Many in Bhutan are closely following the current US Presidential elections race, especially given its colourful and fun nature made even more interesting this year by the Republican frontrunner.
It has become almost addictive like a morning cup of tea or coffee or a soap drama of insults, intrigue, talking heads etc.
In 2008 and 2012 many Bhutanese followed the races closely given the historical candidacy and personal popularity of President Obama.
However, apart from the optics and fun there is a realization that given the sole superpower status of the USA, who makes it to the White House has ramifications for world and also for Bhutan.
When the 2008 Wall Street Crisis hit there was an immediate impact on our important tourism sector with a decrease in the numbers of visitors especially from USA and Europe. Our Industrial sector was also affected as global and regional demand cooled down prices.
The USA is very closely engaged in different ways with our two biggest neighbors with China in the North and India in the south.
While the USA is deepening its strategic relationship with India it is increasingly trying to ensure the peaceful rise of China.
In the larger South East Asia and ASEAN region many countries with territorial disputes with China are actively seeking out US help. There is in effect a second great game going on in the region.
Bhutan, being a small country in a big neighborhood with emerging superpowers has played it smart and remained largely neutral.
We only need to look to neighboring Nepal to see what can happen in getting the great game wrong.
In short it is not just about India and China in the region but the USA, who for sometime has been showing growing interest in this part of the world and will become a more engaged player.
The USA is also showing interest in closer ties with Bhutan given our geo-strategic location and has made some efforts to engage with our leadership. Bhutan’s leaders will have to make careful calculations, and while not upsetting the apple cart must examine the positive spin offs of such interest for Bhutan.
Given Bhutan’s vulnerability to climate change it would be important to see if the next US President is serious about climate change or believes in it at all. The USA is the only country in the world that can still bring countries to the negotiating table on climate change. It can also play an important role in developing and enhancing renewable technology. We are increasingly reaching the point of no return on climate change and who is in the White House for the next four years will make a big difference.
The World Economy is still in a vulnerable state from Asia to Europe. However, things have been holding up so far due to some incremental progress in the US economy. The state of the US Economy will also be the main task of the new President and any missteps can cost the global economy dearly including Bhutan. For example, what happens to the value of the US dollar is of keen interest to us as the majority of Bhutan’s foreign reserves are in that currency and big chunk of our reserves are also invested in USA.
If Hillary Clinton becomes President, the main principles of US Foreign policy are not expected to be dramatically different and in some ways the same would hold in the unlikely event that we get President Trump. This is because campaign rhetoric, no matter how spectacular, gets tempered by the realities and responsibilities of holding office.
Bhutan is a member of many international multilateral bodies from the United Nations onwards. The USA is the key and dominant player in all these agencies and so who the next President is will also be important for these agencies and member countries like Bhutan.
On the security front the USA is still the global policeman and plays a key role in many hotspots around the world. While peaceful Bhutan is not involved in any of them the impact of decisions made by the US Government affects the world and Bhutan. One example is the Iraq war which led to a sharp rally in oil prices that lasted for many years.
USA is also the one country that plays the most significant role in oil prices be it in bringing it up through military interventions in the middle-east or bringing it down through new oil extraction technology like Fracking.
The US has also helped solved a major headache for Bhutan in the form of the people in the camps by resettling large numbers of them in the USA.
Bhutan over the decades has built up its soft power status through its environmental track record, cultural preservation, Gross National Happiness, sensible leadership, democracy etc in a world where soft power increasingly matters. The USA is a major country whose citizens have been receptive to Bhutan’s increasing soft power status. Bhutan can use this to help with our very practical objectives like getting help to continue preserving our green cover among other priorities.
The USA on its part is the leading soft power of the world and its culture, movies, media, politics and ideas has an unofficial influence in Bhutan especially among the young. It is the bastion of many progressive movements like the Women’s empowerment and we can see how quickly that movement has taken off in Bhutan. Therefore, any major developments on this front, whether it is positive or negative, will also have an impact.
USA also hosts a small immigrant community from Bhutan and though their numbers are small they are an important source of remittance for some families in Bhutan.
Some of Bhutan’s best educated people and leaders have studied in the best institutions of higher learning in the USA. Given Bhutan’s increasing focus on developing our human resources the USA will become an increasingly important destination given its undisputed leadership in this field.
Therefore, there is every reason to watch this race closely and be ready for any fall out.
“I observe and remain silent.”