International relations ought to be based on principles of reciprocity and mutual respect and bound by some semblance of international law. However, neither is usually true. Mutual respect being the belief that no one wants to practise, and international law being the mythically obscure creature it most certainly turns out to be with every passing day. International relations instead may be better described as being characterised by pragmatism, realpolitik and a substantial seasoning of good old ‘hypocrisy’.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said that the US would discourage any IMF bailout for Pakistan that benefits its Chinese creditors. The bailout that Mr Pompeo refers to is one that Pakistan has not requested for yet, and if requested is likely to be used, in some measure, for the servicing of Chinese debt held by Pakistan, which the US is averse to. This servicing of course is in the form of interest payable on Chinese debt held by Pakistan which is around $19 billion. The US meanwhile services roughly $1.17 trillion of Chinese debt. That’s roughly one trillion dollars more than Pakistan’s debt. Hence, the hypocrisy.
What used to be “do more” is quickly turning into “don’t do this” or “do this instead” or increasingly just “do whatever we tell you to do”. Never has an American administration been as openly hostile, and as openly assertive in its relations with Pakistan, as the current Trump administration. Sure, there are glaring inconsistencies in the relationship, that’s no reason for Mr Pompeo though to drop the veil of diplomacy altogether and go ballistic on a relationship that is still more or less functional. Surely, Pakistan should ask the US to “do more” on its part to salvage a relationship that Pakistan has openly attached significant importance to. So why is it not?
Diplomacy, by its very nature, is not required to maintain good relations. It’s quite the opposite. It’s only when relations are cold and distrustful that the nuanced touch of diplomacy is required to glaze over the ubiquitous shortcomings in “trust” and “mutually-beneficial relations” so that the conspicuous inconsistencies can be looked over to arrive at a “higher” ground of mutual understanding. That’s diplomacy, and now more than ever, it is what needs to be practised by Pakistan.
Fortunately, now it has the opportunity to do so too.
It fits perfectly with the Prime Minister to-be Imran Khan’s anti-status quo, revolutionary approach to government. Of course, this does not imply that he sets out on a singular crusade to rid Pakistan’s foreign policy of alleged compromised positions and inconsistencies. The aforementioned American example was intended to drive home this very point. Sure, there are inconsistencies in the US-Pakistan relationship, and sure the Trump administration appears to be as belligerent as is humanly possible while conducting foreign policy on Twitter. However, at the same time a deeper American establishment of its diplomatic corps continues to, quite successfully, glaze over the bricks thrown in to Pakistan’s windows by the US. Every time there is a potential fallout in the relationship, where the actions of either country threaten to torpedo decades of delicate diplomacy, a seasoned diplomat is jetted out to Islamabad by Washington to calm the nerves of leaders of both the countries. A substantial part of American foreign policy with respect to Pakistan is then being carried out through backdoor channels. Beyond the social media tirades and public statements, it is the quiet visit of the ever-potent American diplomat that soothes over the scars of a public back and forth, and renders it unnecessary for Pakistan to ask the US to “do more” publicly, as was asked above.
But is it really revolutionary if it’s not a policy of abandoning “hypocritical”, “politically-correct” diplomacy in favour of a Trump-esque “put your cards on the table” style, ‘unadulterated’ foreign policy?
Yes, it is.
Revolution does not imply doing what conventional wisdom regards to be the ‘right’ thing. Instead, a revolution is supposed to upend an existing system in favour of another different system. Anti-status quo then, to put it simply. Right now though, Pakistan’s foreign policy status quo isn’t exactly progressive nimble diplomacy carried out by precision surgical tools, instead it’s a reactionary policy employing diplomacy carried out largely by tools which are the equivalent of blunt rocks, as a successive retort to proactive diplomacy by other nations.
So, yes a revolution is in order. That is, a revolution ushering in a foreign policy characterised by proactive, nuanced diplomacy primarily, only to be aided by a secondary “public statements”-based policy to manage consistencies in our stances, not vice versa. Since, in any conflict, no one wants to lose face, and so the only way forward is to carry out diplomacy while keeping up appearances that would be evidently opposed to the former, as is done all over the world.
A good start was Khan’s inaugural speech right after the elections, where he essentially set out the foreign policy priorities for his incoming government. The constant of course was the all-weather, strategic partnership with the Chinese. The highlight of the priorities however was the softening of Khan’s stances on the US and India. Even with its shift eastwards, there is no reason for Pakistan to give up on its relationship with the US, albeit the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Since beyond these inconsistencies is a relationship that has outlasted deeper mistrust, and one that has admittedly not exactly been completely mutually beneficial, but has been some part of the same, which in international relations is as good as it gets.
With India, it is as necessary as it gets, considering we can’t ignore our neighbours. With issues ranging from a disturbingly-fast arms race to the future of water resources in an increasingly-thirsty sub-continent, and even more importantly the preservation of peace for the violence-stricken people of Kashmir and the sub-continent in general, relations with India need to be re-prioritised. As Khan rightly put it, the premise of the relationship between the two countries should not be conflict but poverty alleviation for one of the largest poverty-stricken populations in the world.
The solution then to any problematic external relationship, most noticeably the aforementioned two, is not going to be solely in reactionary policies based on public face-saving and catering to public sentiment, but primarily in the under-appreciated and under-utilised domain of persistent, nuanced diplomacy that is meant to outlast the severest of crises.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2018.