It is dangerously premature to anticipate the state of US-Pakistan relations under Trump. But he is such a curious phenomenon that we are all in a hurry to unwrap him as if to know whether the package is a gift or an explosive.
Let us see. We know enough about the man and his ideas but precious little about his policies. He is narcissist, imperious and wilful. But he would not have his way. American system hamstrings autocratic and whimsical tendencies unless they enjoy domestic consensus; and that happens only in times of war and often with grave consequences. Post 9/11 wars were a case in point. Here you cannot make policies specially on critical issues without some bipartisan political support. Can Trump do that in a divided nation? No. Yes the Republicans control both Houses but it is a divided party and he is not an authentic Republican.
Now where does this leave the US-Pakistan relationship? Well the honest answer is we don’t know. It is too soon to tell. We have no major foreign policy speech of his to go by and we have no idea who his Secretary of State will be. All we can do at this stage is explore the context that will likely host the relations and look at Trump’s personality and whatever little we know about his national priorities, approach to foreign policy and his advisers. And make an educated guess about the relationship. We don’t have a crystal ball — Trump broke it.
In foreign policy terms his make America great again may translate itself into a nation that is militarily and economically strong and unbound by globalism and multilateralism. And has a free hand to pursue its national interests even unscrupulously as Trump did as a businessman. Simply put, America comes first. He is non ideological and willing to cut a deal with anybody.
The focus will be on economy and domestic issues, and in foreign policy largely on challenges that are related to jobs and economy at home, like trade deals and immigration, and security threats like terrorism specially the IS brand. Much of the geo strategic issues may take a back seat to be handled by the State Department. If history is any guide Presidents who are not very knowledgeable like him end up relying on institutions. And that is what he may do on most issues including US-Pakistan relations. Of course Pentagon and the big military industrial complex will have a big say. But he is not looking to start any wars. In fact the effort will be to extricate Washington from the ongoing conflicts. He may turn out to be the first real post 9/11 President.
He will be tough on China and trade deals and on the Iran nuclear deal and relations with Mexico but I don’t see any big departure in relations with major allies. And even in dealing with China, Iran and Russia if he finds some common interests like cooperating with China on North Korea and with Russia and Iran in fighting the IS he may do it.
President Obama had shifted the focus away from real wars to a Cold War with China. This strategic shift known as pivot to Asia dovetailed with his fondness for India, a country that was to be the linchpin of this grand design to balance China. US-Pakistan relations had got subordinated to this strategy and Obama’s vain efforts to fix the failing Afghanistan war. Not to mention the concern about the jihadists and Pakistan’s nuclear programme.
Under Trump and a resurgent Pentagon the Pivot to Asia may become an exercise to strengthen US military presence in the Asia Pacific rather than over depend on India and other partners. Trump will be close to India but not at the expense of Pakistan since as a businessman he would hate to lose a partner. But he will be hard on a bad partner. Washington can congratulate itself that the pressure on Pakistan to act against the jihadists seems to be working at least in inciting a civil military argument, if nothing else. Trump is not going to give it up specially if he listens to the likes of Newt Gingrich and John Bolton.
Main question will be what to do with the Afghanistan war. If Pentagon has its way the American presence and engagement in Afghanistan will continue. That will mean Pakistan will continue to derive its importance from the war as well as face pressure. But unlike Obama Trump may not feel invested in the war. And like a businessman he may like to cut and run. After all he has lived with bankruptcies. The question at that stage will be who does he outsource the task of cleaning up after? To Islamabad?
My guess is he is not going to walk away from Pakistan. And here is why. There are limits in how far you go in relations with India. India has been a hard country to please more than Pakistan. And US-India relations alone do not fully respond to America’s foreign policy objectives in the region. It is not just America; China too is pivoting to Asia, and to the Middle East, and Pakistan is where the two pivots face off. From Washington’s perspective, Pakistan should not be left entirely dependent on China. Among other reasons for a relationship with Pakistan: it works as a card against India, and as India Pakistan relations also impinge on American interests Washington needs to remain engaged with both the countries, at least for crisis management.
A frustrated Obama concerned about his legacy and a Pentagon angry about failing Afghanistan war had taken it out on Pakistan with the help of a fickle Congress ever sensitive to public opinion that had turned very negative towards Pakistan. Under Trump who will have no personal or political baggage this coalition may disintegrate. What will emerge in its place? We don’t know. All we are certain about at this stage is the uncertainty. And that his foreign policy will not be as scary as we fear.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2016.