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  • Urjasvi Ahlawat and Kamakshi Belwal


With the US Presidential Elections just a few days away, many questions pertaining towards US and its foreign policy arises- especially since both the candidates have completely opposite views and approaches towards it. To answer these questions, Kamakshi Belwal and Urjasvi Ahlawat, students of BAGA, interviewed Prof. (Dr.) Sebastian Cutrona, a professor in JSIA. Professor Cutrona’s area of expertise lie in Drug Trafficking in the Americas, organized crime,and Latin American politics. Additionally, he teaches US Foreign Policy in JSIA.

The United States has dominated foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. It has promoted and implemented its four pillars of foreign policy- protecting the US and its allies the assurance of continuing access to international resources and markets, the preservation of a balance of power in the world, and the protection of human rights and democracy- throughout the Cold War, with the formation of NATO, and with its anti-communist policies in Latin America. It was also seen with the War on Drugs and after the end of the Cold War with Bush’s War on Terror. Though in the last few years, US foreign policy seemed to have changed and this was observed when Donald Trump came to power as President. He implemented his ‘America First’ policy which aimed at isolationism, withdrawing from multilateral institutions and forming relations with Russia and North Korea- countries which continue to pose a security threat to the United States.

When asked about the final presidential debate and how it differed from the first, Dr Cutrona stated that both the candidates had changed their strategies immensely. Unlike the first elections, Trump had changed his tone and his attacks towards Biden were not so aggressive. Additionally, with the moderator- Kristen Walker- having the power to mute the mics if the arguments got extremely aggressive, clearly had toned down the aggression. Throughout the debate differences on health policy could be seen. With the topic of the COVID-19 arising, Biden had highlighted the 220k+ deaths and Trump's mishandling of the entire situation. On the other hand, Trump blamed China and promised that the vaccine will be here soon; he also blamed Biden for wanting to lockdown the country if he comes to power.

“One candidate is focused on keeping the population safe and the other candidate trying to open the economy, regardless of the human cost,” says Dr Cutrona. On climate change, Biden was trying to securitize the topic as Obama did during his administration which may prove to be difficult but he is trying to push the agenda by mentioning he has the support from unions and paramilitary organizations. On the other topics, Trump had blamed Biden for having a major hand in the 1994 Crime bill and even blamed Biden’s son for corruption and conspiring with Ukraine and China. “However, according to the polls, most Americans have already made up their minds about who they will vote for. Thus, I don’t think these debates will have a lasting impact on the race, however, given that election and role of the Electoral College are going to be key in this respect, these elections will be extremely competitive,” ended Dr Cutrona.

When asked about China’s growing influence in Latin America and whether or not it will pose a security threat to the Biden administration, Dr Cutrona stated that China has been a growing economic influence in the region since 2001. It was the time when US foreign policy shifted from Europe and Latin America to combat terrorism in the Middle East. This growing influence of China has benefitted Latin America, as a result, the region has been, “Growing extremely fast for the last 10 or 15 years. Investments, projects and even infrastructure has been growing extremely fast and I believe that China somehow occupied the vacuum left by the US in the continent. This situation was reversed during the Obama administration and the stepping stone for this was when the US decided to recover relations with Cuba. The rapprochement with Cuba opened the doors of a better relationship with the rest of the continent and unfortunately for Latin America, that changed dramatically with Trump. Only those governments which are considered populists such as Bolsenaro in Brazil or Duque in Colombia kept good relations with the US. However, the US foreign policy will be extremely different if Biden wins the election. I do think that if Biden wins, US will recover relations with Latin American countries and it won’t be easy as China’s growing economic influence in the country could be translated to security influence very soon.” Additionally, Dr Cutrona states that if Trump is re-elected, the prospects of a growing China influence in the region will be huge, giving China the opportunity to be the largest trading power in the region along with a strategic and defence power. This will create problems for the president following trump if he wins in the forthcoming elections.

(Image Source: Jim Bourg/AP)

On the matter of the long-term implications of Trump’s America First policy and the subsequent rise of China, Dr Sebastian Cutrona believes that with the policy of isolationism. The US had rejected all the agreements that were present before the coming of Trump, and these policies had certain constraints on US power such as the Paris Agreement, the Iran Nuclear deal and many more.

The US foreign policy under Trump is characterized as being transactional, pragmatic and erratic. This behaviour seemed to have opened the doors for a growing Chinese influence.

