New Delhi: Since Donald Trump’s visit to China has generally been favourable to the Xi Jinping regime, the outcome cannot possibly please the Narendra Modi government. It took for real the United States avowal of thrusting India into the geopolitics of East Asia by giving currency to the term Indo-Pacific. As it transpires, the term was conspicuously neglected by the Trump side during the China visit and offhandedly mentioned in the next leg of Vietnam; and the reference to terrorism in the US-China summit which is all-consumingly central to Modi’s circumscribed understanding of foreign policy was limited to the context of Afghanistan. Wild expectations that Trump would lead a medieval knight’s charge against Chinese expansionism in the region and impugn Xi’s pet Belt and Road Initiative turned out to be just that: Wild expectations. If anything, Trump’s two-day sojourn in China on his longish Asian travel was a damp squib. America gained little in real terms from the visit and frankly no one in the United States expected better. It is those without the smallest understanding of geopolitics who pinned the most hopes and were inevitably disappointed. Hopefully, India will learn its lessons and focus more henceforth on its own strengths than depend on foreign powers to pull its chestnuts out of the fire.

The decidedly one-sided outcome of Trump’s visit in favour of China is not in the least surprising for those who regularly track geopolitics. Trump went to China without knowing what he wanted. In Trump’s position as the head of the greatest Great Power of Modern history, such negligence and heedlessness approaches criminality. Presidential summits are taken very seriously in the United States. When the president is a well-read man like Barack Obama or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or a natural geo-politician such as Richard Nixon, his aides and advisors are predominantly required to add sting and ballast to his vision. While divisions do exist in such administrations too which at times are quite sharp and destabilizing, still the latitude for wild swings in policy is diminished by the centredness of the president. Since brilliant presidents usually hire brilliant advisors and aides, the general intellectual level of the administration is elevated, and this is subsequently reflected in summit meetings. If the opposite side scintillates too which has usually been the case in summits with Great Powers like Russia and China, there are objective grounds on every side to feel satisfied about the encounter.

On the other hand, when the president is a popular creature but scarcely intellectual, summits with rival Great Powers become unpredictable. There are, however, important variations in this category. A popular president may not be completely vapid and could have the good sense to choose outstanding advisers and aides. In this case, the advisors and aides usually end up fighting one another on policies or on gaining the president’s ear. The outcome of this in a Great Power summit situation is that everyone gets a rollercoaster ride that no one paid for or desires. During the Cold War, this was very much seen in the two terms of Ronald Reagan. The “good” part was that the Cold War provided the grid. The objective on all sides was to end the war and to win it if possible. The grid focussed the summits and its negotiations.

Donald Trump comes to Great Power summits in a very different situation. The Cold War is over. It has not been replaced by another all-encompassing grid. Without a grid, a summit can lose focus. This is what has happened to the Trump-Xi summit. Then there are the other handicaps that Trump brings with him. He is popular (or at least was) and he is anti-intellectual. Reagan was popular but had brilliant aides. The Cold War also limited Reagan’s choices. Since he was vastly answerable to the Congress and to enlightened public opinion, he was often compelled to pick known strategists, geopolitical experts and arms controllers for his administration. Washington insiders usually benefitted from this constraint. But with the Cold War over, Trump is free of such compulsions. Indeed, he is openly derisive of Washington insiders. Further, his megalomania and egocentrism have confirmed him in his belief that he intellectually outclasses the collection of America’s geopolitical institutions. The US presidency today, therefore, is an unguided missile which has no political objective for flight and naturally no target. Being a vain man, Donald Trump is prone to flattery, and the Chinese have laid it thick, as they were expected to. Bill Clinton, one of the brightest US presidents, predicted America’s decline without an obvious, in-your-face adversary like the old Soviet Union. The Chinese know stuff about psychological containment that would have considerably engaged George F. Kennan. Meanwhile, India has a long and steep learning curve ahead.