Morality and the Pakistani state

Published: July 4, 2012
The writer is an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC. He tweets at @pakistanpolicy

The writer is an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC. He tweets at @pakistanpolicy

What if Pakistan were the world’s sole superpower? Would it behave any differently from the United States today? Would it treat the less powerful in the same way that Pakistanis currently expect their country be treated by the US? Would Pakistan stand up for freedom and justice around the world, which is what is demanded of America? However improbable such a scenario might be, asking these hypothetical questions allows us to think more clearly about power, morality and the behaviour of states.

For Pakistan, having a more coherent perspective on the world and how it works is imperative now more than ever. The country has been at loggerheads with the most powerful state in the world — perhaps, the most powerful state in the history of mankind. That power is now at the beginning of its decline. What lies ahead is a world order in which America will be one of many great powers. Pakistan — neighbour to two states that will undoubtedly be big players in the emerging global system — is struggling to find a meaningful place amid this transition. A rational, structured way of viewing the world is a prerequisite for finding that place. Unfortunately, the discourse in Pakistan is disproportionately grievance-oriented. It centres — self-servingly — on how things ought to be, without much consideration of the responsibilities of Pakistan toward shaping that ideal reality.

An exaggerated sense of grievance makes it difficult to see how things really are. It blurs the other side of the image — the side that shows that in many instances, Pakistan is the wrongdoer. It incorrectly assumes that Pakistani weakness is absolute. Power is, in fact, largely relative. In certain relationships, Pakistan has the upper hand. For example, Pakistan’s behaviour towards Afghanistan mirrors its complaints about how the US treats it. By no mere coincidence, Pakistan is as disliked in Afghanistan as the US is disliked in Pakistan. So, how would Pakistan behave if it were the world’s sole superpower? Based on its track record today, which includes a heavy-handed counter-insurgency in Balochistan and the use of insurgents to install a favourable government in Afghanistan, it would be difficult to see Pakistan being a beacon of light unto the world. Most probably, Pakistan, with a political culture that decidedly lacks restraint and values, would fail to meet the expectations it has set for others, including the US.

Concerns about Pakistan’s foreign policy might be dismissed as irrelevant moralising, as if ethics should govern the actions of only the absolutely strong. Henry Kissinger — no rosy-cheeked idealist — recently wrote: “We will be less frequently disillusioned if we emphasise a foreign policy designed to accumulate nuance rather than triumph through apocalyptic showdowns.”

By nuance, Kissinger is referring to norms, rules and institutions that govern world order. Accumulated nuance is the advancement of humane values and behaviour both tempered and sustained by compromise and consensus building. Responsible powers — big and small — can work together to construct regional and global systems that produce stability and create the space for progress. These human ventures will be flawed, wanting of true equity but they will be steps forward in an evolutionary process.

This week, saner heads prevailed as the US and Pakistan averted an apocalyptic showdown. Both countries are moving on after a seven-month impasse. There is an opportunity for both countries to accumulate nuance. Pakistan has an opportunity and a responsibility to help solve the Afghan problem — to bring an end to the misery of Afghans suffering under decades of war, to subdue the monsters made in Pakistan that now consume it and to provide America with the confidence that neither Afghan nor Pakistani territory will be home to groups that will pose a credible threat to the US.

International politics need not be a zero-sum game. In Afghanistan, Pakistan can find a way to win — but that victory cannot be its alone.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2012. 

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (20)

  • Falcon
    Jul 5, 2012 - 12:59AM

    Very good article. Certainly makes a reader think. If we had been taught less than rosy history of Muslim Rule in the last millennium, we would have better understanding of how the power is accumulated and exercised. Rather than getting up and re-building ourselves, we are busy crying like a baby on how the world is unfair to us. I once read an interview of a person whose father told him at a very early age, “The world is unfair. Get over it”. I think we need this lesson more than ever.


  • whats in the name
    Jul 5, 2012 - 2:10AM

    I would rather prefer one single superpower for a simple reason that Nature too prefers that way. Earth and other planets revolving around sun. Sun and other stars revolving across the galaxy. Single center of gravity is what I meant. There cant be two power structures. You have either the executive powers vested with the PM or the President,but not both. Same hold true for countries. The smaller ones following, revolving the bigger ones.

  • kaalchakra
    Jul 5, 2012 - 6:15AM

    Given Pakistan’s long history of taking principled stands on all issues, Pakistan would have made an ideal superpower. A country that has continuously struggled to bring justice to people everywhere in the world even as non-superpower, would have worked absolute wonders if it really were a superpower. Pakistan stands for one and one thing alone – justice: Justice inside Pakistan and justice outside of Pakistan.


  • yousaf
    Jul 5, 2012 - 8:00AM

    @author::’What if Pakistan were sole super power of the world.May God bless you.Btw how much of Pakistan is a STATE in true sense of the word?


  • gp65
    Jul 5, 2012 - 8:32AM

    @kaalchakra: ” A country that has continuously struggled to bring justice to people everywhere in the world even as non-superpower, would have worked absolute wonders if it really were a superpower. Pakistan stands for one and one thing alone – justice: Justice inside Pakistan and justice outside of Pakistan.”

