As I begin a few weeks stay in the United States my mind goes back to the years I spent in this nation's capital three decades ago. That was Reagan's America and now its Trumps. Reagan was unconventional as is Trump, both outsiders to the traditional ways of Washington D C; but there the comparison ends. Very different personalities they led a different America in a different world. The common factor that remains—America was then, as is now, the world's pre-eminent and most powerful country.
Through the 1980s the cold war continued to define the international landscape. The groups that the two protagonists-the US and the Soviet Union- led were firm as was a third group of developing countries that tried, with varying success, to preserve their strategic autonomy. Deng Xiaoping had started China on the road to reform but its emergence as a global power was not on the horizon yet. Now, the cold war and the Soviet Union is a remote memory, developing countries still face a long road ahead and the preservation of their autonomy and unity is a difficult challenge and China is marching ahead seeking to be in the same bracket as the US.
More fundamentally, the last thirty years have witnessed the emergence and spread of digital technology. Reagan's America witnessed the beginning of the personal computer but mobile telephony was still some years away and the internet still further down the road. The digital age has impacted on every facet of global public and international life. However, even a few days stay here reveals that in the transactions of daily life, interestingly, some small establishments even in the US still transact business only in cash!
Reagan healed a country divided by the defeat in the Vietnam war and the humiliation of seeing its diplomats held in four hundred days of captivity in Iran. He was a great communicator who calmed America. At the same time, he decided to confront the Soviets and succeed in the cold war. The Reagan era coincided with the erosion of Soviet power because of its internal contradictions. Its disastrous involvement in Afghanistan contributed to the decline. Reagan exploited Soviet weaknesses and within three years of his leaving office the Soviet Union had imploded. The US was left as the sole super power promoting universal values and free trade. It also became the anchor for the processes of globalisation.
Trump's America is deeply divided. On the one side is his constituency which consists of the very large numbers left behind in a swiftly changing globalised world. They espouse hard nationalism and are unwilling to make compromises. On the other side are those who see America's retreat into an insular fortress as disastrous for itself and the world at large. Nothing captures this better than the diametrically opposite programming on two leading TV channels, Fox and CNN just prior to the country's independence day, July 4.
Fox News focussed on the American Independence Day. Its programmes touched upon the patriotism of the American people and the founding fathers of the nation. On the issues of the day, especially the separation of children from their parents who have been caught trying to illegally enter the country it is fully supporting Trump. CNN largely ignoring Independence Day provided full and critical coverage to the iniquity of separating children and parents, a practice that Trump has had to rescind after a public outcry. CNN also highlighted the difficulties of connecting all children and their parents. Interestingly in this polarised country if there is an attempt to find common ground on divisive issues it is not visible.
In a 5-4 decision the US Supreme Court recently overturned lower court decisions and upheld Trump's policy to virtually ban travel from certain Islamic countries to America. The majority view was based on the ground that the President's powers to control immigration for national security could not be curtailed. Trump has hailed the court judgement which reflects the temper and direction America is taking.
US political attention will now turn to Trump appointing a conservative judge in the vacancy created by the resignation of a liberal judge. He has the opportunity to influence US social and political evolution for many years, if not decades, to come. Trump will announce his choice on June 9 and one of the judges he is considering for nomination is of Indian origin—Judge Thapar of the Federal Appeals Court.
Three decades ago India was marginal in American thinking. In that era of full support to the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets, Pakistan was the frontline state and, hence, an indispensable ally. Now that is completely changed. This change is reflected, among other matters in the access of Indian diplomats to all areas of official and non-official US public life. Indian envoys had to struggle to get meetings with senior members of the Reagan administration, legislators and business leaders. To most legislators India was a democratic country which was inexplicably aligned with the Soviets and US business saw no opportunities in a socialist India.
Today Indian diplomats are welcomed everywhere as representatives of an emerging country that can take on China. India's essentially free market policies and being open to business has changed the attitude of big US corporations. Naturally there will be difficulties in some areas of bilateral relations because of Trump's America first approach but the positive direction of the relationship seems set.