With the installation of President Donald Trump’s newest, and latest National Security Advisor (NSA) last week, there has been plenty of noise about John Bolton’s hawkish leanings and its consequential impact on the US’ standing around the world. And the volume of these critics easily drowns out those in support of the NSA mainly because they have history, and an abundance of evidence, on their side.
Namely, Bolton’s push for the then President George W Bush to invade Iraq under what were considered dubious claims even at the time. Despite Iraq continuing to face insurmountable challenges, the critics can easily poke holes in Bolton’s push to bomb Iran for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Many fear that Bolton’s focus on Iran will drag the US into another armed conflict.
Yet during all these debates, not much is mentioned about how or if Bolton will affect US-India ties, which have steadily continued to deepen under Trump. The obvious answer is not much, because Bolton has not articulated any views for India. However, his ascension may eventually have consequences for India. But first, a bit of context.
Big Say In Vital Matters
The NSA position in the US can be incredibly powerful. While common wisdom would imply that the NSA does only national security advisory related work, they have far greater weight. First, the position does not require Senate approval, which means he or she does not have to temper their views to obtain the job. Second, while its true they oversee the National Security Council (NSC) staff, their job through the NSC actually enables them to be the convener of all other US government agencies to help formulate the entire government’s policy.
This means the NSA can absorb policy advice from the broader government, or give and influence it in return to the other agencies. It also means they have a say on just about anything related to foreign policy, including security, diplomacy, and economics. Third the NSA as the one who channels most of the broader government’s policy recommendations to the president gives him or her intimate proximity to the president, helping shape his or her vision.
Now for New Delhi, it is true that Bolton has not outlined a view towards India. But his NSC subordinates have, many of whom were in place before his arrival and will remain so. This is good news for India, particularly because the Trump NSC seems to be very much in charge of US-India policy (partially due to many South Asia related political appointment positions remaining vacant in key agencies) and is clearly a strong promotor of India given its aggressive stance on Pakistan.
Therefore, the simple answer is that with Bolton, not much will change with India.
The Iran Problem
However, Bolton’s near obsession with Iran, will be a problem.
India’s proximity with Iran has been a trouble spot in the US-India ties. The degree to which it boils to the top of the bilateral relationship depends on the administration in office and the prevailing circumstances and priorities. During the Obama years, when Iran was under sanctions, India’s purchase of Iranian oil was a concern for US authorities. While it was not a major irritant, it was an area of strong disagreement between Washington and New Delhi.
Iran has seen its status as a major oil exporter to India slide in recent years, but it remains a vital friend of Delhi. As a nation that borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iran offers tremendous value to India – namely security and intelligence. The Port of Chabahar is seen as not only a security hedge against China’s development of the Port of Gwadar in Pakistan just a few miles away, but also as a gateway to send goods to Afghanistan enabling India to maintain its economic diplomacy with Kabul, which is critical for India’s containment of Pakistan.
Now, if the Obama White House, which produced the US-Iran agreement, found itself disagreeing with India on Iran, imagine what a Bolton influenced White House will look like. If Bolton sees so much through the prism of Iran, it could cloud his vision of India.
This may not come to fruition just yet, as the US and India have numerous other areas of mutual interest. Furthermore, and as noted, the current NSC staff seems significantly predisposed towards India. And even more importantly, Trump himself has a very positive view of India for a host of reasons as evidenced by his decision to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi as one of his early White House visitors.
But the point is that Bolton’s arrival cannot be dismissed as non-consequential for US-India ties. There could be reverberations.
Shailesh Kumar is director, South Asia at Washington-based Eurasia Group and analyzes political and economic risks and developments in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.