Michael Kugelman: Covid will have a bigger impact on world order than anything else since end of Cold War

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A Biden presidency will not lead to any notable changes in the U.S.-India relationship, the South Asia expert says.

"Frank Islam thumbsize"Michael Kugelman is a Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, Washington DC. A well-known South Asia expert, he has edited, or co-edited a number of books on the region.

Recently, Kugelman spoke to Frank Islam on the geopolitical impact of Covid-19, US-India relations, strategic interests in South Asia and the Afghan peace process, among other issues. The interview, originally streamed by the South Asia Monitor, has been edited for clarity.

Frank Islam: How do you see the geopolitical implications of Coronavirus and Covid-19, which is a global crisis? On the U.S. interests in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, do you see a vastly different world emerging from it in months and years to come? As you know, this will test our patience, our will and our wisdom. Do you think President Trump can rise to meet this challenge?

Michael Kugelman: A lot of great questions there, Frank. I cannot overstate the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic will have on the world and on the world order. I think for so long my generation had seen the 9/11 attacks as a “seminal moment” as the one incident that had such a consequential impact on how the world was and how it changed. But I would argue that the coronavirus pandemic has had a bigger impact, will have a bigger impact on the world order than anything else since the end of the Cold War. It is because, not just the global politics and international economics, but also the way that societies interact, I think, will change a lot after this pandemic. In terms of what it could mean for the world, I think that so many countries will have shattered economies and will need to turn inward, and focus on repairing those economies. I think that the economic struggles that could ensue could have impacts politically in the sense that it could empower populist nationalists that could be very anti-democratic, and that could, in turn, exacerbate some of the democratic backsliding that we’ve already seen, certainly in Asia and South Asia, and the world on the whole. I think that notions of “power politics” [and] “high politics,” that will take a backseat. I think that so many countries around the world, including our own the United States, will be focused on redirecting attention inward, to try to repair economies and go from there. Now, in terms of how President Trump [will rise to the challenge], one could argue that he was very late — he’s not alone, many leaders were late — in understanding and recognizing the scope of the coronavirus threat. He’s responded too late. Now that he is responding, I think that’s a good thing. He’s got a very impressive… several different coronavirus committees that are trying to lead responses. He’s got some of the top medical experts in the world working directly for him like [Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony] Fauci. But what you need above everything else is coordination at the top and a clear strategy. Unfortunately, I still don’t think there is a single clear-cut strategy from the administration on how to move forward.

Let me turn our attention to the status of the U.S.-India relationship after Trump’s visit to India in February. What did Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi accomplish with this trip to-date? No trade deal has been signed, none seems to be on the anvil in the future. To my understanding, the Trump visit was more symbolism than substance. I would also argue that the visit directly benefited Trump. With Indian American community, he has gained a lot of popularity, and they potentially are the people who could contribute to his campaign. But unfortunately a vast majority of Indian Americans are Democrats and not Republican. So do you think the visit was aimed at getting votes from the India diaspora, or was it more than that?

I do think that Trump’s visit to India delivered a major boost to the U.S.-India relationship. I think it’s very significant that a president, who is notoriously averse to long-distance travel, made the very long trip to India at a time when he knew that there was not going to be any type of major deal. He’s all about deals. He knew that this long negotiated trade agreement was not going to be finalized in time for his visit. So the fact that he still went to India, I think, that that sort of, in itself, is a victory and a good thing for the relationship. I think that the speech that he gave in Gujarat, which was to a huge crowd of Indians, what 80,000-90,000, whatever the number is…

It was very well received…

Michael Kugelman

Yeah, it was very well received because his speech writers had done their homework. They had actually conveyed a sense that President Trump understood the political and cultural history of India. And then he had meetings with Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi that yielded a very expansive joint statement that outlined a lot of areas of potential cooperation. But to your question about the domestic political factor for Trump, absolutely. You know I said before, it’s impressive that someone that doesn’t like to travel long distances went so far away to spend time in India. Trump would not have made the trip, Frank, in my view, if there was not going to be that big rally that he gave in Gujarat because President Trump wanted to be able to go to India, give a speech to 80,000-90,000 screaming Indians, come back to the U.S. and tell the Indian American community, “Look, I went to India and spoke before a hundred thousand, a hundred and twenty thousand Indians screaming my name. Because Trump knows, as you noted, that the Indian American community tends to vote Democrat. It’s interesting the Indian American community is very supportive of Modi in many ways, but it’s not all that supportive of Trump, and Trump is trying to change that. So I think he did want to use, he wanted to derive a domestic political benefit for himself out of this trip to India. But I think that his trip to India puts the U.S.-India [relations] in a good, strong position to really take off. The joint statement that came out after his meeting with Modi outlined a huge … number of areas to cooperate in. And I would highlight energy, in particular. We talked about security being the main element of the relationship, but you know there were two energy deals during Trump’s trip. They weren’t major deals, but they were deals. U.S. energy exports to India have gone up significantly over the last two years. There’s this strategic energy partnership. I think that’s one area that could really see a lot of growth in this relationship.

