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Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin Comes to India—but US Does Not Enjoy the Upper Hand

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with Lloyd Austin.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with Lloyd Austin.

This administration has shown that it is willing to inflict serious and permanent damage to the US relationships built over years.

On May 16, 2020, when the world was in the grip of COVID-19 panic, current secretary of state Antony Blinken tweeted a particularly curious line from a particularly delusional article from The New York Times: “According to a WH advisor, Mr Xi remarked he would rather deal with Mr Trump than Democrats who dwell on human rights”. That remark, like most articles coming out of legacy US news outlets these days, it seems was entirely accurate—except that it was just half the truth. As the Biden administration has had to endure the ignominy of a series of snubs from one international leader after another while ham-handedly punishing important allies, the reality doesn’t seem to have dawned on the Democrats: that they are seen as ideologically inflexible, driven by dogmatic talking points masquerading as expertise, simply not worth negotiating with.

The debacles of the Biden administration are self-inflicted. Honestly, who can take a President seriously when his administration withholds F-35 sales to the UAE and removes Houthis from a terror list? The whole cornerstone of the US security policy in the Middle East was that normalisation of relations with a key US ally like Israel would bring disproportionate security benefits. However, it now seems that unless regional allies pick up the tab for the US foreign peccadilloes like the Iran Nuclear deal and sacrifice their own interests at the altar of the “expertise” of DC think-tanks, they will be actively punished. These self-goals don’t go unnoticed, and presumably North Korea picked up on the cues. Consequently, given Biden’s harsh rhetoric during the elections, calling Kim Jong-un a “thug” and preconditioning talks on denuclearisation, the secret “outreach” to the North was seen, predictably, as a major climb down. Expectedly, the North Korean snub was resounding—Kim Yo-jong (Kim Jong-un’s sister) bluntly asked the US to “better refrain from causing a stink at its first step”.

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The international humiliation only seems to pile on. While intemperate remarks have been passed on as characteristically Trump, the reality is Biden is probably far worse. If he learned nothing from name calling Kim Jong-un, this week, he proceeded to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a killer. Again, there came a sharp rebuke from Putin saying, “it takes one to know one”. But the piece de resistance was reserved for Blinken—with his May 2020 tweet coming back to haunt him at a meeting with the Chinese in Alaska. He was sharply (and very accurately) reminded that he “did not come from a position of strength” before being subjected to a rhetorical assault from the Chinese. It is easy to dismiss the Russian and Chinese snubs as mere rhetoric. But as the North Korean examples show us, the sudden vigour of the US adversaries in openly humiliating the US is coupled with an actual hardening of policies in a way that was impossible under Trump—where one had to measure words and actions given Trump’s notorious (and many would argue strategically beneficial) unpredictability.


Therein lies the Democrat’s dilemma, one that their halo of self-importance will never let them acknowledge. Non-European governments in general would prefer talking to Trump any day, because despite the seemingly erratic behaviour he focused on tangibles. Democrats in general (though to be fair also the non-Trump GoP) prefer focusing on “Narratives”— which are viewed by the rest of the world as painful, airy-fairy gobbledygook. The reason Europe is different and prefers Democrats is because they too, like the Democrats, are high on their “narratives”, what used to be called “singing Kumbaya”.

It is in this background—after systematically destroying already unstable relations with North Korea, Russia, China, and unnecessarily alienating allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE— that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has landed in India. He comes here not from a position of strength but, as the Chinese so perspicaciously reminded us, of weakness. Yet paradoxically, this is also when the dogma and self-delusion of Democrats are most dangerous, in that their propensity to destroy relations with an ally like India for ideological purposes is higher than ever before. Presumably, this will come wrapped in what now seems to be imminent sanctions under CAATSA for India’s purchase of S-400 missile system from Russia.

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There are, of course, several valid reasons for the purchase of the S-400. To start with, given the Chinese also have the system, it was essential for India to purchase some—after all, if you have the opportunity to stress test your enemy’s most potent system against your frontline aircraft and missiles, why wouldn’t you? After all, if the US had not sold its AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile to the Pakistanis, we wouldn’t need a system like S-400. After all, if the US hadn’t vetoed the sale of the Israeli Arrow missile system to India in the early 2000s, we wouldn’t need the S-400 in the anti-ballistic missile role now. None of these points escaped the Trump administration—but one has to wonder if these points deliberately miss the Biden administration. However, India’s room for manoeuvre here is limited. It is far better suited to making technical arguments than fall into the trap of rhetorical ones that revolve around issues like “sovereignty”. Given the single-point agenda of the Biden administration seems shoring up the now discredited “expertise” of Washington’s “policy community”, rhetorical arguments will only be used to justify sanctions.

Ultimately this boils down to the fact that policies and governments are made and managed by humans—and their implementation is prone to pique, jealousy and vindictiveness. With Trump we had to contend with one individual and his carefully calculated unpredictability. With Biden we have to compensate for the inadequacies and consequent vindictiveness of several hundred. This administration has shown that it is willing to inflict serious and permanent damage to the US relationships built over years—its ability to direct that malice towards India must not be underestimated.

Disclaimer:Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Views expressed are personal.
first published:March 20, 2021, 17:11 IST