How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love America

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love America
When I was a kid there was a hairdresser in our neighborhood who was a socialist—a socialist, pro-China Maoist type. This was in the early 1970s. He was a supporter of Bhutto Sahib with strong linkages to the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad. I have vivid memories of scanning through Chinese Embassy publications in Urdu at his shop while waiting for a monthly haircut.

I have memories of my father, who was a staunch supporter of Jamat-e-Islami and Maududi, and friendly arguments with the haircutter. The Chinese publications, mostly magazines in Urdu, were my first encounter with Chinese culture—my first impression about China, as far as I can recall, was a benign, soft and highly disciplined people.  The magazines were full of photographs of eye-catching Chinese landscapes, neatly dressed up Chinese military columns and Chinese industrial labor at work. These Chinese publications were neatly stacked on a side table in the hairdresser’s shop for everybody to read and observe. Despite five decades having passed, China's benign image has stayed with me. I think the majority of Pakistanis also possess a similar, rather benign image of Chinese culture.

However, foreign policies should not be based on any type of images or impressions. They should be based on concrete realities and facts, which a state and society should be able to perceive after a careful and thorough analysis of regional and international situations.

China is on a carefully chalked out path towards global power status. It will soon be the world's largest economy. It is building a correspondingly strong military. It is also fast emerging as a world leader in technological innovation. Regarding political prominence, it had laid the foundation of a China-centric sphere of influence in the shape of Belt and Road Initiative, which in the words of Western experts is aimed at replacing American-led, rules based international order, with its network of communication arteries spread into Africa, Europe, Central Asia, South West Asia and South Asia itself, with Chinese state and all its economic and financial might at the center of this huge structure.

This is not the China which was once declared the sick man of Asia, a backwater and an isolated state with which Pakistani military rulers of the first military government laid the foundation of a friendship which was higher than Himalayas and deeper than the sea.

Pakistani state leaders think and insist that the friendship is still higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the sea. Such a view will be a negation of geopolitical realities, which are ever changing. I am not at all suggesting we should doubt Chinese intentions. I am only suggesting that China is fast on the track to become a true world power—a political reality which the Pakistani state would ignore at its own peril.

As China surpasses the American economy and establishes its geopolitical footprints on a regional and global scale, its perceptions, its geopolitical, economic and military interests and its requirements will also undergo a sea change. The most pertinent foreign policy question for Pakistan at this juncture is how China’s interests and requirements will change and how it will impact Pakistan.

Americans, on the other hand, have an extremely negative image in Pakistani society, at the political level at least. "Americans ditched us in the 1965 and 1971 wars, and therefore they are not reliable friends." This provides the basis for America's image as an unreliable friend. The Chinese issued an ultimatum to India during the 1965 war. Therefore, Chinese are great friends. Nobody cared that the Chinese refused to come to Pakistan’s rescue during the Kargil conflict. It was the US President which saved the Pakistani military from a near certain total defeat. But I think the rule of “first Impression is the last impression” strictly applies here.

At a political level, Americans have such a negative impression in Pakistani society that anyone advocating a pro-American political line publicly could earn the epithet of traitor. This is the case, despite the fact that American cultural influence is pervasive—Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise would receive an unprecedented welcome in any of the major cities in Pakistan. The craze for American cultural icons in Pakistan is reflected in the fact that when, in 2010, a lunatic in America threatened to burn the Holy Quran, some media manager in the power corridors arranged for the then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to present a copy of Holy Quran to Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie who happened to be on a visit to Pakistan in those days. The photograph of Prime Minister Gilani presenting Jolie with the copy of Holy Quran with her head covered was made to appear on the next day’s newspapers’ front pages.

I will now dare to take a pro-American political line as part of my argument at the cost of being declared an outcast. My argument is not at all based on presenting the United States as a benign force; none of the world powers in human history have been benign. They simply cannot be benign in their role as a world power. I will not argue that Americans are good or that Chinese are bad. Both are powerful states with ambitions to dominate the world and their regions. For me, they are great economic and military giants with global ambitions and interests. I will present my argument as to why I am taking the pro-American political line on the basis of emerging geo-political realities and how they are going to impact Pakistani state and society.

I will present two arguments in support of my pro-American stance.

A US-China military conflict will impact Pakistan badly

Any change in the power configuration of the global power structure could, in the words of experts of international politics, could lead to a military conflict between the established world power United States and rising world power China. A direct military conflict between China and the United States would be disastrous for the world in general, and Pakistani in particular. Military experts opine that any military conflict in the South China Sea, where military tensions are perennially high, would automatically provoke a conflict in the Gulf and Arabian Sea region close to the Pakistan coast.

Pakistan, at present is facing an economic and financial crisis which could partially be attributed to the Russia-Ukraine war—a war in a far-off land. What will be the consequences of war close to Pakistan’s coast is not very difficult to judge. My argument here is that Pakistan is better placed in a world where Washington continues to be the dominant world power. Any change of power structure in world politics will adversely affect Pakistan’s survival as a state, especially if the change in power structure could lead to war between two superpowers. A counter argument could be that in the post-Cold War World, the United States has almost become addicted to war, as it has fought several wars after becoming the sole superpower in 1991. Maybe a bipolar world would be more stable and bring Americans back to their better, pacified senses. Pakistani elites should learn lessons from its foreign policy history. We should not become the vehicle for facilitating one or the other power's path towards world power. We have paid a heavy price in our history for such endeavors in the past. Pakistanis should favor a status quo in world politics.

America is a democracy and we should learn from it

Instead of milking Washington for financial resources as we have done during the Cold War or during the War on Terror, we should have learned from their political culture and political system. Despite the fact that our political elites are extremely malleable, they are faster in learning from authoritarian regimes than from friendly democracies. The last attempt at introducing an authoritarian style of governance, launched during the government of Imran Khan, backed by the military, coincided with heavy Chinese investment in infrastructure projects in Pakistan. I am under no false illusion that it was the last attempt.

There will be more forceful attempts to introduce an authoritarian style of governance in Pakistan. In a situation where the state is fast losing legitimacy, harsh methods are the only tool left in the elite’s hands. In the corresponding battle of ideas, I support the import of American political culture over an authoritarian style of governance. But the danger of the US security establishment preferring a military government in Islamabad on account of its geopolitical interests in the region is always present. However, Washington running its foreign policy on moral principles is my first preference and will remain so.

We are still facing the danger of the revival of the authoritarian style of governance in Pakistani society. In the past we had two variants. Zia’s military government stifled political freedoms and cultural openness. The Musharraf government stifled political freedom and allowed cultural freedom. We need a system where we enjoy political freedom, as well as cultural openness. To ensure both, a robust parliamentary democracy is the only answer.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.