The emerging India-U.S. role reversal in world leadership

Modi-trumpBy Frank F. Islam,

For the last half of the 20th century, the United States was the world’s beacon for democracy and economic development and India was a laggard. These roles are reversing as the end of the second decade of the 21st century approaches.

India is becoming a beacon and the US is becoming a flashlight. In large part, this is a consequence of leadership.

India has a leader in Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is pursuing the future. The US has a leader in Donald Trump who is pursuing the past. President Trump is emphasising individualism and isolationism. Prime Minister Modi is stressing engagement and expansionism.

Freedom House, in its annual report titled “Freedom in the World 2018” released in January, noted that “A long list of troubling developments contributed to the global decline of democracy, but perhaps most striking was the accelerating withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to promoting and supporting democracy.”

The report’s aggregate Freedom Score rating (aggregate score) for the US in 2017 was 86 out of 100 points. Its aggregate score for India was 77. This shows that, overall, on the dimensions being measured, the US scores higher. But its score has dropped substantially from 94 in 2008.

Today the majority of the countries that rate 90 and above on their aggregate scores are older and smaller. They do not have the size or stature to assume the international democratic leadership mantle if America under the Trump Administration relinquishes it.

India does. In the last part of 2017, as Prime Minister Modi called for more democratic processes and participation in India’s political parties, it appears that he may encourage the country to step forward to take on that obligation.

Time will tell how this plays out. What is certain, at this point, based upon Modi’s opening address at the Davos Word Economic Forum on January 23, is that the Prime Minister is using India’s democracy as a selling point and putting the country centre stage in terms of its own economic growth and promotion of international cooperation.

In his Davos remarks, Modi stressed that India is the “largest democracy on planet Earth” and provided a litany of the enormous opportunities for companies to invest in “inclusive economic development”. He also struck a strong free-trade, globalisation note while calling for international unity to address the issues of climate change, terrorism and protectionism.

Modi didn’t directly say that India is open for business. But his message, throughout his comments, was that it is.

Trump, on the other hand, in his closing address at Davos, stated explicitly that “America is open for business…” But the implicit message, throughout his comments, was that it is not.

At various points during his speech, Trump asserted: “As President, I will always put America first…”; “The United States will no longer turn a blind eye to unfair economic practices…”; “My administration is proud to have led historic efforts… to de-nuke the Korean peninsula”.

According to press reports, Trump’s speech was fairly well received while he stayed on script. Trump was, however, booed when he answered a question after concluding his prepared remarks by declaring, “…it wasn’t until I became a politician that I realised how nasty, how mean, how vicious and how fake the press can be.”

Therein lies the rub. Even in a setting where President Trump was trying to present his more cooperative side, his inherent combative nature and self-centred perspective came though. By contrast, Prime Minister Modi was collaborative and ecumenical in his presentation of self and India. This was most evident when he concluded his speech by observing:

“If you want wealth with wellness, work in India; if you want peace with prosperity, live in India; if you want health with whole life, be in India. And our promise is that your agenda will be part of our destiny. We both will have a shared and successful future.”

To sum up: Trump’s nationalistic communication to the world at Davos was “My way or no highway.” Modi’s was “Our way is the skyway.”

America’s retrenchment under Trump leaves a leadership vacuum in the world. India under Modi appears poised to fill that vacuum.

What stands out and is differentiating about Modi is his espousing a positive and constructive agenda in terms of world involvement. There is no assurance exactly where India will conclude its journey to world leadership. It can however be stated unequivocally near the beginning of 2018 that India is on the right trajectory and climbing upward.

It can be stated with equal certainty that the US is not. It is on a glide path headed downward. This is true because those who live in the past and retreat from the playing field are restricting their future.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington, DC. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at ffislam@verizon.net)

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