Let’s begin with the issue of protocol. The idea is grounded in the two concepts of equality and reciprocity. Ministers call on prime ministers and presidents, not the other way round.
In Pakistan’s case, our degradation begins with the violation of protocol. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, ended up going to the State Department to hold talks with Secretary of State, John Kerry. The meeting was followed by a working dinner. Nothing new in this. In 1998, Prime Minister Sharif went to the Pentagon and met with then Secretary of Defence William Cohen.
Perhaps I am nit-picking. It could well be that Mr Sharif met with Mr Kerry in his capacity as the foreign minister of Pakistan. Today, he will meet President Barack Obama as the prime minister. In between, I suggest a visit to the Pentagon as the defence minister, and he could always swing by the office of Ms Penny Pritzker as the commerce minister.
Ah! But I forget. Mr Sharif did get full protocol at Joint Base Andrews. I feel so relieved.
Now to the ‘strategic dialogue’ under the revived mechanism. (Aside: I love diplomatese.) But lest the more uncharitable ones call it lying, it’s not. Diplomatese is about withholding the truth, thank you.
Fortunately, I have no reason to do that. The strategic spread of US-Pakistan relations covers about as much as a string bikini and that’s not new. That has always been the case, pronouncements on both sides, more on ours than theirs, notwithstanding.
Strategic relations are about mutual interests. I cannot think of any time since the visit to the US by Liaquat Ali Khan when the two sides shared the same vision even as Pakistan was declared the ‘most allied ally’ of the United States. Examples abound but much is already known so I shall skip that part like I do the ads on banned YouTube clips.
The point is simple. The US sits atop the security architecture it created after the Second World War and has since tried to sustain. It has to deal with every country in the world; well, almost. It has both core and peripheral interests. It fights overtly and covertly for both. It divides the world into two categories: its allies and its enemies. The ‘allies’ category itself is sub-divided into two: permanent and temporary. With the first it deals strategically; with the second, tactically and under pressure of the immediacy of the situation. The tactical alliances have strategic significance for it in the larger picture but for the lesser state to think that an invitation to Camp David (Pervez Musharraf is a case in point) means the relations are strategic for it too is to willingly suspend disbelief.
Here’s the reality of the strategic alliance, taking 2000 as the cut-off year: President Clinton comes to Pakistan on March 25 for a few hours. He was returning from a five-day visit to India. President Bush came to Pakistan for a day, arriving March 3, 2006, and leaving the next day. President Obama, the man who wants Pakistan to play a very important role while he pulls troops out of Afghanistan in 2014 has yet to visit the important ‘strategic’ ally. Of his various visits abroad, he has been to Ghana and the Vatican City!
Obama’s other significant contributions to promoting strategic ties include ensuring the vast networks of spies inside Pakistan, which the CIA began putting on the ground during the Bush period, was made vaster and more reliable (the Raymond Davis episode is a good reminder of that); ingressing into Pakistani territory (Abbottabad); killing with deadly force 24 personnel of the Pakistan Army (Salala); refusing to apologise for Salala, et cetera.
But, if truth be told, much of what has happened and is likely to happen is owed to our poltroonery. Since we cannot manage our affairs and since, at the end of the day, we always run to Blair House, to use a metaphor, the US can do unto us what it wishes and we must take what is thrown us. Small wonder then that unlike the Melians, we cannot even ask the Athenian generals “And how, pray, could it turn out as good for us to serve as for you to rule?”
This is not a case against the US, it’s a case against us. The US is a world power, like it or not. Pakistan, like other countries, has to deal with it. But strategic relations are a function of interesting the world, not worrying it. I started with the issue of protocol. It wasn’t hair-splitting. It is a manifestation of how we look at ourselves. The external world is not going to grant us anything more than what we grant ourselves — in fact, less.
So, yes, the US needs us right now. It has to get out of Afghanistan. We have to help it do that. But does it go beyond that? Only to the extent that the US would want this area to be free of terrorism because that, in case we forget, is about the US’ strategic interest. Is it in ours too? I hope so. Because only then we could hope to build something that might look like a strategic relationship.
In other words, we have to embrace realism. Those who think that hawkish chest-beating is realism need to go back to an IR class because nothing could be further from truth. Ideological approaches constrain realist choices.
Finally, to be even-handed on the issue of protocol, this is what I had written during the PPP government when I saw the late Ambassador Holbrooke addressing a joint presser in Islamabad:
“… frankly, what was this freak show in Islamabad with the President of Pakistan standing in attendance like a spineless wonder?
“Did protocol demand that the president be in attendance when Holbrooke is holding a press conference with the foreign minister? … In fact, if protocol be made the benchmark, even the foreign minister should not have been there.
“Protocol is not snobbery; it is about the dignity of a government and that of the state and society it represents.”
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2013.