Hard vs soft power

Updated June 02, 2018

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SO it has come to this: Pakistan and the US are treating diplomats to each other’s capitals as representatives of hostile states, much as Indian and Pakistani diplomats are treated in New Delhi and Islamabad.

This childish, tit-for tat behaviour is, if not a violation of the Vienna Convention governing diplomatic rights and obligations, certainly a departure from good sense. After all, missions overseas are established to improve relations, boost trade, and, yes, gather intelligence. But this last function is carried out by spooks who are usually attached to embassies, but their cover is well known to local counterparts.

So by curbing diplomats from carrying out their normal duties, how are we improving ties with countries we consider important, or those we would like to normalise relations with? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has gone on record to register his protest about the treatment of American diplomats in Islamabad. I have no doubt our man in Washington — too new at the job as he took charge only this week — will soon have similar complaints against his hosts.

The overuse of hard power doesn’t necessarily win friends abroad.

But there was a time when diplomatic niceties were more scrupulously observed, and there was little harassment of the kind we see now. And while I don’t remember an American military attaché running a red light and killing a motorcyclist and injuring a passenger, there was little anti-American sentiment until the start of the Vietnam War,

My early memories of America were mostly formed by the United States Information Service (later the American Centre) library. Walking there with the books I had borrowed to exchange for new ones, my early reading consisted of Steinbeck, Faulkner and Norman Mailer. The Service also arranged concerts by some famous jazz musicians on tour.

So, yes, I was influenced by books I read at the USIS library as well as the British Council. Soft power certainly has a place in projecting a country’s image abroad. India is very good at it to the extent that its many problems have not dented its tourist numbers. We, on the other hand, are lousy practitioners of this obvious policy. But then, you have to have a decent product to sell before you can go global. Our image hardly tempts tourists to book the first flight to Pakistan.

Hard power, however, carries temptation of another kind. Well-armed states use their military capability to bully others into accepting their ideology, or to grant them concessions. Regime change is never off the agenda.

American hard power has been so overwhelming since the Second World War that it has become the policeman on the block in most corners of the world. Even under an isolationist like Trump, its forces continue to dominate the globe through hundreds of military bases. This preponderance has also reduced the importance of diplomacy: why bother talking to an adversary when you can bully or bomb it?

But the excessive use of hard power doesn’t necessarily win friends abroad. My disenchantment with America began with the Vietnam War, and has only deepened over the years, especially after its catastrophic interventions in the Middle East. Its current demonising of Iran is yet another example of a missed diplomatic opportunity.

In Pakistan, of course, the security establishment has long called the shots on how our relationship with important countries is to be conducted. This reduced input from the Foreign Office has rendered it impotent in the task of formulating and implementing a coherent foreign policy that’s in line with our true national interest.

And while countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and America can afford not to bother much about international public opinion, Pakistan doe­sn’t enjoy this luxury. In fact, it needs all the friends it can get. But far from making friends, countries that once supported us on Kashmir have distanced themselves.

The transactional relationship that has formed the basis of our on-again, off-again alliance with the US is obviously transient. Ultimately, all alliances are formed to counter real or perceived threats. In the Second World War, the USSR was allied with its arch-enemies, the US and the UK, to defeat Nazi Germany. But once Hitler had fallen, the Soviet Union and the West were fighting the Cold War against each other.

In this sense, the Americans still need Pakistan because of our proximity to Afghanistan as we still provide the shortest route for military supply convoys. And we also allow US overflights to bases in Afghanistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, needs America for access to high-tech weapons systems. But once the Americans pull out of the neighbourhood, it is difficult to see why they would need us.

Nor should we forget that we have no cultural affinity with China, our ‘all-weather friend’, and ultimately, only rivalry with India has kept the informal alliance going.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2018