Research Blog

Thoughts on Modi & Trump

This is an op-ed draft I put together over the summer, but my timing was way off (I wrote it after Modi went to DC), I send it one place where it didn’t get picked up, and then I forgot about it and it sat on my hard drive. I haven’t changed any of it since June, but I thought it was at least kind of interesting, so here it is; :

What the Trump-Modi Comparison Misses

Both the left and right have equated Donald Trump with Narendra Modi: the former attacking them as majoritarian populists who have risen to power on the back of bigotry and fear, the latter heralding them as plainspoken, hard-charging nationalists elected in a cultural, economic, and political rebuke to left-leaning establishments. Modi’s recent visit to Washington brought these analyses front and center.

The comparison has some merit – but it obscures as much as it reveals. Modi and Trump do share a demeanor and an appeal: they claim to speak for a forgotten, marginalized majority who have been undermined by an amorphous but sinister blend of corruption, lack of patriotism, and economic incompetence. In America, it is the urban political and intellectual class and unworthy immigrants and minorities who stand in the way of the virtuous, silent majority; for Modi, it is the Congress and “pseudo-secular” elite and the various suspicious social groupings who have held India back. Both are skilled politicians who revel in overcoming the contempt of the intelligentsia.

This much is correct, and important. Yet the nature of the projects they lead and the political coalitions they drawn upon differ importantly, in ways that are essential for understanding each leader’s prospects for success.

A first key difference is ideological. While anti-globalist White House advisor Steve Bannon and members of the Hindu right might thrill to the idea of Modi and Trump together taking on effete cosmopolitans and seditious Muslims, Trump represents more of an attitude than an ideological project. His positions oscillate wildly, his policies lack direction, and he has been singularly unable to pursue a distinctively “Trumpist” political direction. Thus far, the particular combination Trump promised of economic protectionism, an expansive welfare state for his support base, and a radical realignment of politics has simply not borne fruit. Trump appears to have consistent beliefs on crime, trade, and immigration, but for much of his life he has been a Democrat or independent, without any political career as a Republican.

Modi is, by contrast, a deeply ideological leader with long-standing, formative experiences in the RSS and BJP. The Hindu nationalist movement has articulated a clear project for decades: one that centers Hindus and Hinduism as central to the Indian nation. Modi is steeped in that tradition and his party continues to pursue it, even while simultaneously mobilizing around other issues, like governance and development. Too many analysts have ignored this core project, distracted by Modi’s political skill at presenting different faces to different audiences. But it provides the sense of disciplined mission so characteristic of the Hindu nationalist movement, one that is utterly lacking in America’s president. Whether one likes Modi or not, it is clear what project he represents and in what direction he will take his government.

Second, the political coalitions that brought each leader to power are quite different. There is a similarity: both drew substantial support from both wealthy and poor within a majority demographic (Hindus for Modi, whites for Trump). But the age and geography of their support are not remotely similar. Trump’s greatest appeal is not to aspirational youth or rising urban middle classes, but instead to older rural and suburban voters who fear the loss of their power, status, and prosperity. Trump ran as a counterrevolutionary who would return America to its glory days; Modi instead promised a revolution that would shake the political foundations of India. These are fundamentally different electoral bases looking for different things, even if both find majoritarian nationalism appealing. Indeed, the very class that is stereotypically linked to Modi in India – young, economically ambitious urbanites – is vehemently and deeply anti-Trump in America. Age and geography politically split America in ways that simply are not present in India.


