By Rafia Zakaria
October 24, 2018
SIXTY-ONE years ago this week, a man named Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who worked at the foreign office at the time, was made a member of Pakistan’s delegation to the sixth congress of the United Nations. In October 1957, he addressed the assembly for the first time. His speech was on ‘defining aggression’, a subject that preoccupied the transnational assembly in those early days of its existence.
The details of Bhutto’s first speech before a transnational assembly are evocatively recounted in Syeda Hameed’s new political biography of Bhutto, grimly titled Born to be Hanged.
Speaking, just as Pakistani delegates do now, to the bevy of First World nations that dominated the power politics of international cooperation, Bhutto argued that there should, in fact, not be any definition of ‘aggression’ at all. The very existence of a definition, in his view, would hand would-be dictators of the world a basis for distortion and manipulation, a way to strong-arm small nations into doing what the interests of large ones dictate.
Bhutto made an impression that day, but of course not a difference. With the decades between then and now, the country he would go on to lead and the world that he tried to impress would be vulnerable to the machinations of strongmen or the collective avarice of many weak men.
Bhutto would lose his faith in the international order in the years to come, but that initial hopeful foray into its midst belied the incredible idealism of the world in the post-Second World War moment, where fiery men from former colonies had a voice — if only a voice.
The United Nations today is experiencing perhaps an unprecedented devolution in terms of its power and its influence. Conflict after conflict in recent times — from Israel’s increasingly audacious depredations on the Palestinians, to the genocidal mania of Myanmar — have all exposed the ineptitude of a body that was supposed to intervene at just such times.
The conflict in Syria similarly rages on while the members of the Security Council have long dug in their heels without any intentions of moving an inch. Beyond piecemeal ceasefires brokered without any hopes for long-standing peace, there seems to be little point to what is done in the gleaming building overlooking New York’s East River.
Nor are the innards of the United Nations, its peacekeeping and development functions, a cause for hope; both are mired in corruption and graft, abuse and misuse. Bureaucrats have stolen money to pad their cushy lives, and peacekeepers have raped women to satiate their deviant and criminal drives. In either case, a definition of aggression or the lack of a definition of aggression from the UN General Assembly Session of 1957 has not stopped aggression, whether of states or individuals.
Bhutto lost his patience with the international order long before much of the rest of the world. His loss of faith (perhaps like his initial faith in it) is a continuing strain in Pakistani politics.
Sixty-one years after that speech in 1957, Pakistan is still led by a government that had, despite the country’s economic realities, promised to stand up to the International Monetary Fund, a body created at about the same time as the United Nations.
Again and again, Prime Minister Imran Khan promised that he would not go with a begging bowl to the overlords at the IMF. A self-sufficient Pakistan was promised to millions of star-struck and newly resurrected patriotic Pakistanis, who for their own part quickly imagined such a Pakistan, austere but proud, to be just around the corner.
As was the habit under Bhutto then and Imran Khan now, Pakistan’s problems were imagined over as soon as the speeches promising just that concluded.
Along with self-sufficiency, both the Pakistanis who lived during the Bhutto era and who live today believed, would come the much-wanted (and inevitably unfinanced) Islamic welfare state that was promised by both men. It would be the model for the whole world, the elusive answer that other small countries or Muslim countries had not been able to find.
Pakistanis have, it seems, always had a penchant for believing in the same sort of strongmen who, they have worried, will take control of the big countries and threaten to annihilate the whole world based on definitions of aggression.
Aggression is not simply the game of the strongman who sits at the helm of the superpower, eager to manipulate definitions such that force can be justified against the small country. Aggression also includes the machinations and manipulations of strongmen who sit at the helm of small countries and aim to dupe populations into believing in false promises of their position in the world, a heroic avenging on the international stage, a rebuffing of grand proportions that will restore the dignity lost after decades of begging bowls, of speeches ignored and invitations turned down.
The international order arguably never was fair and likely never will be fair, not in Bhutto’s time nor in Khan’s. What leaders owe their people is not a sugar-coating of this fact or false promises of the resuscitated dignity of sport, like wins for the underdog, orchestrated by impressive and theatrical statesmen.
What leaders owe and what they give, what they say in speeches and what they do, are two different things. It is for just that reason that Bhutto’s other speech before the United Nations, which railed against the international order, rather than reminded the world of a truth regarding the nature of aggression and definition, is the one most remembered.
Maybe the same will be true in the current case, where promises to snub the IMF will be the only ones remembered while the beggaring truths of what actually happened will fade from historical memory.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.