By Dr Adil Najam
January 04, 2014
A diplomacy of friend-making The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Much as it is difficult to resist the temptation of writing on affairs more current, one needs to pick up where we left off last week: Does Pakistan have friends?
In fact, the events of the last many hours have, again, brought this question to fore. Especially around the nature of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is a fortuitous segue, since that is exactly where we had left things last time.
Clearly, Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is special. But, exactly how? First the Saudi royals evoke a certain reverence amongst Muslims in Pakistan simply by virtue of being the Khadim Harmain Sharifain. Second, Saudi petrodollars have been a dependable source of emergency cash for Pakistan. Third, the Saudis have taken in battalions of Pakistani labour who are the source of massive remittance flows to Pakistan.
Finally, Saudi Arabia has often emerged as a trouble-shooter for Pakistani leaders out of luck or favour, including as a comfortable port of exile. In fairness, the Saudis have been a consistent voice for moderation and against vengeance, including in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, where their efforts were rebuffed by Gen Ziaul Haq.
So, does that make the Saudis our true BFF? (BFF, by the way, is the acronym digitally hip youngsters use to mean ‘Best Friends Forever’). Not really; and here is why.
First, there are no BFFs in international relations. Period. Second, each of the points listed above is true not just for Pakistan but for most Muslim countries. These are not features of a ‘special’ relationship with Pakistan; these are the pillars of conventional Saudi diplomacy towards its Islamic ‘flock.’ Finally, and importantly, the Pak-Saudi relationship is asymmetrical at best and skewed at worst.
One only needs to review the body language of Saudi and Pakistani officials when they meet to recognise that the Saudis, even at their most benevolent best, have been ‘patrons’ in a classic feudal client-patron relationship. The Chaudhry who will bail you out when no one else will, but who you dread going to because help will come at a price. The relationship is clearly very important for Pakistan, maybe even ‘special,’ but no one should be under any illusion that this is a friendship.
Pakistan’s relationship with the rest of the Islamic world is no less tenuous. We have made many sincere attempts to nurture friendships amongst Muslim countries. We have looked up to countries like Malaysia; looked out for others who needed our help, including Palestine and in Africa; and looked towards yet others from Nigeria to Algeria to the Gulf for real opportunities for cooperation. But the results have mostly ranged from tentative to unsustainable.
Pakistan’s recent rediscovery of Turkey as an international relationship worth nurturing is a good sign not only because there is a real history of mutual goodwill to build upon but because it is developing around market interaction, economic complementarity, and a mutuality of developmental interests. Although one hopes this will blossom beyond the infatuation of a few leaders, it is too early to say how this will mature. However, the early signs are positive precisely because it is transactional in all the right ways.
There are many in the Muslim world who show genuine fondness for Pakistan and Pakistanis. Indeed, there are many in the rest of the world who would equally earnestly want to help Pakistan if only they could figure out how (turns out it is not easy to help countries in trouble even if you want to). Their concern for Pakistan is, obviously, not just altruistic; it emanates as much – maybe more – from a fear of the consequences of a Pakistan in freefall.
The very significant Pakistani population in the United Kingdom and a sense of historic colonial responsibility are compelling reasons for London to have long-term interests in Pakistan’s wellbeing. Other European countries, especially the Nordics, and Canada also host sizeable contingents of Pakistanis and have long histories of relationships with Pakistan.
Yet, even amongst those who seem to want to help Pakistan, the use of the ‘F’ word seems out of place; premature if not inappropriate. Even where one seems a glimmer of real affection, one does not sense a true measure of trust.
International trust, above all else, is Pakistan’s true challenge of international relations today. Too many in the world do not trust us; either as a nation or as a people. Travel anywhere on a green passport and it becomes abundantly clear how little we are trusted. Although the US gets the worst rap for its immigration excesses, it may be parts of the Middle East where holding a Pakistani passport becomes the greatest liability. That hurts even more: those who know us best, trust us least.
One does not wish to be unfairly harsh on Pakistan. Not all is our fault. At least some of our supposed sins are contrived, as are many of the lamentations of others. But the challenge of revamping the image of distrust is entirely ours, as is the responsibility to recraft our own actions for the purpose of influencing how others perceive us.
And therein lies the argument for Pakistan to pursue a diplomacy of friend-making. A diplomacy that focuses not only on managing threats from imagined enemies, but also on nurturing opportunities from potential friendships. Pakistan had once been quite good at this, especially in the United Nations. For example, many Pakistanis were reminded recently of how Nelson Mandela visited Pakistan twice (in 1992 and 1999).
We should also take note that this was partly to thank Pakistan for its stand and support to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Indeed, for at least the first half of its existence, Pakistan created much international goodwill by being on the right side of many of the great issues of the time, especially those that concerned the so-called Third World.
It is more recently that our international relations became more parochial; particularly so in the post-9/11 period. Exactly when we need friends more than ever before, we have become inward-looking. It is sad that we have neglected what was once the strength of our diplomatic practice: international friend-making. As a new foreign affairs team slowly begins to take shape, one hopes that it will look at the question of who our friends are as seriously as it considers who our enemies might be. Maybe, even devise a strategy for a diplomacy of friend-making.
To conclude, the reader would recall that we had started last week by recounting the encounter of Italian essayist Umberto Eco with a Pakistani taxi driver in New York. The Pakistani taxi driver had left the Italian intellectual stunned by asking who Italy’s enemies were. Umberto Eco had responded that Italy had none, but neither of them had found this answer satisfactory.
As it turns out, Mr Eco realised that he had given the wrong answer as soon as he got out of the taxi: “Only then did it occur to me how I should have answered. It is not true that we Italians have no enemies… we are unable to agree on who they are because we are continually at war with each other… I could have explained to the taxi driver what it means to lose a war through friendly fire.”
I wish he had, in fact, given this answer to our compatriot, the New York taxi driver. Any Pakistani would have recognised this condition as entirely their own. Both would have discovered that it is not just excessive hand-waving while talking and rowdy driving habits that Italy and Pakistan have in common. Maybe there is the basis of a new friendship right there.