Palmerston’s wise words as true now as 170 years ago

Palmerston’s wise words as true now as 170 years ago

When it comes to international relations, making predictions can be a perilous pursuit. The world is, and always has been, a complicated and ever-changing place. Trying to make sense of global affairs and trying to prognosticate the direction of global diplomacy is never easy.

And yet, if there’s one truism that helps explain what makes the world go round, it’s a dictum originally attributed to British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston in 1848: There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
The latest evidence to support this 170-year-old assertion can be found in the recent deliberations of the Financial Action Task Force. On Feb. 23, it approved a motion to place Pakistan on a watch list of nations that fail to take sufficient measures to curb terrorist financing. The decision will take effect in June.
One of the most striking revelations was that China, one of Pakistan’s closest friends, did not oppose the motion to place Islamabad on the watch list. While the reason for Beijing’s position is not completely clear — FATF’s deliberations are notoriously opaque — media reports have indicated China was offered a deal: If it didn’t oppose the motion, other FATF members would support a greater future role for Beijing within the organization. Sure enough, news has now emerged that China has been elected vice-president of FATF.
Few, if any, countries have offered Islamabad as much support in global forums as China. Beijing has repeatedly vetoed attempts by India, Pakistan’s bitter enemy, to gain entry into the prestigious Nuclear Suppliers Group. It has also blocked repeated Indian efforts to get India-focused, Pakistan-based militant leaders designated by the UN as global terrorists. More broadly, China is a long-time patron to Pakistan, having provided generous security and economic assistance over the years. It is currently overseeing an immense $62 billion transport initiative known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This entails the development of roads, power plants and other infrastructure projects across Pakistan.
And yet Beijing’s FATF decision underscores an essential point: Interests, not charity or other forms of benevolence, drive China’s actions. It seeks to project influence in global forums and a high-level position at FATF helps achieve that aim. More broadly, China undercuts New Delhi in global forums because of its own interest in keeping India — its biggest strategic rival — in check. CPEC, meanwhile, is part of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative: An effort to facilitate access to far-flung markets to feed China’s fast-growing economy, and also to expand China’s global influence.

Friendships and rivalries are subject to fluctuations and Pakistan received an unwelcome reminder of this reality when its Chinese ally let it down, possibly in order to gain more power for itself.

 Michael Kugelman 


China’s interests sometimes lead it to act in ways that work against Pakistan. In 2008, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari went to Beijing seeking financial support amid a growing balance of payments crisis. The Chinese rebuffed his request for concessional loans. More recently, China has signed up to declarations emerging from various global forums — from BRICS to the Heart of Asia conference — that condemn the threats posed by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, two India-focused Pakistani terror groups. These are groups that, according to Washington and New Delhi, enjoy ties to the Pakistani security establishment.
Public messages from Beijing and Islamabad constantly emphasize permanent friendship. They are replete with the soaring rhetoric of “all-weather friendship” that is “sweeter than honey” and “higher than the Himalayas.” And yet ground realities highlight how this rhetoric is just that — rhetoric. 
The world is fraught with examples of nations’ interests transcending not just friendships, but bitter rivalries as well. In recent years, we’ve seen the Obama administration choose to overlook Washington’s decades-long hostility toward Iran to pursue a nuclear deal with Tehran. Pakistan, which supported the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980s, is now moving closer to Russia. Both Islamabad and Moscow are increasingly isolated and in search of new friends.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any failsafe friendships or irrevocable rivalries. The US-Israel relationship, though it faced several tests during the Obama administration, has arguably never been stronger than today. Japan and India boast another of the world’s deepest partnerships. The China-Pakistan relationship will remain warm as well. Meanwhile, relations between Indians and Pakistanis, and Palestinians and Israelis aren’t about to experience any sustained detente or reconciliation any time soon.
And yet, friendships and rivalries are subject to fluctuations. Friends are not always friendly and enemies are not always hostile. At the end of the day, it’s not relationships that make the world go around, it’s interests: Cold, hard, deeply entrenched and immutable interests. 
Pakistan received an unwelcome reminder of this reality on Feb. 23, when its close Chinese friend let it down, quite possibly in order to gain more power in yet another global forum. If Lord Palmerston were still around today, he would have had a simple message for Islamabad: “I told you so.” 
Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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