic cleavage. We all know that a traumatized America is split down the middle, black/white, pro- and anti-immigration, pro- and anti-European, pro- and anti-foreign adventures etc.
4) Foreign relations. America led the free world for most of the last century and developed global respect and admiration among the people of the world, despite its frequent arrogant ill-advised escapades that hurt many people, and thrilled others. The Biden administration will repair its relationship with its friends and allies and come back into the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement. The era when America could afford (politically, economically, militarily) to be the sole Rambo of the world has ended.
Joe Biden will need to address these issues, he has to heal America, and his elderly avuncular image will be a major asset. He comes from small-town America and he understands the values and sentiments that make America what it is. And as he said, to heal we must remember. He comes across as calm, gentle, honest, reassuring, while Donald Trump was abrasive, mercurial, intolerant. He will change America’s tone. His final day as President-elect was characterized by the humanity that has sustained Biden through his long and unpredictable career, through heartbreak and triumph, political headwinds and lucky breaks. Biden is a man with a beating Irish heart, a father who lost a wife, a daughter and a son before their time, a politician who has built his loyal base around a shared fluency of grief.
“I know these are dark times, but there’s always light,” he said. “That’s what makes this state (Delaware) so special, that’s what it taught me… there’s always light.”
Biden seemed acutely aware of his position in history, as the Vice President to the first Black President and the governing partner of the first woman Vice President. He recalled the last time he had been on his way to the White House. “Twelve years ago, I was waiting at the train station in Wilmington for a Black man to pick me up on our way to Washington where we were sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States of America,” he said. “And here we are today, my family and I, about to return to Washington to meet a Black woman of South Asian descent to be sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States.
“As I told Beau (his late son) on that station waiting for Barack, I said, ‘Don’t tell me things can’t change’,” he recalled. “They can and they do. That’s America…A place of hope and light and limitless possibilities.”
As I heard him speak, I was reminded of India’s gift to the world, Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “…in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.”
Whether it was the mess in America in 1968 or the mess that it is in today, America will (like India always) self-correct. It must, for people like you and I who cherish freedom and liberty and the human spirit. How America heals and resurrects itself will set another example for the people of nations like China or Pakistan or North Korea or even Iran (as some would say) on how to become responsible global citizens again.
In our own country, Punjab and Kashmir and the Northeast have been through stormy times. They, and the rest of the country suffered hugely. But then the spirit of Mother India, Bharat Ma, triumphed and India was back where it is destined to be.
The world wants America back. Even when our minds disagreed with what the US did, our hearts were always with it.
Of course, some Democrats would want Biden to go after Donald Trump and find every skeleton in the former President’s cupboard. There is the pressing issue of impeachment. If it goes ahead, will that heal America or further polarize it? Remember that there are millions of Americans who still swear by Donald Trump and they should not be dismissed out of hand.
What will Trump’s legacy be?
1) He obliterated the Islamic State and told some Islamic nations where to get off, dividing them most effectively and breaking their animosity to Israel.
2) He tried to fix a broken immigration system.
3) He called out China and its deceit.
4) He shook up the moribund UN system.
5) He saw clearly which nations would play a rapidly growing role in their regions and in the world (India is the most significant example of this) and befriended them.
Where did he go wrong?
He was not serious about the deadly virus in the early months. He was less than honest with the people of America. Donald Trump defeated himself, he is the architect of his own political demise. Within four years he lost the White House, the House and the Senate. As a bad loser, he did not attend his successor’s swearing-in. He is the first President in America, even in the world, who provoked an insurrection against his own nation.
I begin with a story.
In 1781, this British fellow surrendered to George Washington in Yorktown, leading to America’s full independence. Five years later he became Governor General of India and laid the foundation of British rule in India. His name was Charles Cornwallis.
Having traversed a rocky trail, the best definition of the new US-Indian relationship is the catchline of the old Virginia Slims cigarettes for women advertisement of the 1970s: You’ve come a long way, baby. And for those enlightened Americans who prefer free and democratic India over repressive and murderous China, I respond with another catchline from a mid-1990s Indian Pepsi advertisement: Yehi hai right choice, baby!
In 2020, when doctors suggested that hydroxychloroquine could protect us from the Chinese virus, Indians removed the ban on its export to send a consignment to America. And Donald Trump said: “India has been great…we shall never forget.”
This is what the world loves about India—our willingness at all times to help those who reach out to us and to do it selflessly.
2,500 years ago, a thinker named Chanakya had wisely said that there can be no friendship without self-interest. Our self-interest with all nations is peace and friendship so that we can get on with the business of development.
During the Cold War, no resident of the White House or the Kremlin could change things till Mikhail Gorbachev came along and decided on new policies (glasnost and perestroika) to resurrect Soviet strength.
We all know what happened.
In the half century after the Second War, the US sought alliances wherever it could, to contain the communist threat. Along with many other nations, we preferred nonalignment. Our relationship remained in stasis. America saw us as Soviet sidekicks, we saw the USA as a big bully.
In the mid-1960s, with India’s agriculture in deep stress (monsoon failure, war, infestations) India received 9 and 11 million tonnes of US food grains under America’s PL-480 programme. This was the largest import of food in human history, but in its handling, it became a public relations disaster.
In 1971, the attempt to coerce India in favour of Pakistan (even though we had never been a security threat to the USA) is still remembered. US misreading of the Bangladesh crisis greatly damaged bilateral relations.
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 saw a reassessment on both sides of their relationship, more on our side as major perceived irritants were removed—US mollycoddling of Pakistan and India’s soft corner for the USSR.
