Bye, bye American pie?

If Congress cuts assistance to Pakistan, this might be the kind of relationship both countries should have

Bye, bye American pie?
My editor suggested I take a look at the state of Pakistan-US bilateral relations (perhaps I have been spending too much time on Donald Trump), so I have perused various articles in other publications in the past few days to see what is drawing attention to this careworn question.

Interestingly enough, all the articles I found looked at the Pakistan-US bilateral relationship through the prism of resource transfers. Now, we know that bilateral relationships involve much more than resource transfers—ideologies, religious affinities, assumptions about law and government structure, and many other intangible things. But we can count resource transfers, so that is where we start when judging the relationship.

The first article that elicited my attention reported a recent State Department public document laying out the arguments for the USG maintaining healthy, robust economic and military assistance programs to Pakistan. Congress appears to be poised to cut both sides of US assistance programs in the annual budget bill. Majorities in both parties are clearly suspicious of Pakistan as a completely trustworthy ally, worthy of continuing to receive very generous amounts of such assistance, and have their budget scalpels out on the Pakistan bill.

There were several articles which pointed out that the relationship between the two countries had evolved from the “strategic partnership” envisioned by the Kerry-Lugar legislation of five to six years ago, into a transactional relationship. They seemed to imply that was a worrisome thing. Another article that drew my attention was by Ishrat Husain, a Pakistani colleague at the Wilson Center this year. He began his article by viewing the Pakistan-US relationship through the resource transfer prism, and wasn’t at all horrified to report that the US Aid budget for Pakistan was being cut substantially. Pakistan needs, he wrote, to wean itself off aid dependence. He then switched to measuring it in the context of the dwindling number of Pakistani students coming to the US for graduate school training in the sciences or mathematics. He found this alarming, as do I, because, as he mentioned, the US is still the world leader in science, scientific research, and mathematics training in the world, and Pakistan is likely to fall behind its peers as a growing number of students from those countries are receiving PhD degrees in science and math from US universities and using their training to benefit their home countries. I agree with him as to the detrimental effect this will have on Pakistan, if it continues, but I doubt whether this decrease in number of students is a function of bilateral relationships of any kind (and if so why does the US get over 100,000 such students from China, in contrast to about 6,000 from Pakistan). I suspect the primary reason for this low number is probably the huge deficiencies in Pakistan’s primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems.  

But it is the assertion that the relationship was something other than transactional in earlier years that I think needs exploration. A strictly transactional relationship is defined by Wikipedia as a relationship “in which both (or all) parties are in it for themselves, and where partners do things for each other with the expectation of reciprocation.” In the other words in perfect transactional relationships, for every quid there is a quo—and while the values may differ, they are considered by the parties to be equivalent.

Foreign relations and diplomacy are far too complicated and subtle for bilateral relationships between countries to be strictly transactional. But, in a sense, most are largely transactional in a complicated way. Except, I think, for some of the Scandinavian countries, most Western countries give foreign assistance, not just to contribute to the development and growth of the recipient, but also to give them access and leverage on such things as UN votes. And in any case, if the recipient country becomes more prosperous and developed, surely more democratic, because of that assistance, most democratic aid-giving  countries would consider that quo to be in their long term interests. As cynics have noted for many decades, aid-giving countries often give assistance to countries to do things that are in the recipients’ interest. Often the recipient would not be able to afford the level of resources for more rapid development (and also sadly too often the leaders of the recipient country would want the resources required for their own uses).

And there is a negative transactional sense in bilateral relations involving resource transfers. Aid-giving countries use their programs sometimes to demonstrate disapproval of a recipient countriy’s policies. In the US-Pakistan case this has happened overtly at least twice. In 1965, the Johnson administration stopped most military assistance to Pakistan at the beginning of the 1965 war with India. The second example is the cut-off of almost all our assistance programs under the Pressler Amendment because of Pakistan’s insistence on continuing to develop nuclear weapons.




An aside here is that non-democratic, authoritarian countries also provide development aid, or so they call it, and provide other kinds of resource transfers through investment that can benefit a recipient. They clearly use some of their assistance to advocate the “benefits” of the authoritarian system of governance.

Our assistance programs to Pakistan have always been transactional in both a positive and a negative sense. Either we wanted the Pakistanis to do something or to stop doing something. In the 1950s and early 1960s, our assistance programs were aimed at improving the development of Pakistan, a country which was aligned with us against the Soviets. Our more massive assistance of the 1980s was the quid to help a country which was helping us in the final phases of the Cold War (although we didn’t know that at the time) and the quo was Pakistan’s assistance in the proxy fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets. And since 2001, US assistance has been to secure Pakistan’s cooperation in the so-called War on Terror.

The present attack on Pakistan’s foreign and military assistance programs is surely primarily Congress’s message to Pakistan (and the ISI) over continued smoozing with the Haqqani network (and I note that, in spite of the State Department paper mentioned above, it has not exactly elicited the threat of an administration veto). Despite the arguments that the assistance programs for Pakistan continue to be in US vital interests, this will continue to be a sore spot affecting Pakistan-US relations that many will seize upon make a point.

I want to end with one other thought. And that is to go back to my Wilson Center colleague, who wrote that cutting US assistance to Pakistan may be a good way to wean the country off aid dependence. There is an argument, made brilliantly in a paper earlier this year, that Pakistan has been able to live beyond its means for almost 40 years because of its strategic geopolitical position. Generous resource transfers when relations were good and Pakistan was involved in political efforts which benefitted both the US and Pakistan were part of that. Generous financial flows from the international financial institutions when political relations were not so good and resource transfers had dwindled were another important part. In the latter instance, clearly the US and some other Western powers are complicit as they, in reality, are very influential in the IFIs. One thing they could not countenance, even when cutting assistance programs to make a point, was the possibility of a Pakistan gone bust and in danger of political failure. Pakistan was always bailed out. It was, and probably still is, too geostrategically important to fail.

It is all about resource mobilization. In 1985, Pakistan’s revenue/GDP ratio was 14%. Now it is below 9%. Wouldn’t it be ironic, however, if the US winding down its assistance is the act of tough love Pakistan needs to start getting its economic house in order?

This article was updated September 15, 2016 with certain changes made to enhance clarity by the author.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.