In the Shadow of Diplomacy: Pakistan and its International Standing

Spearhead Analysis – 30.09.2016

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

“A great deal of world politics is a fundamental struggle, but it is also a struggle that has to be waged intelligently.” – Zbigniew Brzezinski

pakistan-diplomacyAll eyes are on the ever changing power polarity of the international order, particularly in the South Asian region. While the theme for the general debate at the UN session revolved around ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ for a universal push into the future, international forums and diplomatic platforms- especially the UN, have an expedient capacity to provide opportunities for state members to meet on the ‘sidelines’ to forge shadow alliances, counter various hostile stances, demonstrate symbolic unity, strengthen trade and economic ties, bolster investment opportunities, and predicate individual national narratives in light of changing global trends. Often these international platforms become battlegrounds for countries to wage a cold war of ‘power projection and perception’ in order to augment a moral high ground; diplomacy and its modern practice is key to fashioning and countering that narrative.

Diplomatic networks predate our modern concepts of nation/states, citizenship, and even international relations. ‘Nationhood’ separate from nation/states, was the order of the day; giving way to the rise and fall of many great empires, contrived by a vanguard of representatives, ambassadors, emissaries, and advocates. Whilst empires commanded absolute loyalty from their own delegates and absolute respect from their counterparts, it is only after the Great World Wars that concepts of nationhood took on a more constitutional role, thereby not only shuffling global relations but by also changing the very nature of the art and efficacy of diplomacy. No longer would loyalty to the king conjure an emotional roar of allegiance; countries were meant to be reflections of a ‘civilized’ polity of learned men, employing tact to gain strategic advantage to find mutually acceptable solutions to common challenges in a non-confrontational manner. But the politics of men, as we know, is never equitable- nor idealistic. Diplomacy in the modern world is a double edged sword: while nations have to feign polite interaction and take morally right positions, it is in fact in the shadows of official interaction where history is really being made.

In light of a transformed international order, regional stability and national confidence has taken a dip. The sustained war in the Middle East, according to some a catalyst to another great world war, has taken many nations into a fold of a diminishing role of diplomatic solutions to military conflicts. In addition, the international political economy has played an increasingly important role in changing the economic hierarchy of countries, an imbalance that has now created space for countries to realign themselves to an alternative structure of interaction. The new watchwords of our time then are ‘terrorism’, ‘military operations’, and ‘growth and investment’; yet the only solution to common contemporary challenges is a  fiercely diplomatic outlook- a mix of soft power, rhetoric, negotiations, saber-rattling, and concerted multilateral networks.

In this new terrain, Pakistan’s footing is shaky at best. Over the years its name has become synonymous with ‘terrorism’ and ‘global threat’ in international and strategic studies discourses. In truth, stepping into the 21stcentury has been a difficult feat for the South Asian nation that is in the midst of a tactically advantageous position without always fully utilizing it: a possible peace broker in Afghanistan, China’s $46 billion interest in growth and development, responsible stakeholder in the India/Pakistan bilateral communication, implementation of multiple counter terrorism operations to eradicate the threat, transitioning into its first ever democratic term, and showcasing a conscientious approach in safeguarding its nuclear power. It is a wonder why a nation that has maneuvered itself out of a Gordian knot is faced with international pressure, scorn, and isolation. International media has not helped with the country’s case either. One wonders about the absence of our diplomats; or if the painted picture is a result of their failure. The thing to remember in international politics is that it’s always changing and anyone can come out stronger. In truth, in order to fully comprehend and appreciate Pakistan’s current standing in the international community one will have to not only make a clear distinction between the country’s gains and losses, but more importantly categorize it according to its internal expectations and external projection.

External Projections

The bulk of Pakistan’s UN agenda this year was dedicated to highlighting state sponsored atrocities in Indian Occupied Kashmir while also shedding light on the fast dwindling relationship between Pakistan and India. In the wake of growing unrest in the valley, India has shifted the blame on Pakistan’s shoulders, instigating not only war rhetoric but also making concerted efforts to diplomatically isolate Pakistan. In light of changing geo political relations, this new hostility has been welcomed by some quarters while disregarded by many more. Bickering between the two neighbors is standard expected behavior; yet this particular time there is something sinister at play. For starters, the treatment handed down to ordinary Kashmiris in the occupied area has been far from rational or ethical, firing unfettered pellets at crowds of women, children, and men, and arresting hundreds of innocent protesters. Moreover, the recent Uri attack on an Indian army camp has come at a time when India and Pakistan have exchanged a barrage of antagonistic comments, making it seem like a deflection from the Kashmir issue. The United Nations has become a platform for both countries to foster international support for their respective causes. But it would be well to look closely at the ‘diplomatic tactics’ employed to create a narrative at the expense of the other.

