Pakistan-US relations in the new age

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By Salman Bashir

As the shape and substance of global and regional discourse change due to new contestations and increasing acrimony among major powers, Pakistan’s diplomacy must step up to the requirements of the unfolding new age. Foremost in this regard is the imperative of preserving and deepening its bonds with the United States. 

Pakistan’s relations with the US have mainly been a function of Washington’s regional priorities in terms of its global interests. History attests to the validity of result-oriented cooperation between the US and Pakistan which proved mutually beneficial in securing shared outcomes in the monumental global struggles of the twentieth century for freedom and justice. 

Pakistan was a treaty ally of the US in the 1950’s and 60’s. It facilitated a thaw in the US-China relations in the 1970’s and arranged the first visit to Beijing by the former US secretary of state, Dr Henry Kissinger. Pakistan played a decisive role in the last hot front of the Cold War in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. Post-9/11, it contributed to the defeat of Al Qaeda and success of the global war on terror. 

For decades, Pakistan was also a major US non-NATO ally.  For Pakistanis, participation in these historic enterprises was not only a matter of self-interest but also conviction, underpinned by shared ideals and values. In those heady days, America was the icon of freedom, human rights, civility and humanity that deeply resonated with people. 

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America was also the land of opportunity and destination for the best and brightest among the youth for acquiring knowledge and earning a living. The US landing on the moon was carried live and followed on the radio by millions of Pakistanis. America was the future, a source of inspiration, and a sure pathfinder for progress of mankind. 

The USAID programs contributed to the development of agriculture, and Fulbright scholarships opened avenues for education. Even today, building of hydropower projects and construction of extensive irrigation networks remain enduring features of eminent US contribution to Pakistan’s development. Pakistan’s defense forces were recipients of US training and military equipment, and the US support for Kashmir was critical to the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions on the issue. 

In short, Pakistan and the world have benefited immensely from the US leadership. America’s soft power held a universal appeal and was anchored in lofty principles. The world wants to see the US renew its moral authority and commitment to the international order that was largely developed by Washington itself, promising a better future for the peoples of the world. It is time not to lament the passing of the unipolar moment but only to rejig major power relations on the basis of cooperation. 

Realpolitik is not enough unless imbued by ideals and values. For Pakistan among others, the drift in US-China relations is worrying. The US-India defense partnership may upset the strategic balance between Pakistan and India and encourage Indian hegemony in the region. 

Pakistan and China have enjoyed cooperative relations for decades. China has also contributed significantly to Pakistan’s economic development. It is our hope that frosty winds of global geopolitics do not impose a chilling new order of alignments and counter alignments in South Asia. Unlike Europe in the previous century, Asia should not become an arena for great power contestations. It will be extremely negative for Asian countries to be confronted with a “for us or against us” choice. 

Pakistan must do all it can to preserve and strengthen its bilateral relations with both the US and China. The imperatives of global interdependence warrant cooperation, not confrontation. Pakistan can be helpful to both and commit itself to working for progress and peace in its broader region. 

With the US, Pakistan must endeavor to develop an “independent” track for its bilateral relations based on mutual respect and interest. This requires deep conversations on identifying elements of an agreed pathway, shorn of great power friction. It is also necessary to jettison old mode of thinking of strategic partnership, transactional relationships and zero-sum games. 

Pragmatic cooperation, especially in the domains of economy, education and technology, is the way forward. Moreover, private sectors should be the primary driver for forging mutually beneficial ties. Pakistan must work its own framework for regional economic cooperation and seek US and international support for it. It is also important to create a business-friendly environment. 

In short, premium on economics is the surest way to promote Pakistan’s development, earn good will and escape the maelstroms of global politics. 

(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.Twitter: @Salman_B_PK)