Monday Aug 01 2022

A foreign policy based on assumptions

Security guards stand outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad. — AFP
Security guards stand outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad. — AFP

Pakistan has good diplomats but an underperforming diplomacy. And the reasons are many. Where does the main fault lie? Not necessarily with the diplomats as they do not make policy; politicians do. And political leadership, not just in Pakistan but all over the world, blends the interests of the ruling establishment with the national interest. Thus for better or worse the foreign policy that emerges carries more than the imprimatur of a country’s diplomats.

In Pakistan the problem is more acute as the leadership factors in not only its own interests but also Pakistan’s economic weaknesses and its external dependence. And that ends up narrowing Pakistan’s foreign policy options making it fall back, partly out of desperation and partly due to nostalgia and wishful thinking, on Pakistan’s traditional alliances and the ‘halcyon’ days of its foreign policy.

Pakistan then gets stuck in faulty assumptions about the world we live in, limiting or distorting our understanding of complex foreign policy challenges facing us. Conspiracy theories are the other side of the coin of faulty assumptions. All this has come to undermine Pakistan’s diplomacy. Invariably some of these assumptions have been picked up by the media, especially the electronic media, for their emotional value and the potential to be a good story. That has affected the quality of public debates on foreign policy further hurting the process of foreign policymaking in the country.

So diplomats are not to blame — at least they are not the only ones to blame-for the underperformance of Pakistan’s diplomacy. There is no better example of faulty assumptions than how Pakistan sees American policies in the region. Pakistan continues to see American interests and relationships in South Asia like during the cold war. It cannot somehow wean itself away from the false pride of having once been a ‘preferred’ ally of Washington compared to India.

The strategic community and political leadership alike are disappointed that the US is now according India a ‘preferential’ treatment. It is only fair that India and Pakistan are treated equally, they complain. TV anchors and analysts express it more dramatically with emotionally charged phrases like “the US has gone over to India” — implying either a betrayal or policy failure by the US. This kind of terminology frames the debate wrongly leading us to wrong analysis. The US has not ‘gone over” to India nor is it giving a ‘preferential’ treatment to India.

The fact is that Washington had all through the history of its involvement in South Asia followed its India and Pakistan relations in two separate tracks. So it is not a question of the US having abandoned Pakistan and ‘gone over’ to India. The word ‘preferential’ is also wrong. Preference would have been a right expression if Pakistan and India were being sought for an identical role and were equally qualified, but Washington picked India. That would have been preferential. It was not true or relevant in the past, and inconceivable now.

The reality is that South Asia has changed. The major drivers of change have been the end of the cold war, the rise of globalisation, the global Islamic revivalism and the post-9/11 US engagement in the region. The region has come to present economic opportunities, strategic challenges and security threats like the threat of terrorism and extremism as never before. Along with these changes has come the phenomenal rise of China. India too has registered impressive economic and technological progress. The US, through its extraordinary new relationship with India, hopes to contain the Chinese power and influence in the region and beyond, and seek Pakistan’s cooperation in meeting the security threats.

American interests in India are much broader and strategic while with Pakistan they are tactical and limited. It is only logical that the US relationships with Pakistan and India, propelled by different dynamics, would have different roles, purposes and trajectories. Washington cannot thus treat the two countries equally. It would give more weight to India, especially on India-Pakistan issues. Pakistan needs to understand that.

Of course, one relationship affects the other and it is quite legitimate for Pakistanis to talk about it. But to keep comparing the two relationships or looking for the meaning of one in the other or to consider them zero sum in that the gain by India is a loss by Pakistan is misguided.

Pakistan suffers from another faulty assumption of possibly becoming once again a bridge between the US and China. The fact is the US-China tensions are unfolding in full public view and if they are resolved that will be an open secret. The two countries can — and do — talk directly. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi just had marathon talks in Bali on the sidelines of the recent G20 meeting. These were preceded by a video exchange between Chinese Vice Premier Liu He and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen which was described as “constructive”.

Washington therefore does not need a secret channel or an intermediary like it did in 1971. Even if it did, Pakistan is no longer considered an honest broker. Pakistan hardly gives the impression of a serious nation.

Let us put that great historic role by Pakistan in bringing China and the US together into perspective. That will help us shed this faulty assumption that Pakistan may yet again become a bridge between the US and China. The fact is Pakistan only facilitated their dialogue. What ‘changed the world’ was not Pakistan’s role but the marathon talks between Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. And Pakistan was not in the room.

China has always overstated Pakistan’s role for its own reasons, partly out of a sense of gratitude and partly as a feature of China’s public diplomacy mythologizing China-Pakistan relations. It has no relevance to today’s geopolitics between China and the US. In fact, the US has not even shown gratitude. Gratitude is a matter of the past, a matter of history for the Americans. And for them history is the future not the past. This has been the capitalist idea of progress, both a great strength and a serious weakness of America. So Pakistan is far away from their thoughts for any replay of the role of a bridge with China.

As to the Middle East, Islamabad should not expect its old closeness with Arab countries to continue. Pakistan remains relevant but some of its historical importance may have dimmed in light of emerging alignments in the region. Flanked by Israel and India and patronized by Washington, a new economic and strategic axis is in the offing in the Persian Gulf, aimed at containment of Iran and limiting China’s influence. US President Biden during his visit to the region addressed a virtual summit, called ‘I2U2’ with the leaders of this grouping including US, India, Israel and the UAE. Washington’s hope is the grouping may enlarge and eventually link up with the Indo-Pacific.

Pakistan also wrongly assumes that its geopolitical position has an all-weather importance. It is an asset only for a stable and strong Pakistan. But for a weak and potentially unstable Pakistan it is a liability as it enhances the risk of external intervention. Its value also depends on the geopolitics of the day which has turned negative for Pakistan due to US-China tensions.

Then there’s Afghanistan where we suffer from more than one faulty assumption, the most salient being our perception that the Taliban and their rise is entirely an internal phenomenon in Afghanistan. This is not true.

Pakistan’s foreign policy glory days may not return but it has the potential to recover. This would require extraordinary effort to build internal strength, for which the country will have to abandon policies that serve only elite interests, either with little reference to the people or by feeding them with conspiracy theories. If you have no good options of governance at home you will only have bad policy options abroad.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and senior visiting research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

Originally published in The News