The long-awaited call from the US finally came through – but on the other end was Blinken, not Biden. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call to Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto has...
The long-awaited call from the US finally came through – but on the other end was Blinken, not Biden. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call to Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto has come at an opportune moment. Pakistan's foreign minister will likely be attending a food-security meeting at the UN headquarters in New York on May 18 – and though the ministerial conference will focus on the threat to global food security, there will be a host of other issues that will surely also come under discussion. There is no denying the fact that in the past couple of years, Pak-US relations have been at the lowest ebb in decades. There was some movement during the Trump presidency but none since then. Though there was a meeting between then-FM Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Secretary Blinken on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York in September last year, it failed to put Pak-US relations back on track. Former prime minister Imran Khan’s decision to visit Moscow at a time when Russia was all set to invade Ukraine was an ill-timed gesture that just added to the friction between Pakistan and the US.
Looking at the past one year, at least two major events have reset the power dynamics in Eurasia. First was the Taliban capture of Kabul and the Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan; the second was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. These events have had a direct bearing on Pak-US relations; and the inept handling of Pakistan’s foreign policy by the PTI government put the country in a tough situation internationally. Going forward, Pakistan will need to be practical about its relationship with the United States. For the moment, the Shehbaz Sharif government must be looking at some necessary damage control, due mainly to the conspiracy talk by the former prime minister – who has alleged that the US was behind his ouster. While the US has not always been a good friend of Pakistan’s, there is of course more than some merit in restoring ties to a better level. The most glaring reason is that the US is still a superpower, with considerable influence in global politics. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif may have a poor choice of words, but Pakistan can ill afford to permanently annoy a larger power such as the US; one could say the same about China too. The US is also the largest export partner of Pakistan followed by the European Union. And a large Pakistani diaspora lives in America and sends much-needed remittances worth billions of dollars. There is also the not-that-small matter of the IMF and the FATF, both of which are seen as heavily influenced by the US.
Pakistan must then explore the possibility of bringing Pak-US relations to a mutually beneficial turn. There is no need to compromise on the basic principles of an independent foreign policy, but there is no harm in utilizing all diplomatic sources for an improved bilateral understanding. Of course, mutual respect is one of the ingredients of healthy relationships and there is hope that Pakistan’s youthful foreign minister and the experienced minister of state for foreign affairs will be able to work on taking ties towards a positive trajectory. For Pakistan, development assistance and promotion of peace must be a prime objective. Despite an apparent lack of interest from the US in this region after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, and despite the transactional relationship Islamabad and Washington have traditionally had, what is necessary for Pakistan right now is to stay away from joining definite global blocs. The best foreign policy for the country is to avoid putting all its proverbial eggs in one basket –American or Chinese. With a new global cold war emerging, this will require deft foreign policy handling – ensuring Pakistan’s engagement with the US, with China, with Russia, and with the EU is based on mutual benefits and respect. And all this will need to be done keeping in mind the spin the PTI will give to any form of improvement in ties with the Americans.