Can Pakistan-US relations find a new common denominator?
The emerging multipolarity in international relations has obliged states to reorient their external relations to suit their interests. This has led to a series of multi alignments, un-alignments or purely transactional relationships. The world as we knew it over the past 70 plus years has changed. The Cold War and the era of unipolarity have gone. The general framework of international relations, with subtle shifts in power and resources, presents a new malleable canvas to work on.
Pakistan is still operating on old and now vanished assumptions. The so-called golden age of foreign policy had meant a security alliance of sorts with the US and a healthy economic relationship with China. The rent seeking element inherent to Pakistan’s foreign policy was dominant. It meant that over consumption economically could be sustained without holds by serving the interests of the US against the Soviet Union and later, Afghanistan. Pakistan’s interests could be secured within this essential framework.
The demise of the Soviet Union and now the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has rendered this rent seeking behavior invalid. So, to forge closer relations with the US, with a security nexus, Pakistan seeks to again offer cooperation with the US vis a vis Afghanistan, particularly in the counter-terrorism domain. In the wider sense, the US-China rift makes it impossible for Pakistan to take a pro-US shift. In any case, the US-China relationship is evolving and has many elements of cooperation and competition. Moreover, Pakistan-China relations are old and time tested and do not allow the possibility of ambivalence.
Pakistan’s strategic irrelevance is also due to its poor economic performance. On the brink of default, Pakistan is seeking help from the IMF, which in turn requires closer relations with the West.
India has taken the lead, for its own reasons, to take responsibility for furthering US interests in the Asia Pacific region. It is now a strategic and defense partner with the US and is well equipped economically and in terms of human resource to play the long game. Pakistan cannot compete with India against China. For all intents and purposes, the US-India partnership will be the defining element of Asian geopolitics. It means that the strategic corridor to Washington DC will go through New Delhi for the foreseeable future.
Pakistan’s strategic irrelevance is also due to its poor economic performance. On the brink of default, Pakistan is seeking help from the IMF, which in turn requires closer relations with the West. Submerged in debt, Pakistan’s economic viability is seriously in question. To beseech assistance is not honorable. But there is no alternative. The Pakistani elite are used to comforts, and will do whatever is required to sustain their privileges. In short, the era of rent seeking and high living is now no longer sustainable.
All of this requires a denouement of sorts domestically and politically. The present political polarization and the discourse on independent foreign policy is an off shoot of the economic controversies that will have a far-reaching effect. Pakistan will likely walk away from the brink of default but will have no realistic chance to assert its geopolitical relevance. The leadership crisis may be a turning point in Pakistan’s evolution as a state and society. The hard fact is that there is no short-cut to hard work to regain Pakistan’s position as an independent and sovereign state.
Pakistan-US relations are important. The US is Pakistan’s main export market. There is also a high number of Pakistani expat community in the US that is relatively well placed. The band of cooperation that is now being indicated centers on trade, investments and possibly energy transactions. For these areas to prosper, we require political stability and economic certainty. These are elements that are missing for now.
The rent seeking option is now no longer available. For the US, Pakistan’s importance has dwindled. For the US, Pakistan at best is like Dhaka in South Asia. It is time that Pakistan hunkers down, builds its inherent strengths and capitalizes on its own resources. Having multi alignments like India, alongside normal relations with all its neighbors, is a better way to survive and prosper.
- Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.