Biden and Pakistan

Biden and Pakistan
Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. What should Pakistan expect? Put another way, how different would his foreign policy be from Trump’s? Short answer: in some ways it will be very different; in other ways not so much. But let’s get to the longer answer.

This analysis is premised on the argument that (a) structural constraints limit a state’s foreign policy options and (b) the foreign policy elites develop a set of images, to refer to Morton Halperin’s term, which develop overtime and “decisively shape the stand they take on particular issues.”

Since George H W Bush, Biden is demonstrably the most experienced foreign policy hand to walk into the Oval Office. His positions, both as Senator and Vice President were underpinned by what one could variously call liberal-internationalist, neoliberal or Wilsonian. This also means that difference in policy approaches notwithstanding, his weltanschauung is drawn from the dominant images that inform the Beltway’s view of the world and America’s place in it. Also, he knows Pakistan and this region very well.

Interestingly, in many ways Trump too skated fairly close to that set of images, though his style was brazen as much for adversaries as for allies.

So, what will Biden do that Trump didn’t or wouldn’t?

Domestic Front

More than foreign policy, Biden’s domestic agenda will sharply and totally differ from Trump’s. While Trump thrived on divisiveness, Biden will try to bridge the divide. His choice of cabinet is a clear indication of that. How to tackle the ravages of Covid-19, improve healthcare, streamline the economy, create more jobs, and mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic on working and middle-income families; how to deal with racial and religious discrimination against African-Americans, Muslims and Latinos; how to keep the Democratic party together and involve the left-wing and activists of the party, the Bernie Sanders votes, in Build Back Better. That’s great for America and the Americans who voted for him. But it is foreign policy where the rest of the world deals with the US. Anything new there?

Four Major Differences

Climate change is one, reaching out to allies savaged by Trump the second, multilateralism the third and revival of liberal values and rights the fourth. To put it differently, when Biden begins his term, he will change the course on issues where Trump diverged from standard neoliberal policies while tweaking those where Trump sailed closer to the bipartisan consensus.

What about the issues of concern to Pakistan? Five areas will determine US-Pakistan relations in the coming years: India, China, Iran/Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the security prism and US investment in Pakistan.


India has just signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, the final of the four foundational agreements with the US and there is bipartisan consensus in Washington on India as a strategic partner. Not much is going to change on that count, unless Biden decides to take note of grave human and religious rights violations in India. Three other factors will likely impact Biden’s approach to India: the rights violations in India (if the situation continues to deteriorate); Sino-India border dispute (if nothing untoward happens there) and Sino-US relations (if they improve). If these three factors work as listed and qualified, the US could begin to reevaluate its current approach to India. Chances, however, are that Sino-US relations are unlikely to improve to a point where such reassessment could come into play. If anything, the Biden administration will continue with the US’ pro forma approach to India’s terrible rights situation while deepening its strategic ties with that country.


Biden is unlikely to depart in any major way from Tump’s Afghanistan policy. Even during the Obama years, he was more interested in counterterrorism operations than the surge. Also, the US peace deal with the Taliban has reached an advanced stage, though progress remains stalled. There’s limited appetite in the US for continued troop engagement in Afghanistan. The Biden administration will continue to work with Pakistan closely to see this through, mainly because there aren’t many options left for the US. It will also demand that Pakistan make more effort to get the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire. Violence levels have seen a rise in that country and that is a major cause for concern for everyone, including Pakistan. There are no easy solutions in and for Afghanistan. On the talks front, the basic problem remains unresolved: i.e., the Afghan government negotiating team insists that a ceasefire must be a priority in the talks, while the Taliban want discussion of a ceasefire to come after an agreement on the shape of a future government. This issue is likely to drag on because President Ashraf Ghani is completely opposed to any new interim set-up that could prevent him from completing his term.


Biden will dial down the maximum-pressure policy against Iran, but he will stick to the fundamentals of the US’ approach to Iran. That policy looks at Iran’s role in the the Greater Middle East and considers it a threat to Israel. Biden has constantly declared “an ironclad commitment to Israel’s security” and it will be very unlikely that he will completely ignore Israel’s threat perceptions while dealing with Iran. However, while it will be difficult for Biden to walk back into the Iran nuclear deal, he could get the other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to help Iran’s economy by supporting the deal from outside. That will, however, depend on Iran’s own actions with reference to the JCPOA.

Saudi Arabia 

Biden has talked about “end[ing] our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen”. But it is unlikely that he could assign lower priority to relations with Riyadh. That policy is structurally guided, given several factors in the Middle East. However, he is unlikely to give Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of KSA, a pass on the latter’s more egregious policy decisions.


Biden has talked about mustering the support of the allies (which Trump “kneecapped”) to counter the China threat. His statements and the Foreign Affairs article make it clear that there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington DC on China. That said, he will be far more alive to the consequences of treating China solely as an adversary. He will seek cooperation in areas of mutual benefit. China has already signed a trade agreement with the European Union and is the central plank of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the largest free-trade bloc in the world. Trump, during his presidency, chose to opt out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then the largest trading bloc and which formed the core of Obama’s Pivot to Asia policy. Biden comes to the job with China already ensconced comfortably as the world’s leading state in terms of trade partnerships. Similarly, Biden would need China’s cooperation on Climate change, another area whose science and urgency Trump could never fathom.

Security Prism

The US will tweak its approach a little. This is what General Lloyd Austin said in his confirmation hearing: “I will focus on our shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds. Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan. We also need to work with Pakistan to defeat al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and to enhance regional stability.”

To another question, he said: “I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations. Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”

The mention of IMET and military-to-military relations is the carrot to incentivise Pakistan to act according to US interests. While those interests can converge in Afghanistan, they will continue to diverge on India and Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China.

US investment in Pakistan

Pakistan’s relations with the US, even in the supposedly halcyon days of President Ayub Khan, were transactional. The ebbs and flows have depended on when the US has needed Pakistan and how Pakistan has managed to take advantage of US needs. The last twenty years were no different and the coming four years won’t be, either if Pakistan cannot market itself in the US. That policy needs to understand the significance of entrepreneurial innovation, making the Pakistani market attractive for investment, increasing the market size and so on. These factors help a state interest other state(s) and denote positive engagement.

To sum up, if tensions in the Middle East come down, Afghanistan moves towards some stability, there is improvement in Sino-US relations and a scaling down of relations with India, US-Pakistan relations could see improvement. All these are several big ifs. However, as argued above, for relations to become more strategic and less transactional, both sides must find areas of interest and increase cooperation in those areas.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.