The parties that Trump and Modi lead are also very different. Many Republicans are loyal to Trump, and the vast majority willing to work with him in pursuit of shared goals like Supreme Court nominations and tax cuts, but he has not been able to impose his will on the party. He is not particularly feared or respected by many Republicans, who instead respond to their own constituencies and congressional leadership. This may change over time, and it is surreal to see how many Republicans have been willing to make excuses for Trump. Despite this unsavory bargain, the Republican party is not an ideologically Trumpist party managed from the White House. The lack of major legislation coming out of Congress, despite Republican majorities in both the Senate and House, speaks to the deep problems Trump faces with his own party.
Modi has sidelined many of his rivals within the BJP and pushed his reach deep into a number of important state units. Even in the face of resistance, he has personalized the BJP around his leadership. This does not mean he and Amit Shah totally control all aspects of the BJP, of course, and they remain reliant on complex alliance calculations. But the BJP is far more clearly linked to, and driven by, Modi than Trump and the Republicans. This is no surprise: Modi rose over decades from within the RSS and BJP, rather than entering politics as an outsider. The BJP’s traditional cadre structure and its deep links to the RSS and Sangh Parivar provide organization, cohesion, and social reach that Trump simply cannot draw upon. Modi also has a far surer control of the state apparatus than Trump, who has been beset by institutional checks, internal leaks, and, above all, his own incompetence.

This combination means that Modi’s nationalist project is more formidable and sustainable than Trump’s: he draws on a more robust party, a deeper ideological mooring, and a coalition of increasingly prosperous urban classes with substantial resources. Trump is dangerously inept, erratic, and lacking in basic judgment. This makes the prospect of a war or crisis profoundly alarming. But he is unlikely to succeed in advancing a distinctively Trumpian agenda through the mobilization of a disciplined party animated by his own policy goals. Instead, he has, thus far at least, been a crude but useful battering ram used to advance traditional Republican objectives: slicing the welfare state, reducing taxes, and pursuing social conservatism.

This does not mean that there are not important similarities: majoritarianism binds the two leaders. But there remain key differences that will likely take their political fates in very different directions. This suggests that, for all the media interest in the Trump-Modi relationship, US-India ties do not hinge on a disinterested and undisciplined Trump. Instead, the America-India relationship is likely to continue as it has since 2000, with Trump or without him.


And my take on ISIS

This a much longer piece than the Rohingya one, and was just published in the Washington Quarterly (link is to an ungated PDF). The piece examines how fifteen powerful insurgent groups in South Asia dealt with clear military decline, and uses the comparative findings to generate some insights about possible ISIS trajectories.

The article is based on my “armed politics” book project, data collection efforts, and related articles. But I wanted to get something out faster than going through the academic review process, while having more heft and staying power than a blog post or op-ed. The Washington Quarterly was a perfect outlet – it allowed footnotes and a decently long piece, appeals to an analytical policy audience plus policy-interested academics, and offers articles that are free until the next issue comes out. Go check it out.

The new US South Asia DASD’s

There are two new Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense in the US Department of Defense. Joe Felter is DASD for South & Southeast Asia, while Colin Jackson is DASD for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. They are important figures for managing US defense relations with southern Asia, and for creating and implementing US military strategy in the region. Felter covers India, Indonesia, etc, while Jackson covers Afghanistan/Pakistan (both report to the Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs).

Both are political science PhDs with extensive military backgrounds, and they represent a level of expertise and knowledge that is foreign to many parts of the Trump administration. I went to grad school at MIT with Colin, and was once on an APSA panel with Felter way back in the day. They’re both serious people who have written quality research on counterinsurgency.

What does their academic work suggest about how they might approach the challenges they face? Felter’s work is embedded in a series of hugely influential collaborations with Eli Berman and Jacob Shapiro that focuses on how economic incentives, state violence, and service provision affect civilians’ willingness to collaborate with governments. Though the specifics vary quite a lot by paper, Berman and Aila Matanock summarize this Empirical Studies of Conflict (ESOC) approach here. Felter is comfortable with quantitative data, and especially micro-level data on fine-grained variation.  Much of his work focuses on COIN, but he also played a major role building the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He does not have a background in India, or working on more traditional IR issues that the Indians will be interested in (i.e., Doklam and its aftermath).

Appropriately-provided aid is central to the COIN prescriptions Felter advances. He was part of the Afghanistan “surge” reporting to McChrystal and Petraeus, a resource-intensive offensive aiming to pull the Afghan civilian population over to the side of pro-state forces. This did not work well (as I predicted in 2009. . .); I think a lot of the aid/development-focused research assumes a set of basic state capacities that Afghanistan sorely lacks. Felter’s approach to COIN doesn’t involve itself with questions of high politics, instead advancing a resolutely micro/tactical orientation to both theory and method. Felter has been deeply embedded in the American war on terror, and he’s not exactly a bomb-tossing radical – his work is all about making US foreign interventions function more efficiently.

