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.