In the short period since he assumed power, President Trump has already done much to change the way the US Administration sets about its business. There is the highly personalized style of functioning, the frequent tweets, the prolonged meetings with the media, the unabashed candour, the combativeness, the unpredictability — nothing quite like it has been seen before. The campaign mode of reaching out that carried Trump to glory seems to have been retained even after his installation, and there has been little letup in the rush: some setbacks, like the departure of the National Security Adviser, have been taken in stride, and some appointments like those of Cabinet-level officials have run into difficulty without any real loss of momentum. Style and substance have both been amended in the new White House, to the delight of some and the distress of others: either way the world is getting used to the new dispensation.
While Trump puts the particular interests of his country well ahead of any other commitment, which was one of the major themes of his election campaign, like his predecessors he has been unable to detach himself from the inescapable realities of dealing with the rest of the world. There have been many contacts between him and other world leaders who have been quick to reach out and try to establish a good basis for future relations. Some awkward passages have had to be negotiated, like that involving the President of Mexico whose country has been the main target of populist sentiment against immigration into USA, which is a major issue that led to the cancellation of a projected visit by the Mexican leader. Another early exchange that did not play out well was the initial telephone conversation between Trump and Australian PM Turnbull which, according to media reports, led to strongly expressed disagreement between them. This was unexpected for Australia which is regarded as the most steadfast of US allies.
But if there are issues and situations where some diplomatic balm may be needed, there are also some where more favourable indications about the future have emerged, none more striking than the outcome of the conversations between Trump and Putin, which seem to have been cordial and to have put US-Russian relations back on track after a period of strain. Not long ago, the USA imposed sanctions on some aspects of its relations with Russia, and the two countries were conspicuously at odds on matters like Syria and Ukraine. Trump even at that juncture, when he was still a presidential candidate, took a different, less critical view of Russia which he thought could be handled better through deal-making rather than finger-pointing. Now, after two apparently cordial conversations between the leaders, the two countries may be able to establish better mutual understanding. Should these two pre-eminent nuclear powers be able to find sufficient common ground they could move on to renewal of nuclear agreements that have been under question as a result of the recent deterioration in their relations. Trump still has to establish his credentials as a global statesman but strengthened arrangements for nuclear restraint between the USA and Russia would be a good start.
If Russia has reason to be pleased with these developments, others among countries that are long-time US allies may be less content. Trump has been skeptical of the value of advantages of alliances involving his country, preferring an untrammelled ability to pursue the national interest as he sees it without being tied down to collective arrangements. He has expressed disdain for NATO, to the considerable unease of the many members who regard NATO as the bedrock of their security, and its expansion into East Europe as a highly desirable strategic goal. Major European nations have been taken aback and will be keen to see some effort to restore the primacy of NATO in their security affairs. One of the key issues that provoked this observation from Trump is his belief that Europe is not paying its way in NATO and is leaning too heavily on the commitment and investment of USA. This is not the first time that US leaders have tried to chivvy European partners into assuming what they consider to be a fair share in their own defence arrangements. The rights and wrongs of it can, and no doubt will, be debated at some length but Trump's views are now at the centre of the discussion. And as relations with NATO come under the US scanner, so too relations with the EU, whose elaborate procedures and other collective preoccupations are not apparently to Trump's taste. He seems more responsive to the aggressive nationalism of the new crop of political aspirants who are now bidding for power in Europe.
Worth noting, too, among these early indications, is Trump's readiness for conciliatory gestures towards China. Over the previous year there has been plenty of criticism of China for its economic policies, and after being elected Trump spoke to the Taiwan President, to China's predictable annoyance, but he has since reaffirmed the USA's 'One China' policy, which is the essential prerequisite for sustainable relations. The new US Secretary of State, Tillerson, took advantage of the meeting of the Group of 20 (G-20) to affirm US policy on this issue. This affirmation comes after a period of stress in US-China relations when the USA and its allies showed concern at Chinese actions in the South China Sea and what looked like a more aggressive Chinese activism in the region as a whole. The South China Sea will doubtless remain a matter of contention between China and many other actors, including the USA, but for now Trump's One-China declaration may encourage efforts to keep matters under control.
US priorities having shifted as they have, that country's changing relationships with its partners, as well as its antagonists, now require careful assessment. Trump's style of functioning can be disquieting but that should not obscure the substance of his message. India has not been much affected by the changeover in Washington, notwithstanding its concerns about matters like the visa issue, but it has to maintain the tempo and ensure that relations with the USA develop satisfactorily. Modi seeks an early date for his US visit, which is as it should be, for as always, good rapport at the leadership level could be the important key. After establishing conspicuously friendly links with the previous US leader, India's PM will have to begin again with the present incumbent. However, bilateral ties are now well grounded and can be expected to continue to prosper in the future.
The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.