Trump-Putin Helsinki summit: Breakdown in White House-Congress relation may impact India-US ties

The sickening "thud" that you hear is the sound of US exceptionalism falling to its death from the Kremlin rooftop. Among all other crimes that Donald Trump is said to have committed in Helsinki on Monday (and the list is long) the biggest was the US-Russia "moral equivalence" that he apparently tried to create with Vladimir Putin by his side. Trump's statement that "both countries are responsible" for plummeting of ties was deemed to be even more offensive (if that is possible) than his reprehensible act of failing to defend American interests and even attacking own citizens and institutions to publicly side with a hostile foreign adversary.

This argument may seem quaint to the rest of the world. US critics around the world will point out that if we are discussing Russian interventionism in US politics, then we should first consider American interventionism which is globally more rampant and damaging. The US has got around this moral conundrum by justifying its interventionism through a moral legitimacy.

As this article in National Review argues, "the real story is not that the United States has intervened in foreign elections and influenced foreign political outcomes, but that it has done so to promote democracy and political liberty and human rights." The rage against Trump is explained by the fact that in one fell swoop, he has decapitated this moral superiority. Nothing scandalises us more than to be shown a mirror.

Predictably, a collective howl of outrageous despair has escaped from Washington as Trump came under savage bipartisan attack from US lawmakers, policy wonks and media. Among others, Republican senator John McCain has called Trump's joint presser with Putin "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory" that "marks a recent low point in the history of the American Presidency." Trump is now officially the most-hated President in US Congress cutting across Democrat-Republican divide.

 Trump-Putin Helsinki summit: Breakdown in White House-Congress relation may impact India-US ties

US President Donald Trump with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit. AP

The tantalising question is, where does all these leave India?

It is an important question to consider because a US rapprochement with Russia (or even a degree of normalisation) is considered to be important for India which has unfortunately been caught in the crossfire of great power rivalry. American ties with Russia has never been good but it is right now at its lowest ebb. Alarmed at Russian machinations in its Presidential election — the proof of which is still unfolding — US lawmakers have sought to punish Russia by bringing in secondary sanctions.

The importance of CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) lies in the fact it acknowledges the futility of US primary sanctions in changing Russian behavior, and seeks to weaponise America's relationship with its partners and allies. Secondary sanctions like CAATSA work through the mechanism of forcing nations with which the US has treaty or friendly ties to degrade their business with Russia in defence, intelligence or energy sectors so that Kremlin feels the pain and is compelled to change its behavior.

But CAATSA does more. Not only does it seek to sanction domestic and foreign entities from doing business with Russia, the unilateral, bipartisan legislation championed by US Congress aims to insure these measures from domestic political interference. One of the motivations behind CAATSA was to ensure that Trump, whom even some Republican lawmakers perceive as Putin's "mole" in White House, does not have the power to tamper with its provisions. In other words, in addition to being a double-edged sword, CAATSA is also the symbol of distrust between Trump administration and the US Congress.

So for the Trump administration to secure a carve-out in CAATSA to help strategic allies such as India — which is on the final stages of negotiation to buy five Russian S-400 Triumf advanced air defence systems worth $4.5 billion — it must seek US Congress's cooperation in getting a traditional 'national security waiver'.

Consequently, New Delhi's fate on whether or not will it be hit by US sanctions in closing the Russian deal depends on Trump administration's success in convincing the Congress that strategic flexibility on India is in US national interest. Unless lawmakers are ready to cooperate, stringent CAATSA provisions such as denial of grants, loans, service from international financial institutions, visa refusals will kick in if India goes through with the deal.

Earlier this year, US defence secretary argued before the Congress in a testimony that unless the Trump administration is allowed a little more power over sanctions policy, strategic partners such as India — that have traditional and deep defence ties with Russia — will eventually be compelled to shift away from its gradual veering towards the US as major defence supplier. In the last three years, for instance, "US firms concluded 13 contracts with India worth Rs 288 billion while Russia got 12 for only Rs 83 billion", according to a report from Indian parliamentary standing committee.

Mattis' contention was that penalising India would force it to return deeper within Russian fold and beat CAATSA's chief aim. "We only need to look at India, Vietnam and some others to recognise that, eventually, we’re going to paralyse ourselves…So what we ask for is that the Senate and the House pass a national security waiver in the hand of the Secretary of State—I’m not asking for myself. Foreign policy is driven from Foggy Bottom…So, if he has the waiver authority and I can go to him and show it’s in our best interest, then we get an internal management of this process, but it keeps us from being boxed in by the Russians," said Mattis.

Apart from ruining India-US ties, CAATSA may also deal a blow to job creation in the US because, as US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) president Mukesh Aghi pointed out in The Diplomat, the "embargo will have an impact… on civilian aircraft orders, where India is servicing its fast-growing air travel market." For an 'America First' administration, that's bad news.

While the Trump administration has been trying therefore to persuade the US Congress to allow it some elasticity on CAATSA to spare a key defence partner from getting hurt, US lawmakers (both Democrats and Republicans) are wary of giving Trump administration more leeway over Russia-related issues. Mattis's appeal, made in May, didn't cut much ice.

In comments that make apparent the rift between White House and the Congress, a Senate Democratic aide was quoted as saying by The Daily Beast: "No one wants to sanction our closest allies. The point is that we gave the administration tools under CAATSA to use diplomatic leverage to get these countries to change their behavior… The administration just isn’t doing the hard work of diplomacy," in an article published in May this year.

There was some hope, still, as Jeff Smith (research fellow at The Heritage Foundation) and Bharath Gopalswamy (Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council) had pointed out in their article for The Hill, "there’s at least one potential legislative remedy in sight. Even as the administration continues to push for a traditional national security waiver, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains an amendment that would expand the president’s flexibility to apply (or not apply) CAATSA sanctions… Congress should carefully consider the geopolitical stakes and the tremendous investments Washington and Delhi have made in this relationship."

Importantly, all these solutions are incumbent on a spirit of cooperation between the Trump administration and US Congress, which after the Helsinki summit has turned into naked antagonism.

Lawmaker after lawmaker (regardless of party affiliations) are slamming Trump for failing in his job as president in serving US interests, and worse, colluding with enemy. Trump is being called a "treasonous traitor" who has "deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior — behavior that violates his oath of office to 'preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'

Under the circumstances, any rapprochement between Trump administration and US Congress (leave alone cooperation) is less than a far-fetched dream. The effect of this disruption will soon be felt in India and it remains unclear at this stage whether any solution will emerge.

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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2018 19:59:13 IST