Don't Take Rex Tillerson's 100-Year Forecast Too Seriously, The World Is Changing Week To Week

Raman Swamy

Foreign policy pundits in New Delhi do not quite know what to make of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s unusual forecast that the friendship between India and America will last for one hundred years and that Washington and New Delhi will together steer the course of global affairs over the next century.

The official first-reaction in the External Affairs Ministry has been to feel immensely flattered.   Private think tanks and independent strategic observers have not yet got down to serious analysis after the Diwali festivities, but indications are that their first reactions are a mixture of surprise tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism.

There are several factors that have to be studied closely before coming to any assessment about whether Tillerson’s ultra-long-range prediction is based on practical reality or fond hope --  and even whether it is good for India or not to be so closely identified with America’s vision of what the world should look like a hundred years from now.

One factor is that both India and the United States are currently undergoing serious internal churning - the domestic social, economic and political scenarios in both countries are on the threshold of path-breaking changes and unpredictable outcomes.  

To attempt to forge far-reaching foreign policy partnerships and permanent strategic alliances at a time when the entire world appears to be in a state of flux and could be fraught with uncertainty. 
This is just the second decade of the 21st century and nobody can tell what lies ahead – even one year or two years from now, let alone five or ten decades in the future.   China has just come out with its own long range forecast for itself with Chairman Xi astonishing the world with a complex concept of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, an ideological game plan which will take many months to fully understand and decipher.  

That apart, Rex Tillerson’s prophesy that India and the United States will emerge as “two bookends of stability — on either side of the globe” and that the emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership has the potential to determine the direction of the world order in the foreseeable future, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt and accepted as an expression of gushing goodwill more than anything else.  

Particularly when the new foreign policy taking shape under US President Donald Trump is still very much a work in progress and also somewhat of a mystery even for top White House officials, including the Secretary of State himself. 

Rex Tillerson made these remarks during a speech just before beginning a foreign tour which includes stops in India and Pakistan next week.  He was addressing the Centre for Strategic and International Studies on the theme of ‘U.S.-India Partnership of the next 100 years.’

Since the theme itself called for a one hundred year vision, it was perhaps appropriate for him to attempt a crystal-gazing exercise far into the future.  But the fact that he kept referring to the “100 years timeframe” --  mentioning the term no less than 19 times during the course of his speech --  indicates that he genuinely believed in what he was saying.  

The basic premise of his vision was that India is an “important element” in the U.S. policy for stabilising South Asia.  This can be viewed as a statement of fact – if there is to be long-term peace and stability in South Asia, India is certainly an important element.  

However, as against this Tillerson enunciated a theory about China that could be the subject of debate, discussion and some misgivings.  He projected China as a destabilising force.  “China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea”, said the US Secretary of State, “directly challenge international law and the norms that the United States and India both stand for”.

Tillerson swung effortless from the distant future to the immediate present.  He said his government’s new “regional approach” on bringing peace to Afghanistan was based on ensuring an end to tensions between India and Pakistan. “We intent to work closely with India and Pakistan and we hope to ease tensions along their borders as well... Pakistan has two very troubled borders. We would like to help take the tensions down on both of those,” he said.

In this context, he added - “We see it as a regional issue. We will solve Afghanistan by addressing the regional challenges. Pakistan is an important element in that and India is an important element in that to”.

In other words, the new US policy is to view both Pakistan and India as “important elements”.   To an extent the euphoric first-reactions in New Delhi have somewhat subsided with the realization that the role of Pakistan is being equated with that of India. 

Clearly, pundits in New Delhi, whether working in the External Affairs Ministry or private think tanks,  need to avoid emotional and knee-jerk interpretations of Rex Tillerson’s thesis.  There is also a need for careful consideration before enthusiastically endorsing Tillerson’s characterization of China’s emerging policies as “predatory economics”.

The truth is that the US Secretary of State was just making a speech on the eve of his visit to South Asia.  It would be erroneous to assume that his stops in Islamabad and New Delhi are the centerpiece of his foreign trip – it is not.

His six-day trip, which has already begun, includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Switzerland, apart from Pakistan and India. He has much on his mind and a great deal on his plate.  In Riyadh, Tillerson is taking part in the inaugural Coordination Council meeting between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, he is discussing the conflict in Yemen, the ongoing Gulf dispute, Iran, and a number of other burning issues.   In Doha, he will meet with Qatari leaders and US military officials to discuss joint counterterrorism efforts, the ongoing Gulf dispute, and other regional and bilateral issues, including Iran and Iraq.

His visit to Islamabad and New Delhi, therefore, is important largely because it is his first to South Asia as Secretary of State.  Immediately after, he will fly to Geneva, to confer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Organization for Migration, and the International Committee of the Red Cross to discuss a number of the current global humanitarian crises.

Far from being in a position to draw out a roadmap for the next one hundred years,  Tillerson will have his hands full even to grapple with such a mind-boggling basket of issues in six short and hectic days.

Oct 24, 2017

Raman Swamy

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