“I personally believe that the growing Chinese influence in International Relations would imply the questions of institutions and ideas along with aspects that are a part of the liberal international order such as open trade and multilateral organizations, but that is not happening. China is filling the vacuum but is not willing to challenge the principle of a liberal international order and are using the international framework to build their leadership. There is no change of the liberal system but change within the system by China”, says Dr Cutrona.

Dr Cutrona, when asked about how the Republican Party went from leaders such as Nixon, Raegan and Bush who had such robust foreign polices to Donald Trump and his policy of isolationism, highlights that the reason why this has occurred is because of American institutions.

“American institutions are not as strong as we thought. It could not have been imagined that American institutions were constraining the decision of US foreign policymakers, particularly the President and Secretary of State. However, the moral of the Trump administration is that Presidents are extremely powerful, even in front of key institutions of US foreign policymakers like the Congress as the President is one of the most relevant actors in policy formation. This shows that the prevalence of the presidency and weakness of institutions explains the reason why the US is moving from an engagement policy that was characterized by Presidents before Trump to his policy on isolationism and a more erratic foreign policy. US Institutions have not been capable of, irrespective of the party, being able to constraint the decision of the US President.”

He also highlights that the US has witnessed an outsider, a relatively new member of the political field become President. This illustrates that the Republican party was not only dominated by institution but by personal decisions and the vote as well. It gave a rise to populism within the US electoral system but, most importantly, this shows that institutions, such as the Supreme Court and Congress, could not prevent the US to follow the long term foreign policy it could have expected. It would have resulted in the US to be more prone to a foreign policy, that is ‘human-based’ and erratic.

When it comes to bilateral relations between India and US and how Trump may benefit it considering the common ideology of both the leaders, Dr Cutrona replied that the seemingly ‘good’ relation between the two countries hasn’t materialized to its fullest extent yet, especially in terms of security cooperation and economic trade. On the other hand, Dr Cutrona believes that one of the benefits of this close relationship is that Trump has not been willing to challenge some domestic policy issues within India, such as the Citizenship Amendment Act. This could be completely different if Biden comes to power because, there would be more constraints on domestic politics where Biden and the Democrats would questions some decisions, leading to some disadvantages but on the other hand, Dr Cutrona believes that one can expect Biden’s decision to counter the rise of China-based on alliances in Asia and that could benefit India. One can think that Biden will revive Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership or will strengthen trade relations with India to counter the rise of China.

On the matters of relations between the US and a crisis-ridden Venezuela and whether or not it will seemingly improve under the Biden administration, Dr Cutrona mentions that there is bipartisan consensus on the idea that Maduro is a dictator by both Biden and Trump. Additionally, they also support Juan Guido’s presidency. There is also a consensus on a second issue where both the candidates have declared that they will not support unilateral military action against Venezuela.

The difference between the two candidates is strategies. “Biden rejects Trump’s unilateral approach based on economic sanctions on the country, I think that is the most relevant difference and one difference which can be expected if Biden comes to power. Biden has also said that he will change immigration policies concerning towards Venezuela and said he will grant the famous TPS status to many Venezuelans who cannot enter the US due to Trump’s policies. I do think he will put more emphasis on the Lima group which consists of right-wing governments in Latin America, to isolate Maduro rather than trying to apply only economic sanctions. I say this because some of the unintended consequences of economic sanctions and unilateralism developed by Trump administration is that Venezuela has a close relationship with countries like Iran and China so I think we may expect a multilateral reaction to counter the role of Venezuela in the region.”

Lastly, when asked about what could be the Biden’s administration possible actions against Russia to counter their aggression against Ukraine, Dr Cutrona says, “Most of the people blame Trump for the current relations between Russia and the US, despite that both countries started on good terms at the beginning of the administration, but now, the relationship is different. However, I believe that the ongoing situation is a result of Obama’s foreign policy and his decision to invest and expand NATO, his decision to open the doors to the EU. Those decisions pushed Russia into closer relations with China and I think Trump is now suffering the consequences of those decisions. I don’t think that Biden’s presidency is going to be positive for US interest in this respect and if he decides to take actions in Ukraine or other countries that were once under the Soviet Union umbrella, it will push Russia to a closer relationship with China. And this could be a key factor in the international order.” Dr Cutrona ends his statement by saying that if this happens, the international order may witness the unipolarity or supremacy of the Chinese government. That could be extremely important to have Russia and China together which could not be easy as China’s growing role could lead to certain negative consequences on Russia. But, by the end of the day, if China and Russia’s relations strengthen, it will not reflect well on US interests because it may witness that the Russia- China coalition could tip the global power scales in their favour.

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