A tough call

December 19, 2021

Does Pakistan’s decision to skip the US democracy summit represent a bold foreign policy posture or a missed opportunity?

A tough call

The US invitation to the ‘hybrid regime’ in Pakistan for participation in its Summit for Democracy appeared to be an endorsement and an indication that the former was willing to acknowledge the latter as a democracy. However, Pakistan has decided to skip the event.

“Pakistan would have benefitted by participating in the summit and making a case for a more nuanced understanding of what democracy is and how local context defines democratic values,” US-based analyst Raza Ahmad Rumi tells The News on Sunday.

On December 9 and 10, President Biden hosted the first of two summits for democracy. These brought together leaders from governments, private sector and civil society in an effort to set forth an “affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.”

Pakistan was among the few invitees including Iraq, India, Philippines, Poland and Brazil, against whom the civil society and the US State Department had raised concerns on account of serious anti-democratic trends and human rights violations. Reportedly, more than a quarter of the invited countries were deemed only partly free in the democracy watchdog Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report. According to the report, three invitees: Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq, are not considered free at all. Except for Pakistan, all these countries participated and tried to take advantage of the opportunity to present a democratic self-image.

A tough call

According to Rumi, Pakistan’s decision not to attend the summit appears to be an effort to show solidarity with its long standing ally and friend China and the new/ emerging ally Russia. The US perspective on global affairs is laden with democratic rhetoric in which both China and Russia are painted as authoritarian states by mainstream US media as well as the State Department. Pakistan thus had a tough choice to make.

“Pakistan’s decision was not wise for three reasons. First, Pakistan has its own independent foreign policy and choice of allies. Continuing to engage with the West will not harm its relationship with China and Russia. Second, Pakistan’s economic interests lie primarily with the West. The EU is an important destination for Pakistan’s export under the GSP Plus arrangement, while the US is the largest single country destination of Pakistan’s exports,” he says.

“Pakistan is currently negotiating another IMF programme. It is also facing a difficult time at the Financial Action Task Force. For these reasons, it is imperative not to ruin its longstanding security and economic relations with the US. Third, the current setup, identified as a hybrid regime, would have benefitted from participating in a democracy summit because the US invitation amounted to an endorsement. They were willing to consider and acknowledge Pakistan as a democracy. Pakistan has wasted that opportunity and although the US has not given an official reaction, it may have contributed to a further cooling of bilateral relations,” he says.

“Pakistan is negotiating another IMF programme. It is also facing a difficult time at the Financial Action Task Force. For these reasons, it is imperative [for Pakistan] not to ruin its longstanding security and economic relationships with the US. Also, the current regime, described as a hybrid, would have benefitted from participating in a democracy summit. The US invitation amounted to an expression of willingness to acknowledge Pakistan as a democracy,” says Raza Rumi

Rumi suggests that there is an urgent need for Pakistan to repair its relationship with the US and there is no room for inflammatory rhetoric or hardline stances. “Pakistan is knocking at the West’s door for assistance. If that were not the case, it could have chosen this approach without a worry. This has resulted from a weakly-implemented foreign policy,” he says.

Rumi does not see immediate serious consequences from Pakistan’s absence from the summit, but says that it would add to a cooling of the relationship. “Things are already serious. President Biden has not contacted Prime Minister Imran Khan since he took office almost a year ago. Given the situation, there was a need to make an effort to improve the diplomatic and political ties.”

A tough call

“Last November, in his statement congratulating Biden on his victory Prime Minister Khan had specifically mentioned that he looked forward to the democracy summit. A year later, the US attitude toward Pakistan can only be described as cold. The issue of a phone call has been a major point of criticism for Mr Khan from the opposition. The relationship between the US and Pakistan during the Trump term has deteriorated under the Biden administration. One of the factors hindering improvement in the relations is an impression that it was with the help of Pakistan that the Taliban were able to swiftly take over Afghanistan and cause embarrassment to the US. Since the fall of Afghanistan, the mood in Washington toward Pakistan has been dour. While two Congressional delegations have visited Pakistan in recent weeks, including a Senate delegation ostensibly to discuss Afghanistan, the Biden administration has narrowed the scope of the relationship to limited engagement on Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has taken this as a snub. This may have been a reason Pakistan declined the invitation.”

A second factor in the decision may have been China. Pakistan and China are close partners. Pakistan is benefitting from Beijing’s $62 billion Belt and Road Initiative. Both countries also have a long-standing military and strategic partnership that dates back to the 1960s and have a common enemy in India.

In a speech last week, PM Khan said that Pakistan did not want to be part of any bloc. He said it wanted instead to help bridge the gulf between China and the US. Nevertheless, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lijian Zhao, recently tweeted that Pakistan had declined to attend the summit and was a “real iron brother.” The tweet reinforced the impression that Pakistan had declined the invitation to show support for China, which was represented at the conference by Taiwan.

Addressing the participants of the virtual summit, President Biden had cited the US Declaration of Independence. “American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions, to recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation captured in our Declaration of Independence, not unlike many of your documents.” Biden also stated that democracy was suffering worldwide and required action to maintain it. “We say, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all women and men are created equal endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” Biden said the event was a way for nations around the globe “to lock arms and reaffirm our shared commitment to make our democracies better” by sharing ideas, fighting corruption and protecting human rights. The president said the summit was “a kickoff of a year of action” and that the plan is for countries to report back one year from now to discuss their progress.

Talking to TNS, Shoaib Adil, a US-based Pakistani journalist, said the decision to skip the summit was a foreign policy failure. “Given its bad human rights record, extrajudicial killings, rising cases of forced disappearance and restrictions on religious freedom, Pakistan needs a clear and transparent foreign policy, like India. When the foreign media puts questions to Pakistan’s foreign minister on Balochistan, Taliban, China and human rights, he tries to sidestep these questions. Despite the strained relations between China and the US, there has been no impact on their bilateral trade. Instead of portraying India as mother of all evils, Pakistan should try to face the reality and have a clear foreign policy based on democratic norms. The civil government and its diplomats cannot defend a foreign policy dictated by the military establishment.”

Talking to the media last week, Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also criticised the government for skipping the summit. “Pakistan was not in a position to deprive itself of any forum. Even if an ally raises objections, we can counter their views and our views [at the forum] but we should never cede space. In my opinion, this was a mistake at the foreign policy level,” the PPP chairman said.

The writer is based in Canada. He has studied religion, culture and global justice. He can be reached @RanaTanver

A tough call