A bumpy road ahead
by Sherry Rehman
Interpreting Donald Trump is the new normal for the world, with good reason. The newly minted leader of the not-so-free world can in theory, and over time, reshape the fabric of US policies by an unprecedented hold on all state institutions, including the Houses of Congress, the White House and judicial appointments. This in itself is a huge critical mass of power in one party, with new implications for replacing gridlock with bulldozers.
Be that as it may, first policy responders agree that campaign rhetoric will likely sift its way to the middle ground of US institutional politics, particularly on big issues such as US intervention in the Middle East. Minus a strong guide to a history of Trump in political office, statements such as the ‘Brexit-plus plus’ road to reversing globalisation and trade integration indicate an agenda that privileges the economy first to address the red map of restive American voters who feel their leadership, especially in recessionary times, has ignored their needs.
Given his urgent need to sharpen a big-picture policy agenda, pivoting to South Asia and Pakistan will likely not be his first priority. If and when that happens, three big trends will likely come into play. For clear, coordinated policy responses, reality checks matter.
One, irrespective of what rebalancing means, the Trump administration will count more on India as their first strategic pivot to Asia, so continuity with the Obama White House’s tilt, especially on the NSG, will not undergo game-changing review. Indian markets and diaspora penetration into the Republican power machine is high, and articulated as one of America’s most empowered ethnic communities. Trump’s embrace of hyper-nationalist governments matching his own brand of evolving conservatism will come more naturally to his administration than bonding with Pakistan often defined as a ‘frenemy’. The campaign worked hard at reaching out to all Indians, including Hindu nationalist lobbies, which prompted Trump to speak a few sentences of Hindi. No worries, but expect more of the same.
Two, while it’s likely that for any global power, there may be no exits from strategically located Pakistan, banking on the long geopolitical front line is never smart policy for a relationship bogged down by distrust. While Afghan instability and Taliban advances will drive the Trump administration into slowing down the rush from Afghanistan, and hence Pakistan, Islamabad’s policymakers should bear in mind another constant in US policy: the importance of managing the politics of military failure abroad. US political and military culture both place great premium in communicating a credible message of accountability to their people. This means military failures abroad have to be explained to powerful congressional committees and the people via media. National security projects and defence engagements abroad, ultimately have to project either credible victories, or find a fall guy blocking triumphal outcomes. Ergo, there will be no change in Washington’s political culture of containing public damage.
Given the names on star-billing for key posts, the Trump team, more than the Obama White House, will likely have no compunction in penalising Pakistan instead of their own cohorts for battlefield failures in Afghanistan made on their watch, nor will it see aid as a lever for incentivising better cooperation. Afghanistan’s own failures at political unity, state cohesion and economic solvency will likely create tensions between any new US administration and Pakistan, with invective to deliver more across our western border. In case of such a tough-love state of play from Washington, it would be best for Pakistan to be clear about the limits to its power in Afghan Taliban circles.
Three, despite the optimism of some, it is likely that the level of disconnect between the two capitals will, in the medium term, ramp up instead of damping down. The best option will likely be encapsulated in a ‘Pakistan-good enough’ strategy, where minimum cooperation is twinned with containment or defensive insulation. This will mean protecting the US homeland and Afghan red zones from ‘Pakistan-based threats’ such as terrorist attacks and the risks of nuclear proliferation. Expect questions on Shakil Afridi in Congress, and the position that since 1948, Washington has broadly appropriated up to $30 billion in stove-piped aid to Islamabad.
While Trump may not openly question this alliance anymore, or lock Pakistan out as China’s key ally, Pakistan’s interests will need vigilance to say the least. Worst-case scenarios like sanctions can be staved off, but not without urgency and agency applied to foreign policy. Either way, Islamabad will need smart focus, not just perceived goodwill, to navigate the complex new face of power on the globe. Buckle up, Pakistan, it’s a rough road ahead.
Sherry Rehman has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and federal information minister. She is currently a member of the Senate, vice-president of the PPP, and president of the Jinnah Institute, Islamabad. She tweets @sherryrehman