As you know, we are we going to have an election in November. You could potentially have a new president, and that could be a Democrat, that could be [former Vice President Joe] Biden. How do you see the trajectory of India-U.S. relationship under a Biden presidency? Do you think Modi’s [close ties to] the Republican Party will be an obstacle to ties under a democratic presidency? Do you think Joe Biden will be better for U.S.-India relationship, and he’ll promote the Obama’s vision of defining partnership in the 21st century? You know Trump stayed silent on the religious prosecution [in India], on the talks about the human rights violations and also freedom of press, freedom expressions and the [recently enacted] Citizenship Amendment Act. Do you think Biden will speak up, speak out on those top issues because they are central to a vital and vibrant democracy that we believe strongly? Our Constitution calls for religious freedom.

I think that a President Biden would not … lead to any notable changes in the U.S.-India relationship. I think you would enjoy a level of continuity with what it’s had during the Trump years and the Obama years, and the George W. Bush years, for that matter, which has been a focus on moving the relationship forward in a big way. I think that we’ve heard in recent months that the U.S.-India relationship is becoming increasingly partisan in the in the United States, given that it has been liberal and progressive Democrats, particularly on Capitol Hill, that have been most vocal about India’s domestic policies, along the lines of what you suggested, India’s policies in Kashmir, the new citizenship law, which is very controversial. But it has been these progressive Democrats. So if we were to have…

I want to comment on it: the bill, the resolution [which urges India to “end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir”] that was not passed, because they didn’t bring it to the House, that also had sponsorship from the Republicans as well.

It did. You’re right. There was a fairly small number of Republicans and many more Democrats. It was bipartisan, but not in terms of numbers at any rate. Had there been, if we were going to be talking about a President Sanders in the White House, then I think the relationship perhaps could change. And we know, this is not going to happen just because Bernie Sanders has been very critical of India, but Joe Biden is not in that same category. He is what I would describe as a Democratic centrist. I do not think he would be as fixated on the human rights issues, as some of these more liberal Democrats. Now that does not mean that Biden would not push back against India more so than Trump, as I’m sure he would. We remember that Biden served with Barack Obama. Barack Obama, when he was president, went to India. In his last visit to India as president, he made a speech in which he actually gently, but nonetheless, can significantly pushed back and critiqued India for concerns about religious freedom…

And I was there…

Right, you were there. It was a great speech. So I’m sure that Biden would not exactly hold back because Biden is not the type to hold back. But I think compared to other Democrats, more liberal Democrats, you wouldn’t see that type of push back from Biden. But you know if we were to have both chambers of Congress, both the House and the Senate become Democratic controlled, that could provide more space for Democrats of all types to be critical of India. So that could have an impact. But to get an answer to your question, I really don’t think the U.S.-India relationship will change under Biden. I think it would remain strong and consistent. But as to the issue of Modi appearing to favor Candidate Trump, indeed I think he is doing that. Yes, Modi essentially endorsed Trump when he appeared at the “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston. I think that was just not a very good idea at all.

First of all, it’s not a legal thing for a foreign leader to endorse a particular candidate in the United States. I think the relations will stay [the same] because we have a shared interest between the United States and India. Biden will do the consensus-build building to make sure that he can advance the agenda, make sure you can sign a trade deal, make sure that both can work together for shared goals. Let me talk a little bit about the Afghanistan peace process. How do you see Afghanistan’s feature in the AfPak region? There is a lot of for uncertainty. Do you think Taliban will end their violence?  What will be required to bring a meaningful and positive conclusion in Afghanistan? What role did Pakistan play in this peace process?

It’s a very complicated state of affairs in Afghanistan. As you know, there is an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban that calls for a phased US troop withdrawal, if the Taliban fulfills the commitments in the agreement. And there aren’t that many commitments. Mainly the agreement expects the Taliban to deny space to international terrorists in Afghanistan, such as al Qaeda and ISIS. But what the deal was really meant to do was pave the way for formal peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and other Afghan stakeholders, leading to a political settlement. And it’s that element that has not begun yet. I think there’s reason to be concerned that there’s been a long-standing spat between President [Ashraf] Ghani and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah. So long as they had that spat, it’s going to be difficult to move forward in peace talks. The deal between the U.S. and the Taliban said that U.S. troops would complete their withdrawal within 14 months, assuming that the Taliban has begun talks with the with the Afghan government. The deal does not require there to be a peace deal before the U.S. departs. So I think the question is, and it’s quite likely that we could have a situation where you have most, if not all, US troops out of Afghanistan before there is actually a peace deal. And I think that could be very dangerous for Afghanistan. I think the Taliban would have much less incentive to try to negotiate a peace deal with the Afghan government, if it knows that all U.S. troops are leaving. Why wouldn’t it just want to return to the battlefield and try to overthrow the government by force? And at the end of the day, the big question is does the Taliban, is the Taliban truly interested in negotiating a political settlement that would lead to a power-sharing deal in which the Taliban would be operating within the very political system that it has long rejected and vowed to overthrow by force. So to me, that’s the big question. And Pakistan, of course, is very close to the Taliban. Pakistan helped bring the Taliban to the to the table, to have talks with the United States. Pakistan claims that it supports anything that could bring about a peace deal in Afghanistan, but Pakistan is not a magician — if the Taliban is not genuinely interested in negotiating a peace deal, then it’s not going to, no matter what Pakistan may try to do. So I am concerned. Bottom line is, if the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan without a peace deal, Trump’s critics will basically accuse him of surrendering, and that would not play well for him, especially with the election coming up.

