SINCE the end of the Cold War, most states have accepted a world order run by the US and the Western alliance. The number of states daring to defy Western wishes regularly has steadily dwindled as the cost of defiance has increased hugely.
Some defiant states are reclusive, largely cut off from the world. Bhutan among them is exceptional in being peaceful and escaping Western wrath. But other reclusive states keep their people isolated via huge internal repression, which incurs the West’s wrath even if they don’t harm its interests directly. The reason they incur Western wrath isn’t simply autocracy. There are many autocratic states (eg Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia) whose autocracy the West tolerates because it serves its strategic aims to do so.
Mono-ethnic reclusive states (eg, North Korea and Cuba now and China earlier) usually get away with repression sans much internal backlash. But ethnically diverse ones like Myanmar and Sudan face bloody civil wars, which forces them to reduce repression and open up. Reclusive states generally do poorly economically due to their bad policies and Western sanctions. Eventually, most reclusive states find isolation unsustainable and move towards opening up, China being the biggest such case. The earlier success of such reclusive states started decades ago when the world wasn’t so integrated. Today, if an integrated state tried to be reclusive, its people would not comply.
Other states, branded rogue states by many Western analysts, replicate the autocracy and hostility of reclusive states vis-à-vis the West but differ in also having aggressive external ambitions. Russia and Iran form the nucleus of this club today while Syria and Sudan have oscillated between the two sets of states. Again the reason they incur Western wrath is not simply their aggressive external ambitions but because these ambitions negate strategic Western aim. There are several aggressive states (eg Saudi Arabia and Israel) whose external aggression the West tolerates since they are its strategic partners. ‘Rogue’ states do poorly in economic terms, too, due to bad policies and crippling sanctions. Only those having large natural wealth, like Russia and Iran, can withstand sanctions while others usually give in quickly. Clearly rogue behaviour is costly and smart states avoid being branded a rogue state by the West unnecessarily.
The West tolerates autocratic states because it serves its aims to do so.
China’s case is instructive. It sees discretion as the better part of valour. As an autocratic reclusive state opening up fast and with major political conflicts with the West, eg on Taiwan and Hong Kong, it could have adopted aggressive strategies in resolving these issues, but in the process running the risk of being branded a rogue state. However, it chose to adopt patience and focused on integrating and developing economically, thus avoiding the economic troubles Iran and others have faced. Based on its acquired economic strength, it is now slowly starting to flex its political muscles. But it is not easy now for the West to impose sanctions on it since such action against a large and integrated economic power could cause global depression.
Pakistan’s case is more educative than instructive. The difference between the two for me is that China carries positive lessons for others and Pakistan negative ones. It has regional ambitions that no longer find favour with the West. As a multi-ethnic state, Pakistan cannot easily adopt an autocratic system for long sans serious internal strife. It also lacks natural wealth. So, it is not a strong candidate to adopt aggressive external strategies to achieve its regional ambitions. Yet it has done so and has thus developed frayed relations with the West, particularly the US.
But so far it has avoided being branded a rogue state yet due to several reasons. Its history as a key ally and its status as a strategically placed, nuclear-armed and large Muslim state give it some negotiating space. There are also strong voices among civilians who favour better relations regionally and with the West. It has also calibrated its defiance carefully, meeting some Western demands, and pretending it is trying to meet others. Thus, it has escaped a rogue state status and sanctions, unlike Iran and Russia.
However, Iran and Russia have pursued their external ambitions while keeping their home turf largely free from violence. Pakistan has failed miserably here and has incurred huge casualties and economic costs while also failing in its regional ambitions. Thus, even its calibrated defiance has been a failed strategy.
Despite its close alliance with China, it hasn’t adopted China’s sensible strategy. Despite being autocratic, China is still ruled by civilians who can envision non-military options too. Unfortunately, this is not true in Pakistan.
The writer is a senior fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2018