Pakistan is too big to fail. Its geostrategic location, its burgeoning population, its nuclear arsenal. For almost two decades these have been wielded as a threat to the neoliberal order: allow us to fail and witness the mayhem that would be unleashed.
The belief that Pakistan is too big to fail is deeply entrenched among our political elite and establishment. What else explains the refusal to meaningfully engage with even the idea of significant economic, civil, structural and systemic reforms, and the business-as-usual approach to approaching the brink of economic collapse. It is the most perverse kind of complacency.
But this complacency is fast becoming a delusion. The belief that the world will step in to rescue Pakistan from falling victim to ails of its own making is rooted in a different world order — one that was American-led, neoliberal, and gung-ho on globalisation. In that more coherent unipolar context, there was less appetite for uncertainty. There was also a clearer framework to determine what was meant by ‘failure’.
In Pakistan’s case, failure was defined through the prism of post-2001 American political and security considerations, and was envisioned as a collapsed government replaced by jihadists running amok with nuclear weapons. Other perceived aspects of this failure included nuclear proliferation resulting from black market sales, or an increase in the number of regional militant groups that would undermine American interests in Afghanistan.
Complacency is fast becoming a delusion.
But we now inhabit a post-pandemic, multipolar world where the economic trend is to rein in imports and supply chains. Uncertainty is less terrifying; indeed, it is the norm. And mayhem is now defined in comparison to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or against the prospect of a US-China conflict. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the fear of an economically strained Pakistan becoming (another) hotbed of terrorism has mellowed; our arsenal is not as threatening as Russia’s.
Pakistan no longer has a clear role in the geostrategic considerations of other world powers. At present, this is most obvious in the IMF’s steadfastness about holding the country to ‘harsh’ and stringent conditions in order to receive the next facility. The days of Washington making backchannel requests for waivers or softer terms are clearly over. Each subsequent tranche is likely to come with harsher requirements to push Pakistan towards required reforms, however painful they will be to achieve.
China is unlikely to plug the gap. From a security perspective its regional concerns are being trumped by its frequent almost-confrontations with the US. And from an economic perspective, there is “a shift in China’s role from loan provider to debt collector”, as John Calabrese puts it in a recent article about China’s ‘distressed assets’ (which include Pakistan).
In a world facing recession threats while trying to jump-start the just transition, ‘friendly countries’, including the Gulf states that have long provided bailouts and loan rollovers, are also changing tack. Their focus is now on diversifying their own economies in anticipation of future shifts away from fossil fuels. They want to be in the business of strategic investment, not ideologically driven grant-giving. But Pakistan has not built an environment conducive to FDI and the pace of Gulf investments has been far slower then promised.
Countries that are now holding back largesse have also spent the last few years implementing draconian immigration policies designed to stem the inevitable flow of asylum seekers, refugees, climate and economic migrants. It’s not a good look from a human rights and freedom perspective, but it does make the prospect of millions of Pakistanis seeking refuge from their failed state less intimidating.
In other words, those whom we relied on to prevent us from failing are themselves more complacent about their ability to endure such a failure. Recognising this must be the first step towards Pakistan planning its own path to success, rooted in the sensible and wide-ranging reforms that are being widely discussed and recommended in these (and other) column inches.
Interestingly, the failure that Pakistan was meant to avert was never defined from the perspective of the Pakistani people. It was never conceived as the inability to feed or home 230 million people, to keep their lights on, and ensure their livelihoods, basic rights, dignity and safety. By these measures, Pakistan has been gradually failing all along, a decline horribly exacerbated by last year’s floods. By owning our failures, rather than weaponising them as an external threat, we may yet feel motivated to implement the reforms needed to succeed. Let’s hope this time the Pakistani people themselves get to define what success entails.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2023