I’m not sure that he would do that now. That’s my personal observation. He’s probably wait till the election is over because that will be a very controversial thing to do.

Yes, you’re right. And the actual deal between the U.S. and the Taliban says that all troops shouldn’t be out until 14 months after the deal of signs.

It’s a phased pull out…

Exactly. So we’re looking at April or May of 2021. So that means it would be the next president that will make a decision.

By then you could have a new president, who knows.

Oh, absolutely. It could be a President Biden who has to make that call on whether to pull out.

I want to talk about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, as you know Pakistan is indispensable to U.S. interests as an ally in furthering American interests. Will the U.S.-Pakistan relationship come in the way of development of U.S.-India relationship to some extent? Also how do you see U.S.-Pakistan relationship under a Biden presidency?

It’s a good question. In recent decades, the U.S. tended to look at its relationship with Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan. So the relationship’s highs and lows are tied to what’s going on in Afghanistan. When the U.S. has thought that Pakistan was hindering the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, such as by providing support to the terrorists that attack U.S. troops, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship suffers. When the US thinks Pakistan is being helpful, by helping facilitate talks with the Taliban, then the relationship is in a good place. And that is why the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in a good place right now. So the question is, if we look ahead to a post-America Afghanistan, which is a matter of when not if, I think the question is what happens to the relationship at that point. I think that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will need a new anchor. It will need a new basis once U.S. troops begin leaving. I think the question is whatever President is in power at that point, whether it’s Trump or Biden, whoever else, if they would be willing to look at Pakistan and see it as a country with strategic importance for reasons in itself, that have nothing to do with Afghanistan, because if not, if the conclusion is that Pakistan is not worth dealing with, if the U.S. no longer has a presence in Afghanistan, then I think you could see the relationship start to, not to completely fall apart, but to become a much a weaker relationship. And I think that’ll be the case. I think there’s both sort of a bipartisan consensus in Washington when it comes to Pakistan. There certainly an interest in seeing it succeed, or at least not fall apart. But there’s not really a strong interest in pursuing that relationship in a big way once the U.S. has left Afghanistan. So whether we have Trump still in power or whether we have Biden taking office, I think that position will be similar.

Is there another South Asian country that is vital to U.S. interests, beside India, Pakistan and Afghanistan? This administration seems to not have paid any attention to countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.

Yes, I agree. I would argue that India’s really the only country that the U.S. looks at with a real sharp strategic lens. Pakistan certainly but mainly because of the connection to Afghanistan. And Afghanistan… Certainly China. China’s a whole different story. It’s interesting the U.S. has an Indo-Pacific policy that the Trump administration came out with. It’s a lot like Obama’s Asia rebalance, only has a different name. The idea is to deepen relations with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, which until recently were defined by Washington as the countries of East Asia and Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. However, what’s interesting is the Trump administration has now come up with a new geographic conception of the Indo-Pacific, which now includes South Asia. You may remember, Frank, that at the Raisina Dialogue, a major summit in India, happened in New Delhi earlier this year, a top Trump administration official, Matt Pottinger, said that the Indo-Pacific now stretches from Kilimanjaro to California, which is a change.

But what’s significant is that now encompasses all of the countries of South Asia. The saying used to be that the U.S. looks at the Indo-Pacific stretching from Bollywood to Hollywood, which is not quite the same. So what this means is the if the U.S. considers all of South Asia to be within the Indo-Pacific rubric, then that suggests, at least rhetorically, that the U.S. views every South Asian country as a key component of the Indo-Pacific strategy, which according to recent documents from the U.S. government, indicated desire to scale up relations on a variety of issues [including] counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, cyber security [and] countering piracy. So potentially, there’s scope for all of the countries of South Asia to be included in this Indo-Pacific strategy.

In US-India relations, defense partnership is the sweet spot, economic ties the Achilles heel: Michael Kugelman

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