Pakistan’s position is clear, precise, and principled: In order for both neighbors to resume any kind of bilateral dialogue, the longstanding issue of Kashmir needs to be resolved. Pakistan has suggested a demilitarization of the region, a plebiscite to determine the will of the people, and a resumption of talks between the three stakeholders. While internationalizing the Kashmir issue has garnered little attention, regardless Pakistan stands on a morally high ground with a strategic advantage. India has not only erred by equating the Baloch conflict (an internal Pakistani issue) with the likes of the Kashmir conflict (an internationally recognized dispute), it has also raised a hue and cry over Pakistan’s implicit support for terrorism in Kashmir and the rest of India. Using the Baloch card has made India vulnerable to allegations of leaving its footprint in the Baloch separatist movement, and connected it to Afghanistan’s attempts at maligning the Pakistani government and armed forces. India seems to have cornered itself in a difficult position, a reaction that can be gauged by its international campaign against Pakistan’s position, pulling out and convincing other member countries to pull out of a SAARC meeting scheduled to be held in Islamabad, and initiating border skirmishes across the Line of Control while portraying it as a ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan. This sudden hostile obsession against Pakistan has to be necessarily understood in light of larger regional realities that are in a state of flux.

Would it be fair to say India has succeeded? Pakistan’s own standing in the international polity is not something to sing songs about, yet it has handled itself with the utmost competence and cultivation. It would be naïve to base Pakistan and India’s stance on their UN speeches only, the future of the region is actually being forged on the sidelines of diplomatic forums. Pakistan does not stand isolated in the global community, and whoever says it is subscribes to only half of the narrative. Pakistan and Russia have already commenced their first ever military exercise; Indonesia and Pakistan have signed a defense deal; China is an all weather friend and the biggest investor in Pakistan; Iran is interested in being part of the CPEC; OIC countries are on board with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. While international diplomacy is only manifested at a time when it’s needed in excess; the results are often disclosed over time. The country has indeed been busy creating new diplomatic networks and informing and employing a new direction to engage with the global community.

Internal Expectations

While Pakistan has shown much restraint and maturity at the UN this year, the same cannot be said about its internal situation in the face of a political, economic, and security threat emanating from multiple fronts. Pakistan’s geostrategic location makes it an important stakeholder, but it often does not take the responsibility of fulfilling that role. The absence of a foreign minister has made it somewhat difficult for the country to maintain bilateral relations with hostile neighbors and to streamline national agendas for international cooperation. At a time when countries are remapping alliances, up until very recently Pakistan lacked a clear and sound direction in its foreign policy. Countries have to necessarily empower their foreign ministry in order to compete, communicate, and reiterate their stance. While democracy is slowly starting to prevail, the country has a host of problems that has made it increasingly hard for it to charter a vision for itself, although it is endeavoring to do so now.

PML-N, the ruling party has shown a half-hearted interest in taking a stronger position on the foreign policy front and asserting a valid voice in the greater scheme of Indo-Pak relations. The UN has provided a platform for the ruling party to not only showcase Pakistan’s wisdom and maturity but has also afforded it with the opportunity to utilize international diplomacy as a way to reclaim domestic space for the general elections push in 2018. The top political leadership has always been hesitant in projecting an assertive stance in Pakistan’s best interest. This sudden doubt creates hysteria at home and speculation all over the world about the nature of the country’s footing in the international political community. Political squabbles are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan, but with the existential threat of terror, security relapse, and international isolation looming on its head; it would be wise to reevaluate the country’s clear position in international relations in this new found confidence in its standpoint.

If relations are actually forged in the shadow of diplomacy, it is time that we empower our diplomats with the necessary skills and the vested power to project a Pakistan that wants regional stability, economic development, and peaceful coexistence. That can only come about once the country’s internal national expectations are aligned in accordance with a vision that can dictate its external projection. Politicians are not the only decision makers; the state machinery is vast and extensive, and all parts have to exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. Lags in the foreign office and absence of a designated representative caused damage to Pakistan’s image in the global community; nevertheless it has shown tremendous fortitude in its stance at the UN General Assembly session. Now that the country has picked on the scent of change in the international arena, it is imperative that diplomats start creating a path that can set the tone for the future.

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