In the Trump era, foreign officials increasingly feel they need not concern themselves with members of Congress who criticize them. As massive protests sweep India, India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, reportedly canceled a meeting with members of the House Foreign Affairs committee after committee chairman Eliot Engel refused to grant his request that Rep. Pramila Jayapal be excluded from the meeting.
Jayapal, a liberal Democrat from Washington, has been an outspoken critic of the Indian government and has introduced a bill calling on India to lift a communications blackout in the Jammu and Kashmir region. This is a highly unusual move that, as the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor notes, shows “how swiftly the [ruling Bharatiya Janta Party] govt is making support for India a partisan affair in Washington.”
Congressional Democrats have been the main lawmakers directly criticizing Indian prime minister Narendra Modi for his government’s crackdown on Kashmir and the introduction of a citizenship bill that blatantly discriminates against Muslims. Trump, meanwhile, has long been effusive in his praise of Modi, and his administration has been notably muted amid international uproar over the nation’s treatment of Muslims. The State Department declined to say whether the citizenship law came up in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s own meeting with Jaishankar. Ambassador at large for religious freedom Sam Brownback ignored the issue entirely in a briefing last month.
Modi’s government may have simply decided that with the administration in their corner, they need not even engage with more critical American lawmakers.
They’re not alone in this view. Jaishankar’s stance feels of a piece with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision last August—at Trump’s urging to bar Muslim Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from travel to Israel. That same month, the Russian government barred Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Republican Russia-hawk Ron Johnson from entering the country.*
This is a dangerous development. Foreign policy has never been free from partisanship and it’s naïve to think that leaders don’t care which party holds power in a foreign country. But there’s a reason they usually at least pretend to be neutral: in democracies, the parties in power change regularly. You’re going to have to deal with everyone eventually.
But Trump has shown no compunction about inserting himself into elections in Israel, the U.K., France and elsewhere, making his preference for right-wing populist leaders in his own mold very plain. He plainly divides countries into good and bad categories: take Ukraine, which he has reportedly mistrusted since the earliest days of his presidency because “Putin told me” they had tried to prevent his election.
The governments he has favored—including Israel, Russia, and India—therefore not only feel comfortable shunning critical Democrats but can win points from Trump for doing it.
I wrote earlier this year that the hyper-partisanship infecting U.S. foreign policy isn’t just dangerous under this administration. It will hinder a future Democratic president as well. Why would any foreign leader take a risk on a deal or treaty with the U.S., knowing a president from another party is likely to just tear it up?
We’re rapidly entering a world where it’s not only acceptable but encouraged for foreign governments to shun the president’s domestic political opponents.
This isn’t a situation in which a coherent foreign policy can be developed, or long-term diplomatic partnerships can be maintained. It’s a recipe for chaos and conflict.
Correction, Dec. 20, 2019: This piece previously misidentified Sen. Ron Johnson as a Democrat. He is a Republican.