Monday February 26, 2024

The America-first era

April 19, 2018

The man in the White House is in the midst of a political storm. Donald Trump chooses his team members on one day and sacks them the next. At one point, he insisted on withdrawing troops from Syria, but eventually decided to change his tack without an endgame and a future strategy when he carried out airstrikes in the country.

There is no plan of action that can explain what the US president means by his emphasis on ‘America first’. The FBI’s decision to raid the office of Trump’s personal lawyer – who is widely viewed as the president’s middleman in New York – and the findings gleaned from other ongoing investigations have revealed that the aggressive posture is only a diversion tactic.

An aggressive foreign policy towards powers like China in the America-first era is creating new and unnecessary tensions and shaping the basis for a new economic war that aims to block China’s emergence as an economic superpower, surpassing the US. Can Trump deliver on this promise to his voters? Can China’s rise as an economic superpower be prevented in any way? Not entirely.

For countries like Pakistan, the America-first era reflects a brazen disregard for their interests, considerations and viewpoints. It also depicts how the US is practising a solo-flight, one-sided imposition of policy prescriptions that are furthered by threats – of isolation, if not sanctions. A section of former Pakistani diplomats are already speaking about a new nexus among India, Israel and the US that is targeting Islamabad. This form of alignment will not allow America to achieve its desired goals in Kabul. For years, not much has been achieved, even though a pro-Delhi government has been in power in Afghanistan. This is a failed approach that is tampering with human lives and financial resources, and adding to the war fatigue.

Pakistani and American scholars and former diplomats gathered in Washington for a two day-conference, titled ‘Pakistan beyond seventy: the long view’, on April 16 and April 17. The event was jointly organised by LUMS and the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Although Washington and Islamabad may not have such a strong relationship during these challenging times, interactions among academia and diplomats have underscored the need for both countries to develop a relationship that doesn’t just pertain to the Afghan crisis.

In Pakistan, we often blame ourselves for the trust deficit created between Islamabad and Washington. Former US diplomats tend to blame Trump for adopting a strategy that neither serves America’s interests nor challenges the fundamental assumption that Pakistan is dependent on the US aid and financial help.

Dr Shirin Tahir-Kheli, an American political scientist, recently questioned the idea that America has leverage over Pakistan. She suggested that while countries like Pakistan could be influenced and persuaded, they could not be leveraged. Former ambassador Robin Raphel, who recently served as coordinator of non-military assistance to Pakistan, said that USAID spending money on advertising their development programmes was nothing more than a waste of money – a realisation that senior US diplomats at the US Embassy in Islamabad ought to have as well.

There are some former diplomats and academics who are seeking a tougher stance on Pakistan as they assume that it will yield results. But Ambassador Boucher, among others, suggested at the conference that Pakistan’s interests in the region must also be taken into account and China should be involved in the Afghan peace question. The poor handling of the post-9/11 situation with regard to Pakistan by the then assistant secretary of state Richard Armitage also came under criticism and was viewed as extremely insensitive. This is how states are now carrying out their foreign policies and building alliances.

At the policy level, the Pentagon and US State Department fail to realise that Pakistan isn’t dependent on financial aid and weapons supply from Washington and a tougher position will only push Islamabad towards China. Survival drives carried out by states offer new modes of thought and exploration and a series of alternatives. In the post-cold war era, it is no longer a matter of belonging to one camp or the other.

Growing economies and emerging powers tend to strengthen their relationship on the basis of diversity that is not centric to one country or power. If the past provides any form of guidance, Pakistan needs to keep its options open. The White House knows that Pakistan is not shutting its doors for Washington. It is a choice that America has made under Trump and his choices do not last long and could be reserved. A wave of uncertainty marks his presidency.

Before the US mid-terms elections, a tougher line against a few countries – including China, Iran, Syria and Pakistan – cannot be ruled out by the White House. Politics is essentially about domestic political interests and most surveys suggest the strong likelihood of Democrats making a comeback in Congress.

‘America first’ was a slogan that surfaced during the electoral campaign. It was a populous agenda and the people who formulated it are no longer part of Trump’s team. Not much is left on the president’s plate that can be used to entice American voters. It is going to be exceedingly difficult to assess the achievements of tariff imposition on China. Instead, the reaction from Beijing is more likely to hurt America’s industrial sector.

It was interesting to hear former top American diplomats espouse a positive approach towards Pakistan and express a firm belief in the country’s role as an economic engine that can prevent economic miseries, deficits, dependence and debt.

Do policymakers in Islamabad realise this? What opportunities does the country offer? With less than one percent of the population paying taxes in not just Pakistan, no country can either meet its economic and security needs or fund infrastructural development and pay off debt.

When pushed to the corner through faulty choices or the follies of others, a country that has to feed 200 million people must act with a sense of urgency – a trait that our leadership lacks. There won’t be a great leap forward if the leadership doesn’t learn from its old policies that haven’t worked. The America-first era comes as an opportunity for countries like Pakistan to look inward and achieve all that has been delayed.


Twitter @mushrajpar