Thursday June 01, 2023

Pakistan: from alliances to the multipolar world

August 14, 2022

Pakistan has been vulnerable to the international power structure since day one. The entire world was facing severe changes at the time of Pakistan’s independence since World War II was coming to an end. The world order shifted from multipolar to bipolar, led by the two superpowers, USA and Soviet Russia. Therefore, Pakistan had to make an extremely difficult choice, right off the bat, just when they started going through the decolonisation process. Which superpower should they choose as their principal ally in order to survive the new bipolar world? The then decision of joining the US camp is still criticised by many quarters. In fact, Pakistan’s engagement with US has always been a marriage of convenience that is why, geopolitics drives this partnership sometimes on track and sometimes off track. In the beginning of 21st century a paradigm shift occurred due to 9/11 and today’s world became a complex amalgam of unipolar and multipolar order. Pakistan’s foreign policy needs a balancing act between the powerful West led by the US and European Union separately, and the emerging East led by China, along with keeping friendly relations with Russia. Hence, the evolving international power structure is still a persisting external challenge Pakistan.

All historians can agree on the fact that the partition of India occurred in a haphazard way. Pakistan, as a nascent state, inherited a number of crises because of this, making the formulation of a successful foreign policy a daunting task.

Security concerns due to their neighbouring countries being riddled with conflict convinced Pakistan’s decision makers to seek friendship. Initially, Pakistan tried to make allies by gathering Muslim states but that was in vain. Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan received an invitation of visit from the USSR, but the dates were not feasible for Pakistan’s therefore, foreign office attempted to reschedule the visit. However, the response of the USSR, regarding new dates remains a mystery. Eventually, Liaqat Ali Khan visited the US but due to his sudden death in 1951, no alliance could be materialized. Hence, Pakistan was only able to join American alliances in 1953. While, after World War II, the political structure of the world had changed and it now ran on both a new ‘International System’ and a new ‘World Order’. Two superpowers of the time, USA and USSR, making it a bipolar world order. This era was known as the ‘Cold War’ in which both superpowers were expanding their alliances by being mindful of the security and economic needs of new states. This was the international context that encouraged Pakistan to join the Western alliances. But later on Pakistan’s friendship with China and wars with India were the major setbacks to this alliance finally, it ended with the debacle of Dhaka in 1971. The separation of the East Wing was a great turning point for Pakistan, even during the Cold War. It was widely believed by the citizens that Pakistan lost the war with India because of the US’ reluctance to assist them. Therefore, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was already a popular leader, preferred to emphasize on bilateralism by focusing on bilateral ties with a number of states. Hence. came the Shimla Accord with India, financial and political assistance from Saudi Arabia, Libya, UAE, Iran and mending relations with Russia and the US. However, this only remained functional till Bhutto era. The next few rulers were somehow unable to continue bilateralism in a successful way. Pakistan’s second partnership with the US was over Afghan Jihad and afterwards, their third partnership with the US during Musharaf’s era showed a continuation of the ‘Alliance System’. However, divergence of interests still dominates Pakistan-US ties. The first decade of 21st century was the peak of unipolar order led by the US, but the financial crunch of 2008 and later emergence of China as the second largest economy of the world, followed by the 2015 Russian intervention in Syria, changed the dynamics of international power structure and weakened the US hegemony in unipolar order.

The rise of China compelled US to make India a strategic ally while a divergence of interests with US encouraged Pakistan to cultivate a new strategic partnership with Russia. Both sides are gradually developing these new alliances. Pakistan needs to make a balancing act of foreign policy in order to address the challenges associated with the declining unipolar and emerging multipolar world order. But, this seems impossible with our intense political instability and ailing economy.

It is ironic that immediately after independence, we were criticising PM Liaqat Ali Khan for visiting the US instead of Moscow and now, after 75 years, we are debating over why the former Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Moscow at a time when Russia launched war over Ukraine.

Here, the question arises: which approach is suitable for Pakistan for survival in the world? The answer is: a hybrid approach, clubbed with soft power as a fulcrum to highlight Pakistan’s domestic achievements for the world.

-The writer is a Lahore based researcher and teaches international relations to civil service aspirants. He can be reached at: