INDIAN nobility was known for its quirks. The Nawab of Junagadh celebrated the wedding of his pet dogs with unaffordable pomp and extravagance. The last Nizam of an independent Hyderabad state, Mir Osman Ali Khan, followed a curious procedure when selecting his companion. Every afternoon, the women of his zenana would congregate in the garden. The Nizam would enter and “place a white handkerchief on the chosen one’s shoulder”.
The United States has again selected Pakistan and, after some years of abstinence, placed a white handkerchief on its shoulder. After assiduously ignoring prime minister Imran Khan for three years, the Biden administration has suddenly warmed to his successor Shehbaz Sharif. During the recent United Nations General Assembly, Biden and his wife granted a photo-op to our prime minister, flanking him in a composition not lost on avid diplomatic watchers.
The IMF, which in July had to be importuned by the establishment to hurry the release of the tranche of $1.6 billion, is suddenly all smiles, as is the World Bank. They received our latest finance minister (until most recently persona non grata in his own country) with melting warmth and hospitality.
Then, unexpectedly, the white handkerchief slipped last week. President Biden, in a speech at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Reception, while referring to President Xi Jinping, took a side swipe at Pakistan. The transcript reads: “This [Xi Jinping] is a guy who understands what he wants but has an enormous, enormous array of problems. How do we handle that? How do we handle that relative to what’s going on in Russia? And what I think is maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world: Pakistan. Nuclear weapons without any cohesion.”
It is time to reassess our foreign policy options.
Before reacting to Biden’s speech, our government should have read its full text. It would been alerted to a refrain that occurs throughout it. With reference to Nixon: “Not a joke. Not a joke. Not a joke.” “I have spent probably … 225 hours directly in contact with the heads of state at Nato and the European Union, just holding it together. Not a joke. Not a joke”. “The world is looking to us. Not a joke.”
Because the world (especially Pakistan) was looking at him closely, the reaction by governments was instantaneous. The US ambassador was summoned by our Foreign Office. A démarche was issued (the previous one on ‘Cablegate’ is still cooling on his desk). Within a day or so, the State Department issued a statement: “The United States is confident of Pakistan’s commitment and its ability to secure its nuclear assets.” The white handkerchief seems to have been restored.
But for how long? US foreign policy is as fickle as the Nizam’s ardour, and often as short-lived.
While Pakistan remains beholden to the United States for a number of reasons — historical, economic, military — it is perhaps time for the pundits in the Foreign Office to reassess our foreign policy options. In the 1970s, the present foreign minister’s grandfather did.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, sensing that the winds of change were blowing across Asia, initiated relations with the People’s Republic of China — then an international pariah. Today we are reaping the dividends of that brave initiative.
Certainly, the United States has itself felt the need to peer into the future. In that same speech to his fellow Democrats, President Biden has spoken of the “enormous opportunities for the United States to change the dynamic in the second quarter of the 21st century”.
Can it? The US is faced with two adamantine opponents on the opposite side of the globe — a resurgent Russia with imperial ambitions to expand its pre-Gorbachev frontiers, and a relentlessly successful China which wants (sooner rather than later) a reunification of Taiwan with the motherland.
China feels justified. After all, it could argue, in 1982 Great Britain embarked on a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas and the half a million sheep grazing there. China has a stronger claim to an island that lies 177 kilometres offshore. The Falkland Islands a mere 13,900km offshore Land’s End.
We know the Americans see us through their political bifocals. How do we view ourselves?
Today, we have elected narcissists without the looks and without a lake. Our government is an uneasy composite of a number of coalition partners. If only the PML-Q and the PTI could lower the wings of humility and think above themselves, they would realise this is the closest we will ever get to a national government.
But then, politics is not the exercise of common sense. It is, as Biden says, not a joke, not a joke. If only our politicians could take themselves seriously.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2022