Trump tension

South Asia warily waits for the new president to declare his outlook on the region

Trump tension
If we want to understand how Pakistan-U.S. relations are likely to be affected by a Donald J. Trump presidency, it would help to step back and take a historical overview of how they have developed over the years to ascertain their likely direction in the coming years.

The period of history dominated by the Cold War from 1945 to 1991 was a struggle between two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, for power, influence and resources around the globe. Some post-revisionist historians brought the concepts of ‘realism’ and ‘national security’ into the mainstream debate and argued that America’s post-war expansion was based on its national security considerations (domestic and external) as it sought to develop a strategic sphere of influence to safeguard its national interests, advance its power and influence, access overseas markets and resources, forge economic and military alliances with regional powers, provide conventional and nuclear security guarantees to its allies, and maintain its nuclear superiority—all of which were the hallmark of a truly global empire.

South Asia as a region played an important role in enabling U.S. global supremacy by enabling the unipolar world order after the defeat of the Soviet Union in the final decade of the Cold War and its subsequent breakup. A post-revisionist explanation rooted firmly in realism and U.S. national security imperatives explains the advance of American foreign relations with countries in the region. India and Pakistan chose opposite sides of the superpower divide during much of the Cold War even though they both actively continued their flirtation with non-alignment.
Pakistan and the United States have had relatively good relations during the military regimes in Pakistan. Under military regimes, Pakistan's alliance relationship with the United States has been military-oriented while under democratic regimes, the emphasis has been on economic assistance in addition to the military aid. Pakistan's threat perception of Indian aggression against Pakistan has justified Pakistan's decision to reach out to the U.S. for military alliances since 1954

In analyzing Pakistan’s alliance relationship with the U.S., three levels of analysis provide considerable insight. At the individual level of analysis, the variable of leadership helps us understand Pakistan’s alliance behaviour dictated by its leaders at different times in history. Pakistan’s foreign policy has been a product of personalism. Pakistan’s alliance formation with the U.S. from the first decade of its independence to date has largely been a product of personalized foreign policy decision-making dictated by the parochial interests of the military and democratic leaders alike. In its sixty-nine years of independence, there have been three decade-long governments run by three military rulers: General Ayub Khan (1958–1969) followed briefly by Yahya Khan (1969–1971); General Zia-ul-Haq (1977–1988) and General Musharraf (1999–2008). Pakistan’s experimentation with democracy has been brief but even in the years it has enjoyed democratic regimes, its foreign policy decision-making has remained personalized. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971–77), Benazir Bhutto (1988–1990 and 1993–1996), Mohammad Nawaz Sharif (1990–1993; 1997–1999 and 2013 to date) and Asif Ali Zardari (2008–2013) are those democratic leaders who have interchangeably filled the years in between the military regimes. The lines between the stated and perceived objectives of the alliance have been crossed by these individual leaders to strengthen domestic public opinion at home in favour of or against the alliance with the U.S. as and when it has suited the needs of their governance.

At the state level of analysis, an explanation for Pakistan’s alliance formation behavior can be discerned from the regime type. Regime type has influenced Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan and the United States have had relatively good relations during the military regimes in Pakistan. For example, under Ayub Khan (1958–1969), Zia-ul-Haq (1977–1988) and Musharraf (2000–2008), both countries have enjoyed extended periods of military and economic alliance. Under military regimes, Pakistan’s alliance relationship with the United States has been military-oriented while under democratic regimes, the emphasis has been on economic assistance in addition to the military aid. In either case, Pakistan’s military has benefited with a strong military and economic alliance with the United States in and out of power.

The systemic level of analysis provides rich explanations for Pakistan’s alliance formation behaviour. Given its chronic security dilemma vis-à-vis India, the objective of Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. during the Cold War and later with China was always to balance against its number one threat: India. Born in an anarchic international system, Pakistan as a small nation-state was pitted against a huge adversary on its eastern border with whom it shared a bloody history of partition and a disputed territorial claim in Kashmir. On its western border, the state of Afghanistan refused to vote in favour of its entry into the United Nations in 1947 and raised the issue of Pashtunistan, demanding freedom for the Pashtuns residing in the North-West territory in Pakistan. With no military assets or capability and a weak bureaucracy, Pakistan sought to align itself with the biggest power and the richest country in the world at the time: the United States. Pakistan’s threat perception of Indian aggression against Pakistan has justified Pakistan’s decision to reach out to the U.S. for military alliances since 1954.


The future under Trump

U.S. priorities in sustaining its global alliances were challenged to the core by candidate Trump. As president-elect, will Trump be able to re-set American alliance priorities keeping in line with his campaign promises? The world will have to wait and see. Pakistani foreign affairs bureaucracy should not automatically assume that nothing would change. Although I have stated elsewhere that geopolitics and its compulsions don’t change with a change in administration, Pakistan would have to pay special attention to how it would market what it has to offer to an America led by Trump—a businessman and commander-in-chief rolled into one. Transactional and episodic as it has been, the Pakistan-U.S. alliance is prone to breakdown owing to incompatibilities that have historically arisen given their objectives and expectations from each other. And if Trump becomes that president who believes that America’s presence in South Asia as an extra regional force is not in the U.S. interest, then Pakistan would need to revise its own strategic calculus to formulate an independent regional policy not dictated by its India threat or U.S. presence in the region.

An inward-looking Trump administration would also have (positive) consequences for India-Pakistan crisis stability. Historically, the U.S. has played an active and critical role in managing India-Pakistan crises. But consider this: in the next crisis, a call goes to Washington from either Islamabad or Delhi seeking the traditional U.S. support in diffusing the crisis. If Trump stays true to his campaign promises about distancing America from externalities that don’t have a direct bearing on U.S. national security as re-defined by Trump, then he could care less. Trump could tell both countries to stop out-sourcing their crisis-management to the U.S. as they have historically been doing. That would be a rude awakening for which India and Pakistan should prepare ahead of time. And that would involve finding ways to bilaterally strengthen mutual deterrence and enhance crisis stability which would positively affect the strategic stability in the region.

For now it is a wait-and-see game but Pakistan does not have the luxury to wait much longer. One thing is clear, Pakistan needs to redesign an assertive yet independent foreign policy with minimal dependence on the United States in the coming years. Reinforcement of strategic alignment with China through CPEC is thus wise and timely.

Assistant Professor Dr. Rabia Akhtar heads the School of Integrated Social Sciences and is the director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research at the University of Lahore