Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
The rhetoric could hardly have been warmer – “This has been a very special visit – unforgettable, extraordinary” said the President. As such, the trip will be remembered more for the images it produced in absence of any major deals that were signed. A crowd in excess of 100,000 people cheered the president, providing the Trump 2020 team with the kind of statesmanlike footage that may be viewed in stark contrast to his Democratic rivals bickering with one another on the debate stage.
A disciplined Donald Trump steered clear of some of the thornier domestic issues that had the capacity to side-track his trip. The visit has been bookended by some of the deadliest religious unrest seen in Delhi for decades. When asked about India’s controversial new citizenship law, he deferred to it as a matter that was “up to India”.
Elsewhere, there was no sign of the isolationist ‘America First’ agenda often assigned to the president when he travels abroad. Trump made fresh his offer to mediate cross-border talks between India and Pakistan. “Kashmir obviously is a big problem between India and Pakistan. They are going to work out their problem. They have been doing it for a long time”. There is no visible signal that either Narenda Modi or Imran Khan will take him up on the offer any time soon.
The visit left the President with just about enough to sell to a domestic audience. Such international trips are designed to be the apex of defence, security and trade talks that have taken place bilaterally in the preceding months. In this instance, Trump and Modi were able to announce some small-scale deals, including India’s purchase of $3 billion of American-made military hardware.
From a British perspective, it came with a warning label. In signing off a deal that takes the total value of US military equipment sales to India to over $20 billion since 2007, the president pitched the US as “India’s premier defence partner”.
At the very same time that the UK Government is orchestrating a comprehensive security and defence review, those comments will have caused grave concern at the Ministry of Defence. What is more, they come in lieu of the Government’s decision to grant Huawei partial access to our future 5G infrastructure, which poses a potentially existential threat to the UK’s future involvement in the ‘Five Eyes’ security network.
The transatlantic relationship is special, but the US and UK are by no means exclusive. And if this President stands to gain from cosying up that little bit closer to one regime for personal and political expedience, no thought will be spared for what it means for America’s other historic allies.
The view from London
As the President’s visit to India draws to its conclusion, thoughts turn to how he could be comparably received in London. The context could hardly be any more different compared to his previous visit in June 2019.
Trump is known to base his foreign policy dealings on the strength of personal relationships. With Theresa May, the two appeared a frosty, at times awkward pair. But she was barely surviving. Boris Johnson is thriving.
Since being returned to Downing Street with a glowing majority, talk of him receiving the President in a formal visit has subsided. But once the Government has published its negotiating objectives for talks with the US next week, we can reasonably expect the rumours of a presidential visit to increase again. That gives Downing Street significant food for thought. If we assume that Trump will visit London without any major trade deal or announcements to sign in a glossy ceremony, what might the visit’s purpose be?
Defence cooperation between Washington and London remains healthy – for now – but a major announcement on arms sales akin to India’s seems less likely given the UK is itself a major defence exporter.
In terms of optics, the White House will be wary of walking into the kind of staged protests that surrounded the president’s trip to the UK in June 2019. Polling at just 18 per cent popularity in the UK with YouGov, Downing Street might have a better chance of packing adoring fans into Craven Cottage than Wembley Stadium.
Narendra Modi led 100,000 fans in chants of “Namaste Trump!” at the world’s largest cricket stadium. One can imagine Johnson orchestrating chants appealing to the president’s ego, but the chorus of protest outside would almost certainly overwhelm.
In Ahmedabad, the president stuck to a tightly written script, only occasionally stumbling over local pronunciations. Thankfully, Ben Stokes and Trent Alexander-Arnold cause less twists of the tongue than Sachin Tendulkar.
Given the strength of direct relationship between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, we can reasonably expect a future visit to be equally high on political affection and light on substance.
In an election year, the President would want to continue to boost his image as a statesman on the world stage. The Prime Minister stands to gain from hosting our closest ally – but doing so comes with caution. In any bilateral press conference, journalists will be lining up to ask about chlorine-washed chicken and NHS privatisation in a future US-UK trade deal. In India, the president dodged difficult questions by saying “I don’t want to blow the two days plus two days of travel on one answer…So I will be very conservative in my answers if you don’t mind”. What chances of comparable levels of moderation in a future visit to London?