“We spoke last night about Kashmir, Prime Minister [Modi] really feels he has it under control. They speak with Pakistan and I’m sure that they will be able to do something that will be very good.” President Trump delivered the preceding statement to reporters at the G7 Summit on Monday. While this might sound like typical rhetoric for the President, Trump’s statement effectively abdicated the U.S. role in calming tensions between the two nuclear states, a role that has often brought the two back from the brink of large-scale war.
Last month, the President offered to mediate between India and Pakistan in an awkward fashion, claiming that Modi had originally invited him to mediate. Modi’s administration quickly denied that he made any such request. Trump’s comments at the G7 effectively reversed his offer to mediate. After speaking with Modi, Trump appeared to affirm India’s line that the dispute was purely a bilateral one between India and Pakistan.
For context, on August 5th, India revoked a provision from its constitution (article 370) that had preserved a degree of autonomy in Kashmir, a long-contested Muslim majority region along the India-Pakistan border. Directly before the revocation, Indian security forces flooded into Kashmir. The Indian troops enforced a lockdown, cutting off communications and arresting civilians, as well as government and local leaders. The move represented a clear provocation by India.
The Kashmir border, referred to as the Line of Control, is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world, positioned between two hostile, nuclear powers. Tensions between India and Pakistan flared earlier this year when a Pakistani militant group attacked an Indian army convoy. The two countries exchanged airstrikes resulting in the downing of an Indian jet. A number of similar flares have occurred throughout the years with conflict escalating to war in 1947, 1965, and 1999 (here’s a full timeline of the conflict.)
Along with the history of conflict, there is also a history of American diplomacy urging caution and restraint. During the 1999 conflict, President Bill Clinton intervened diplomatically, calling out Pakistan’s escalation of the conflict and pressuring them to backdown their forces.
While India has rejected official outside mediation on the Kashmir dispute for decades, the U.S. has consistently urged restraint and discouraged unwarranted escalations, and rightfully so. America has a dedicated interest in regional stability in the area. Instability heightens the threat of nuclear proliferation and potential nuclear war; not to mention, the region is a hotbed for terrorism and extremism.
Meanwhile, Trump’s rhetoric has ping-ponged between offering mediation, urging restraint, and affirming India’s line that the issue is purely bilateral, a stance that Pakistan rejects. It is unlikely, given India’s current leadership, that the U.S. could persuade India to backdown on Kashmir, but even if an attempt were made, Trump has positioned himself poorly, hampering his ability to speak into the conflict credibly should the situation escalate further.
It is more likely than not that the issue will escalate further as Kashmiris begin to protest and resist the lockdown. Protesters already have been beaten and arrested. And in addition to the economic costs of the blackout, medical supplies and resources are running low.
Trump’s inconsistency on Kashmir and India follows a similar pattern of his engagement with other countries. Trump attempts to use economic interests and trade as common ground to build relationships with world leaders to mixed degrees of success. From that point, he often oscillates between attacking the leader and praising them, depending on the current state of trade negotiations. This was the case with China at the G7 when Trump shifted his tone from condemning President Xi Jinping to lauding his leadership. And as recently as June, the President criticized Modi over Indian tariffs on U.S. goods.
Lost in this shuffle is a clear articulation of American interests and values. Paul Miller has written in Providence about the President’s failure to give rhetorical support to protestors in Hong Kong, which has both demoralized the protestors and devalued American influence in the region. The U.S. Presidency is the most important diplomatic platform in the world, and the President has a vital role to play to speak with clarity and conviction to both the American people and the world.
Trump rarely speaks with clarity on international issues aside from trade. Modi seems prepared to use this to his advantage, telling Trump earlier this week that India would increase imports from the U.S. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Kahn penned an op-ed in The New York Times urging the world community to engage with the Kashmir dispute, “It is imperative that the international community think beyond trade and business advantages. World War II happened because of appeasement at Munich. A similar threat looms over the world again, but this time under the nuclear shadow.” The Prime Minister may be overstating his point, but the threat of a nuclear confrontation is very real.
In times of crisis like these, American engagement is often critical. As former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis noted, “A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader.” If the President’s ambiguous diplomacy continues unchanged, the Kashmir dispute will unfold absent the role of American leadership and potentially to the detriment of American interests abroad.