    Your post is delusional at best.
    First check with people who were ruled by Pakistani rulers. Ask present day Bangladeshis who were once part of Pakistan if they were treated justly. Ask present day Balochs, Hazara Shias and Ahmadis living in Pakistan if they feel they have been treated justly. SInce Hindus and Sikhs have been annhiliated alltogether there are not enough left to even ask if they were treated justly by Pakistan.


  • gp65
    Jul 5, 2012 - 8:34AM

    Very thought provoking article by the author. One issue though it is not entirely hypothetical as to how Pakistan would treat other countries if it were a superpower. Its record of how it has treated various minorities provides pretty strong clues.


  • Shyam
    Jul 5, 2012 - 1:04PM

    Pakistan stands for one and one thing alone – justice
    If it were about justice then Pakistan would sentence itself to lifetime imprisonment in a mental institution


  • choptocut
    Jul 5, 2012 - 2:28PM

    very good artilcle, this thought is needed on the tv media very badly.


  • BlackJack
    Jul 5, 2012 - 2:36PM

    Very interesting op-ed. Currently there is only one country that Pakistan sees itself to be more powerful than – Afghanistan. Apart from being the original source of most of what ails that country, current actions also indicates a continued attitude that a medieval sovereign would hold for an irksome vassal or a colonial power for one of its more difficult colonies. However, Pakistan as a superpower is stuff that would sell lots of comic books (the Darkseid variety) or dystopian fiction. The same would hold true for any ideological state – once the existing boundaries are secured and peaceful, there would also be a new frontier to cross; petro-dollars have already managed to radicalize a significant segment of the population from Muzaffarabad to Mali – a country the size of Pakistan with disproportionate muscle and a father complex to match would be bad news for India, and probably for the rest of the world as well.


  • Aryabhat
    Jul 5, 2012 - 2:44PM

    Brilliant article! Superb!

    @ Kaalchakra – I want to smoke what you are…….


  • harkol
    Jul 5, 2012 - 2:54PM

    Here is a prediction:

    Once USA pulls out of Afghanistan and Pakistan has very little handle on USA – USA will keep funding Afghanistan’s non-taliban forces, continue to spoil Pakistan’s designs and perhaps will also resort to Punishing Pakistan through explicit sanctions & market denial.


  • Hunter punter
    Jul 5, 2012 - 5:00PM

    Here’s another prediction.Once US and Nato leave afagnistan, Insurgency and violence will sharply increase in Afgan-Pak border. Any civil war will elgulf and singe pakistan. very bleak times ahead.


  • Jul 5, 2012 - 6:01PM

    Very very good article.

    We fail to realize in our daily lives that we don’t stand up to the principles we expect others to follow.

  • yousaf
    Jul 5, 2012 - 6:10PM

    @Kalachakara::Your comments are often to the point and enlightening.What happened this time?Have you been at odds with someone or what.Your comment on this article is quite irrelevant with reality.Firstly you said Pak’s long history is of taking principled stands on all issues…I wish it was true ,but?.Next you said Pak.struggled to bring justice to people everywhere in the world.For this all I can say is,’Kar nai daaney—Ammaa chali punnaney’.next you said Pak.stands for JUSTICE and JUSTICE ALONE.Here I will say that It is not a bad idea to live in a fool’s paradise because that is the most comfortable place to live in and while-away one’s time at leisure


  • sidewinder
    Jul 5, 2012 - 8:39PM

    @Kalachakara:,is it only me who feels he is being Sarcastic?


  • kaalchakra
    Jul 6, 2012 - 12:37AM


    You have a point. Pakistani leaders have often not been able to live up to the great ideals of Pakistan. Often, like other humans everywhere else, they have fallen short of the great tasks given to them by Allah. But overall, Pakistan itself is and represents a noble idea.

    If you look at the US, or even the former USSR, on the other hand, you find greed, vanity, blindness to virtues, hegemonic disregard for others, force and violence – these traits are woven into the fibre of predatory capitalism and Godless communism. The enormous harm these ‘superpowers’ have brought to the world – as evident from Palestine to Kashmir to Afghanistan – is a consequence of their misguided, human-manufactured, artificial ideologies that are naturally subject to opportunistic change and manipulation.


  • Mahakaalchakra
    Jul 6, 2012 - 4:07AM

    Morality and Pakistan state?

    Both in the same sheath?


  • Ali tanoli
    Jul 6, 2012 - 5:43PM

    Do we really know what kind of peoples lived on this planet i dont think so then please dont write or say most powerfull country in the history of mankind i dont believe it?


  • Zahid Hussain Ali
    Jul 6, 2012 - 8:56PM

    There is always room for improvement. And for this world politics must be based on morality. Politics devoid of morality would certainly have characteristics of predatory capitalism and Godless communism. The World leaders to whichever country they belong to just want to grab power to subdue the weaker sections of their states. To strengthen their hold on power they follow state models which suit their ulterior motives. Their motto is “Might has always been right” without having the faintest idea how the history would remember them.


  • Mir Agha
    Jul 12, 2012 - 1:54AM

    “rationality” is an emotional idea. What ails Afghanistan is its own folly.


More in Opinion