But even if not an ideal fit for places like Afghanistan, where state formation and core political questions are more important than how to roll out new development projects, these strategies are actually quite well suited to the kinds of places he will focus on as DASD, such as anti-Islamist counterterrorism in the Philippines and Indonesia. We should expect him to push carefully-evaluated, data-heavy development and training programs in close cooperation with partner militaries. I’d be surprised to him rocking the boat on India issues; Delhi, I suspect, will be happy with him.

Jackson’s dissertation (sadly not turned into a book, but ungated here) is far more skeptical of many aspects of COIN, and American policies in general, than Felter’s work. Like Felter he is a COIN specialist first and foremost; he’s served in Afghanistan, but is not a Pakistan/IR or India-Pakistan person. He’s also published some nice work on airpower and information operations. Jackson’s dissertation focuses on organizational dysfunction in third-party COIN operations. He is quite cynical about military organizations, arguing that left to their own devices they develop debilitating pathologies – an orientation to war that he calls the “military operational code” blends with bureaucratic defensiveness to make it hard for militaries to learn new strategic approaches to war, as opposed to endless, fancy, but empty tactical innovations.

He uses a variety of historical case studies to argue that civilian interventions into COIN campaigns are valuable for correcting these pathologies and, provocatively, that resource-scarcity can be good for COIN, since it prevents militaries burning through lots of resources in pursuit of their favored operational techniques. Money too often provides a buffer that prevents cold-eyed strategic assessments of what will be necessary to win, and so limiting resources forces innovation and strategic assessment. His focus is on constructing stable political orders, which is a different kind of challenge than reducing violence or improving operational techniques. The Models 1 and 2 of COIN that he acerbically critiques are, in my opinion, still the basic orientation of American counterinsurgency, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. His Model 3 requires political bargaining and order-building that professional militaries are ill-suited to attain.

This makes Jackson’s work a very different kettle of fish than Felter’s – and a nice fit for Afghanistan, where fundamental issues of political order are more central than in a place like the Philippines. Left to his own devices, Jackson’s thesis suggests a low-footprint war in Afghanistan under close civilian control and a tight spigot on resources that mainly seeks to forge a variety of possibly-unsavory deals in pursuit of a grim stability, rather than tidy Weberian notions of a firm central state backed by unending American cash. This could be good for Pakistan, as a partner in stabilization – or bad for Pakistan, as the US does business in a much less technocratic, and more ruthless, manner than it has previously. Whether his orientation turns into DOD policy in any way, of course, is open to question, since his dissertation is distinctly different from the military-dominated approach to Afghanistan currently in vogue in the Trump administration.

Felter and Jackson are both experts with long and deep experience working on many of the issues that will occupy them in their jobs. That can only be good news for US foreign policy.

Department politics or Maoist in-fighting?

The critique levied by Baburam Bhattarai against the Prachanda leadership of Nepal’s Maoists in the early/mid-2000s, (from Aditya Adhikari’s history of the Maoist insurgency, p. 167):

“Above all, an environment has been created in which leaders from different ranks denounce anyone who dares to criticize them as ‘anarchist.’ The party is characterized by rampant hypocrisy, servility and general anarchy rather than proletarian discipline and ‘voluntary centralism.'”

Deprovincializing the study of American politics

A mix of comparative politics and American Political Development scholars have written a valuable and important paper putting the rise of Trumpism, and current shape of the American polity, in comparative perspective. It’s grim but necessary reading:

“we argue that President Trump’s election in 2016 represents the intersection of three streams in American politics: polarized two-party presidentialism; a polity fundamentally divided over membership and status in the political community, in ways structured by race and economic inequality; and the erosion of democratic norms at the elite and mass levels”

An article with similar themes by Steve Levitsky, Rob Mickey, and Lucan Way can be found in Foreign Affairs.  It also provides a useful reminder of just how new full-ish American democracy actually is.