We have been here before. Relations between Pakistan and the United States in their continual ebb and flow have yet again arrived at a juncture where we find ourselves aghast, staring into the abyss of strategic disjuncture.
This time it was Trump’s first tweet of 2018, delivered in his usual bombastic style, which upended bilateral relations. While Trump’s “twitter anti-diplomacy” has disrupted more subtle American intercourses such as Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy,” there is altogether nothing entirely new in this scenario, for there is no decisive “Trump doctrine” that might have replaced the combined Bush and Obama doctrines.
At the same time, the narrative of Pakistan’s precarious role in facilitating and at once disrupting America’s strategic interests and objectives in the occupation of Afghanistan continues unabated. However, there is something new in the way the world is reshaping in terms of security arrangements given declining American hegemony. While these developments are all too familiar, deciphering the new from the old — rupture from continuity — is yet another matter altogether.
When Bush gave his 2001 ultimatum of, “You are either with us or against us,” it appears Pakistan wryly responded with something half-muttered to the effect of, “We are with you and we are against you.” Hence, Pakistan has inadvertently inherited a schizophrenic double-role in the first imperial war of the twenty-first century that lethargically wrangles on in a long tail-end stalemate.
As this schizophrenic double-role has evolved over the years, any analysis deployed to understand if the current disjuncture is a rupture or a continuity must be equally schizophrenic: a) either nothing has changed, or b) everything has changed.
In order to comprehend either of these equally plausible outcomes, they must be considered in relation to two distinct levels of analysis: 1) domestic politics and 2) international relations. The narrative of Pakistan’s complicity with the other side and the precariousness of the alliance has continued since day one of the global war on terror, however, it does different work in the two countries at the domestic and diplomatic levels.
Donald Trump prides himself on being able to spot a bad deal from a mile away and it appears he is announcing to his white middle class suburban electoral base that he has, in fact, spotted a bad deal in security ties with Pakistan. No doubt, the hackneyed Pakistan double-game narrative has been crudely re-deployed by Trump for political ends but this must be understood more in relation to domestic messaging rather than him crafting a new policy.
The idea that Pakistan takes support from the United State and it then uses it to harm American interests actually fits Trump’s presidential campaign narrative like a glove. Ultimately, this is no different from rapists, drugs and criminals flooding in from Mexico to destroy the American society, or the EU duping the US into paying the bill for Nato, or China stealing industrial jobs from American workers and then flooding their market with cheap goods. In each case, Trump simplistically frames the US as an innocent victim of a more conniving nation.
Ultimately, Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t change that much, for he still hasn’t laid a single brick of the wall that Mexico is supposed to pay for and the bill for Nato he drew up for Angela Merkel in a crude undiplomatic gesture also has so far amounted to nothing.
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At the other end, in Pakistan, domestically the tweet has stirred a media-political controversy, which nevertheless echoes the impasse of the Kerry-Lugar bill imbroglio. Being an election year, 2018 brings with it an impassioned strand of domestic politicking whereby it is always more fruitful in local siyasat to stand up to US hegemony and reassert Pakistan’s integrity on the news media.
The anti-American trumpet calls and the heated statements issued by various politicians on Pakistani media must again be construed to be more in conversation with the local voters than directly with American policy makers. The strategic situation is related less to political rhetoric and more to the now smoldering theatre of war in Afghanistan.
Very little, almost nothing has changed: Pakistan, being the gateway to the fabled graveyard of empires continues to occupy a privileged strategic position. On one hand, the US may have left the door open to the continuation of security aid provided Pakistan does its bidding, suggesting that this impasse will lead to a thaw and continue the same pattern leading into the Afghanistan endgame with Pakistan playing the part as America’s scapegoat.
On the other hand, Donald Trump, with his foot in his mouth, might have made the ultimate policy gaffe by slamming the door shut on its own troops after declaring a sizable surge. If it materialises at all, the latter effect will likely take time to play out for international realpolitik realignments are usually much slower to take shape than the rate at which domestic politicking makes the trumpet calls.
The world around us is in fact changing: There is a sense in the world that Donald Trump’s historic election at the end of 2016 at the heels of a British exit from the European Union signalled a major realignment of the world system. Although this scenario has been over estimated to some extent, it signals something more symptomatic of the instability and uncertainty brought about by the withdrawal of an ageing and worn out superpower.
In international relations, the Hegemonic Stability Theory purports that when a nation state gains primacy as a dominant power in the world system, it orders the system according to its interests and prowess. At the end of the Cold War, the world system transitioned from bipolarity towards unipolarity, with the US emerging as the sole hegemonic superpower to bring about the New World Order. Three decades later, the newness of the world order tarnished, and US hegemony tainted.
The influence of the superpower is rapidly declining, more or less exacerbated by Trump’s selective isolationism while China and Russia have begun to encroach on American exceptionalism.
Understanding any possible realignment between Pakistan and the US inadvertently opens a tinderbox of international quagmires. At the end of 2016, America unceremoniously lost footing in a major conflict in Syria, giving Russia and Iran the upper hand. Iran had already become a regional hegemon after the US pre-emptively invaded Iraq in 2003.
The policy now appears to be to use a reconsolidated Saudi Arabia, instead of Saddam’s Iraq to counterbalance the growing Iranian influence. With a proxy war underway next door in Yemen, a major flashpoint in the Middle East threatens to eventually suck in Pakistan, further complicating its alliance with America.
At the end of the day, Iraq and Syria both turned out to be massive misadventures for US military aspirations while Russia has emerged as a formidable challenger. After subtly but forcefully crowding out the US from Syria, Vladimir Putin is also alleged to have entirely disheveled US domestic politics as well by surreptitiously influencing Trump’s election (triggering a major constitutional crisis).
These shape-shifting Cold War dynamics will play out in the coming years. Mythical signposts and writings on the wall now point the embattled and weary superpower back to that fabled graveyard of empires whose gates happen to be guarded by that Kafkaesque gatekeeper, Pakistan.
Whenever dialogue becomes frosty with the American leviathan, Pakistanis instinctively tend to glance eastwards to the Himalayan behemoth of China. Nothing has changed because the old formula of the US balancing China with India, and Pakistan balancing India with China while expressing tacit support for the US is still in full effect.
While China is, no doubt, the rising power to challenge the unitary superpower, its goals and instruments are mostly economic and trade-driven. The process of world-systemic change may have been underway since the turn of the century, but this will not be an instantaneous realization — it will be a much more gradual process.
We may not be experiencing the omens of a newer world order just yet. Everything may gradually change as the terms of the endgame in Afghanistan begin to seep in and gradually determine how the balance will be tipped in the coming decades.
For now, the only thing certain, other than the rapid escalation of uncertainty, is that Pakistan will continue to hold a privileged strategic positionality in the region, and consequentially in the world system. In the coming decades, it will be up to our priorities in the national and international arenas that will determine our fate: whether we leverage this temporary but significant positionality in the service of long-term national interest, or squander it in the pursuit of illusive short-term offerings made by imperial hegemons, or become poisoned by our own venom.