America got interested in the July 1999 Kargil crisis not because Pakistan had engineered it, but because it felt that it could escalate to a nuclear exchange. Even as late as December 1999, when we were bewildered by the hijack of our plane to Afghanistan, our American friends felt shy of helping us.
9/11 brought home to America the danger of Islamic terrorism, something we had been suffering since the late 1980s. Then America wanted to co-opt us in the global war on terror.
Over the past 20 years, the bilateral relationship has strengthened, partly because America’s China fantasy (since 1972) has soured.
In inter-state relations, the big and strong ones carry what I call the burden of power differential. This margin of superiority prompts them to manage international affairs in accordance with their national interests and values. Nations form friendships or alliances when their economic interests or security is threatened. Principles are often trumped by practicalities—optics is not as important as output.
When NATO was formed (North Atlantic only) in 1949, there were two big bad fellows in the room, one a has-been (Germany) and the other rising (USSR). With Germany’s incorporation into NATO in 1954, only one bad fellow remained. It became a battle of ideologies, till 1991.
Over the last few years, a new scoundrel has come into stark relief. Chinese Whispers was once a party game. A message would be relayed in hushed tones through a long line of people and emerge at the other end amusingly garbled. The name survives as a figure of speech; an idiom used to signify how facts or a story tend to get twisted over time and distance.
Ping-Pong’s boasts about the supreme power of China has engendered a growing hubris about China’s self-perception as the main driver of global development and an indispensable factor in world peace and prosperity, even claiming that it is “the only splendid civilisation in human history with an uninterrupted record of more than five thousand years” (it used to be 3,000 till a former Chinese leader visiting Egypt was told that the pyramids were built 5,000 years ago and promptly extended China’s antiquity by 2,000).
When the Indian military fought back in June 2020, and smashed China’s face, the myth of the mighty PLA was shattered, perhaps forever. It will be remembered as an event that seriously damaged China’s self-proclaimed image of supreme strength. Even China’s shoe-polisher Pakistan is rattled. The US defence establishment now looks at us with new respect, as we have proved our mettle.
The Chinese military is not invincible. If it were, they would have taken Taiwan and parts of Vietnam long ago. Salami slicing and terrorism are the tactics of the weak, to fight a surreptitious war.
Thanks to China’s abusive belligerence, the still solidifying Quad has willy-nilly become the core of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision. It seems headed for a tough security-oriented core with a softer and inclusive exoskeleton that prioritizes the developmental agenda. US no longer wants to go it alone, reflecting its self-perception that it is too expensive to be the sole Rambo of the world. The pandemic has stoked Chinese aggression, from the East and South China Seas to eastern Ladakh, and it has provided others with opportunities to cooperate in maritime security, cyber-security, data flows, quality infrastructure and healthcare. The Indo-Pacific is being redefined, ironically, by China’s Bilk and Rob, sorry Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), debt-trap diplomacy, fictional territorial claims, and a divide-and-rule strategy.
If the dumb Chinese leadership thought that a change of guard in the White House would be manna from heaven, Joe Biden earliest actions should be a rude shock.
Even before winning the elections, Biden had said: “I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first”. The President-elect was quoted as saying. “America first”—isn’t that Donald Trump’s invention? And Biden’s America First is huge government investments in research in energy, biotech, advanced materials, and artificial intelligence.
Joe Biden stressed that his “goal would be to pursue trade policies that actually produce progress on China’s abusive practices—that’s stealing intellectual property, dumping products, illegal subsidies to corporations” and forcing “tech transfers” from US companies to their Chinese counterparts.
For good measure, Joe Biden said that he would immediately try to bring America’s allies on “the same page” in dealing with China—in other words a united front against China.
With India, the United States has made a strategic bet: that India will decisively shape the geo-military balance in Asia, including Afghanistan. I believe the US will win this bet.
If India continues to maintain an advantage over China along its Himalayan frontier and sustain its dominance in the Indian Ocean, US efforts to deny Beijing a regional sphere of influence will succeed.
Against China, India is by far the more experienced and battle-hardened party, having fought a series of limited and low-intensity conflicts in its recent past—from the Kargil conflict of 1999 to the cross-border artillery shelling, special operations forces (SOF) raids, and aerial skirmishing.
A more capable India also has a rallying effect on other regional democracies, such as Japan and Australia, that seek to avert a future in which China extends a sphere of influence over its periphery.
During former US President Donald Trump’s February 2020 visit, the India-US relationship was declared to be a Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. China was clearly the elephant in the room, when President Trump contrasted the Indian system with an unnamed country that “seeks power through coercion, intimidation and aggression”. This common perception of China will not change under President Joe Biden, unless Beijing completely reverses course.
Is the moon made of cheese?
At a financial seminar in Shanghai a few weeks ago, the poster child of Chinese success, Jack Ma (founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba) said that China did not have a financial system. His posters have been torn down.
The world was in bed with China for 30 years. The divorce (decoupling) has started, but will be long and messy.
In an attempt to redeem China’s genial image, a Chinese travel agency is offering an eight-day trip to Shanghai and Beijing from the US (including flights, hotels and tours) for US$299, fully refundable, for travel in 2021-2022. There have been few takers so far.
China suffers from severe TDS, Trust Deficiency Syndrome. To over 200 countries, China sent its visiting card. It said “Virus”. India is sending its own visiting card to dozens of nations. It reads “Vaccine”.
China has comprehensively left the global friendship stakes.
Ambassador Dr Deepak Vohra is Special Advisor to Prime Minister, Lesotho, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau; and Special Advisor to Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils, Leh and Kargil.
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