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January 12, 2018

Making rational choices


January 12, 2018

The tidal waves of optimism about a smooth democratic transition in Pakistan are now on the ebb, with fissures widening on the surface of the political landscape. The rift between the establishment and the ruling PML N vis-à-vis national security and foreign policy matters has become visible beyond rapprochement.

Some political experts have termed this polarisation a state of political anarchy. Apparently, there is a doctrinal crisis in the democratic process in that the political forces are fighting for constituency domination at the cost of ideology and national issues. In an era of globalisation, our idiosyncrasies of localising global debates to serve our narrowly defined political agendas make us unique. Our national security narrative lacks political realism when it speaks of taming global demons like Donald Trump.

Also devoid of any strategic and diplomatic depth, the oft-repeated national security narrative promises to make us proud by using our capability to give a befitting response to our enemies. The narrative goes something like this: ‘we can punch our enemy back in the face with an iron fist.’ Whether it is our mischievous neighbours or a condescending president of the US, we have the capability to bamboozle our enemies with our political and military genius.

This introversion or narcissism has deep-rooted historical and political reasons of course, one of the key reasons being our failure to institutionalise the political, diplomatic and policy discourse. We have not been able to appreciate the interconnectedness of security, economy, politics and growth as being the fundamentals of a stable and prosperous democracy. Despite our nuclear capability, we are by no means more powerful than global superpowers like the former USSR that crumbled under the weight of its highly sophisticated nuclear arsenal. The nuclear capability and military might of the USSR could not save the country from the inevitable collapse that arose from a stagnant state capitalist system.

Trump is an embodiment of US imperialism and its changing political interests in South and Southeast Asia. We, on the other hand, have not even been able to establish cordial relations with crucial neighbours like Afghanistan, Iran and India, to counter unilateral actions of the US. Even with China we have not been able to strike a broad-based people-centric economic and political deal under CPEC. This is why our diplomatic response to Trump seemed rather ambitious.

Let us accept the fact that Pakistan is no more an inevitable ally that would serve American interests in the region. India and Afghanistan have developed diplomatic and economic relations with Japan and South Korea, and this new political arc has been drawn to encircle Pakistan. Both the Pakistani military and its civilian leadership must stop with their current tug of war to devise a well-articulated foreign policy that could address challenges of the newly emerging regional political realities.

The political impact of Trump’s aggressive anti-Pakistan campaigns can be diffused through regional engagement rather than knee-jerk aggression. The diplomatic ‘fire and fury’ inflicted upon Pakistan through the media and its corollary that came in the form of suspension of security assistance to Pakistan needs deeper thinking than a frivolous diplomatic response of the political and security establishment of Pakistan. This country has failed to evolve a discourse on political engagement, re-engineer the process of policy formulation, strengthen institutions of democratic governance and present the country as a partner in diplomatic deals with the US.

One can envisage the impending crisis of maintaining the security juggernaut as US military assistance plummets. The Trump administration has upped the ante against Pakistan. This is, of course, not the first time that Pak-US relations have hit a bumpy road, but the difference this time round is that the emerging geostrategic reality is not dependent on Pakistan anymore.

The increasing economic and political interdependence between the US and India and the receding diplomatic influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan are some indications of a turbulent political future for Pakistan. All the while, the mainstream media and our self-proclaimed security experts are busy bashing Trump for his undiplomatic overtures.

The counter political narrative, stemming from our indecent proposal to close-down social development funding in retaliation, is the worst choice to make. This is a thoughtless and impulsive reaction. The real losers of this retaliatory political move are development sector workers and associated workforce of Pakistan. If the government decides to ban social development projects it will only adversely affect Pakistan, without even making a dent to the American narrative. It will be the social development professionals from the country’s educated middle class who will bear the brunt of the ongoing projects being closed down.

The development sector in Pakistan has already faced severe blows due to a blind and blanket ban on NGOs. While it is vital to increase scrutiny, carry out security checks and ensure institutional transparency, as has always been the case with all institutions in this country, there must be a well-defined policy yardstick and political will and commitment to carry out institutional reforms. The platforms of civic engagement are crucial for democracy to flourish. A blanket policy with the singular objective to ban avenues of civic engagement has resulted in encouraging a sense of despair among the educated middle class in this country.

Around 8,000 highly educated people were deprived of gainful employment during the last one year only. The scrutiny and screening of international transactions concerning development grants and funds is the foremost step to ensure effective utilisation of funds. This must be brought under an institutional regulation that has well-defined parameters of initial screening. NGOs and professional and social development workers at times face harassment due to unwarranted inquisitions of regulatory and security institutions. It is time we reflected upon our self-inflicted agony, and addressed the broad-based issues outlined in this article, rather than wrenching the weaker and vulnerable institutions.

The Pakistani establishment and civilian governments relished the country’s geostrategic importance during the cold war. The real game-changer this time is Pakistan being closer to China than the Western powers that despise China’s westward expansion. Pakistan has come a long way in redefining its political and economic priorities with an enhanced inter-state relationship with China. The emerging Chinese economy offers opportunities to Pakistan but it would be a folly to put all eggs in one basket.

In international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies; there are interests that shape the relationship. It is fine to boast of our friendship with China if it is based on rational political choices but if this becomes a repeated political mantra that is inevitable and an absolute necessity, then it is not in line with the basic principles of international relations. We must be a nation that has the capacity to make rational choices and has the political commitment to safeguard the interests of citizens first.

Would it be sane to expect that a nuclear power that does not know how to make rational choices will get a fair deal in the larger economic cooperation projects like CPEC? What should be our response to the American diplomatic offence? Let us apply the best principles of international politics which suggest that we take up a policy of engaging and diffusing political pressure through regional alliances. Let us pause for a moment and come out of the dharna-led internal political wrangling for a larger cause. This requires that we have statesmen and political leaders who have the vision, the commitment and the will to take Pakistan forward as a developed country.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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