- - Monday, June 5, 2017


In the wake of Donald Trump’s historic visit to Saudi Arabia and successful meeting with King Salman to underscore his priorities and the importance he attaches to that nation, another critical player awaits its turn — India, the largest market-based democracy in the world.

There is no question that Saudi Arabia is essential to any effort toward peace and stability in the Middle East. King Salman’s support to combat terror, affect global energy resources, and address Iran’s dangerous adventurism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen will be necessary. But to the east, India provides an opportunity for President Trump and America’s new foreign policy priorities unlike any other nation.

India’s geostrategic location in South Asia, not only influences activities to its west, through Pakistan and into Afghanistan and Iraq, but has major implications for holding back China’s expansion and growing influence throughout the region. Equally important is India’s economic capacity, one which holds abundant promise for both its own interests and America’s.

As one of the most populated countries in the world, perhaps even No. 1, according to a recent Economic Times report, India is diverse socially, culturally, linguistically and religiously. Yet despite these differences, India is often a model for harmony. With the third-largest Shia population in the world, India has avoided the constant drum of terrorism beating so loudly elsewhere.

Its prominent location as a neighbor of both nuclear-armed Pakistan and increasingly hegemonic China, each of which poses its own problems for the country, underlies the necessity for a close relationship with the United States.

India’s military, currently ranked the fourth-strongest in the world, is modernizing and is positioned to become even stronger as defense spending increases. With recent purchases of surface-to-air and anti-tank guided missiles from Israel, minesweepers and self-propelled artillery guns from South Korea, fighter jets from France, and helicopters and ultralight howitzers from the United States, India’s military strength is on an upward trend that encourages, from the U.S. perspective, a closer working relationship.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, denied a visa to enter the United States for the nine years leading up to his overwhelming election as prime minister in 2014, has looked beyond the snub he received and has worked hard to foster a strong relationship with the U.S. His consistently high approval ratings (81 percent in a recent Pew Research poll) are a strong indicator that he will be in a leadership role for some time.

Over the past two years, Mr. Modi has abandoned the policy of near neutrality toward both the United States and China and has turned India into a military and diplomatic ally of America. In fact, he has become a promising friend in this vital part of the world, and anxiously awaits an invitation to visit America and meet with the president. Publications across his country speculate on when he will be invited, and foreign policy experts who understand the potential of a strong and growing U.S.-India alliance are suggesting this should be Mr. Trump’s next move.

As a first step, the president must appoint a strong U.S. ambassador to India to indicate how important the country is to his new administration and to engage Mr. Modi in his agenda of security and commerce. There are three leading candidates, and speculation rages from D.C. to Delhi. Among those are Ashley Tellis, a Mumbai-born academic and member of George W. Bush’s diplomatic corps; Ken Juster, another career bureaucrat who served in the Bush administration and currently works as deputy assistant to the president on international economic affairs; and Shalabh Kumar, perhaps the most interesting, if not engaging, of the three.

While Mr. Tellis was an ardent “Never Trumper” who went so far as supporting Hillary Clinton, and Mr. Juster seems to diverge with the current president in his globalist agenda and affiliation with the Trilateral Commission, Mr. Kumar is closer to the Rex Tillerson mold, a successful and self-made businessman who understands the intersection of commerce and security. Much like Mr. Trump, he can be bold, as he was when he took a delegation of U.S. congressional leaders to meet Mr. Modi, when the Indian leader was forbidden to enter the U.S. by the Obama administration.

That bold but prescient foray into diplomacy highlights Mr. Kumar’s years of relations with key government and business leaders in India, and he has established similar assets in the U.S., where he led an ambitious national effort to rally Hindu-Americans to the Trump campaign, rejecting their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party. By the tens of thousands, Hindu-Americans switched their support to Mr. Trump, donating more than $10 million to his campaign and congressional races.

Who the president selects will be telling. Where past presidents favored government careerists as appointees, such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, and a long list of other ascendant bureaucrats, by appointing Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, Mr. Trump seems to be re-establishing a precedent in which business acumen and executive leadership of appointees like George Schultz bring bold, seasoned, free-market experience, combined with diplomatic skills in furthering American commercial and security interests abroad.

It may be safe to pick from the omnipresent bureaucratic corps, or the Washington think tanks — holding ponds for people waiting for a chance to serve in another administration while their team is on the bench. But Mr. Trump’s leadership style seems anything but safe.

Rather, in his own words, he is about revolution — a stark contrast to Barack Obama in his direct and ofttimes unvarnished objectives and assessments, as recently demonstrated during his swing through Europe. Will he want that in his ambassadors? The nomination of who will serve him in India will be a telling indicator, and, in the process, it will send a strong message to Delhi concerning the future of U.S.-India relations.

• Bill Cowan is a retired Marine Corps officer who specializes in national security affairs.

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