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C Raja Mohan writes: In America, Vivek Ramaswamy’s rise – and the undercurrent of isolationism

As the American summer ends and the race for the US presidency begins, the rise of Vivek Ramaswamy has been the first major surprise. At the first debate among the Republican hopefuls last week in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the young Indian American was declared the winner.

American presidential campaigns are expensive and gruelling. It is not easy for a rank outsider like Ramaswamy to mobilise resources – the presidential nomination will be finalised only next summer, and the elections are scheduled for the first week of November 2024. It is even harder to survive the political and personal scrutiny that candidates must endure.

From the Indian perspective, it is tempting to celebrate Ramaswamy’s rise as a political triumph for the diaspora in the US. Interestingly, Ramaswamy was not the only Indian American on the Republican stage. Nikki Haley (Nimarata Randhawa), former governor of South Carolina, was another. Much of the policy argument took place between Ramaswamy and Haley.

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The main story here is not about the growing political impact of the Indian American diaspora. Kamala Harris is the sitting US vice president, and Rishi Sunak is the Prime Minister of the UK. Nearly 200 persons of Indian origin, according to some estimates, occupy leadership positions in about 15 countries; about 60 per cent of them are in cabinet positions. The Indian diaspora is doing especially well in the Anglo-Saxon world (forget the perennial nativist and liberal “anti-colonial” posturing in India). Members of the diaspora also occupy key positions in the governmental machinery in the Ango-Saxon world. President Joe Biden has appointed nearly 140 Indian Americans to key positions in the administration. Indian-origin men and women also lead top businesses, universities, scientific establishments, and civil society in the English-speaking world. The story, then, is as much about the openness of the Anglo-Saxon world as it is about the talent and adaptability of the Indian diaspora.

Ramaswamy’s rise in the Republican Party says a lot more than about the Indian diaspora. We are at an extraordinary moment in the history of one of the world’s oldest parties. That the Grand Old Party can’t shake off Trump despite all the criminal charges against him says something about the current churn in US politics and its potential consequences for the world, including India.

Former President Trump, who has a commanding lead in the opinion polls among Republicans, stayed away from the debate. The 38-year-old Ramaswamy’s sharp debating skills honed at Harvard and Yale (too grating and schoolboyish, some critics say) were only one reason for his significant impact. More important was Ramaswamy’s unabashed support for Trump. Much of the Republican pack was either opposing Trump or squirming to avoid too strong an identification with him while not daring to challenge the former president’s toxic political legacy. Ramaswamy, in contrast, called Trump the “greatest US President of the 21st century”. Although many see Ramaswamy’s Trump worship as cringe-worthy, there may be good political calculus behind it – to tap into his massive following in the Republican Party.

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With age on his side, Ramaswamy appears to be playing a long game to cultivate the conservative sections of American society. The ideas that he champions have a long lineage in American society—faith, family, flag, individual freedom, small government, meritocracy, and hard work. Ramaswamy is a strong critic of “wokeism”, illegal migration, and reservations for minorities in educational institutions. His conservative agenda has an external dimension too. He has dropped anchor in “America-First” nationalism and drinks deep from the wells of American isolationism. Trump’s four years hinted at how this sentiment might play out – opposition to alliances, withdrawal from multilateral institutions, and a transactional approach to international relations.

If Trump wins the Republican nomination and wrests the presidency, he will have a chance to push through many of the isolationist ideas. Today, it is Ramaswamy who is articulating the America-First agenda. Consider the war in Ukraine. For Ramaswamy, Ukraine is not a priority. If elected, Ramaswamy would travel to Moscow in early 2025 and cut a deal with Vladimir Putin. His peace plan is to let Russia keep territories it has gained in Ukraine if Putin agrees to end Moscow’s alliance with Beijing. For Ramaswamy, the Sino-Russian axis is the greatest threat to the US and breaking it must be the highest geopolitical imperative for Washington. He says he would defend Taiwan only until the end of his first White House term in 2028. By then, Ramaswamy believes he can make America self-sufficient in producing semiconductors. In other words, his commitment to Taiwan is contingent. In Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Ramaswamy wants US allies to take care of their regional security challenges by investing more in defence. And that the US would help these countries, including Taiwan, to build up their military capabilities to resist domination by Russia and China.

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Underlying these positions is the essence of American isolationism – the US should not dabble in all conflicts worldwide but focus on consolidating American dominance over the Americas. Ramaswamy says he will deploy US armed forces on America’s southern border to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Sections of Republican conservatives empathise with these ideas, but the internationalists in the two mainstream parties view them with utter distaste. Haley, who strongly supports the Republican establishment, charged that “inexperienced” Ramaswamy will make America “less safe”. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal said Ramaswamy’s “venture into foreign policy may be bold but it’s also glib and reckless.” At this stage, no one is betting on Ramaswamy to become the next US President. But the rest of the world should look deeper into the agenda that Ramaswamy offers America. While it might appear outlandish, there is no forgetting that President Trump was animated by those very ideas. Last few years have seen major, unexpected changes in US foreign and economic policies.

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No prudent chancellery in the world would want to rule out the potential defeat of Biden in the next elections and a setback to America’s internationalism. From Delhi’s perspective, Ramaswamy is saying everything right about deepening the strategic partnership with India. Yet, it is important for Delhi to understand the deeper sources of Ramaswamy’s worldview and its broader implications.

For the Indian elites, which have dealt all these decades with the US’s internationalist and interventionist policies, American isolationism is an unfamiliar terrain. Ramaswamy’s positions provide a valuable basis to assess the prospects for renewed American isolationism and its impact on the geopolitics of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.

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The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi

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