Friday, January 22, 2010

The Complex U.S.-Pakistani Relationship -- Distrust Can Be Very Expensive

The public diplomacy dimension of U.S.-Pakistani relations will assuredly continue to be part of our class discussions in SMPA 150.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is usually very deft in conveying a public message and in striking a constructive and collaborative tone in engaging the Pentagon's foreign partners. During his visit to Pakistan this week, the challenge -- and the stakes -- were particularly high. Almost every bilateral contretemps and bureaucratic hiccup of late seems to have inflamed public sentiment there against the United States -- despite the fact that there are fewer higher priorities for the Obama Administration than to forge a successful relationship with Islamabad.

Recognizing that the Pakistani public's misgivings about U.S. aims in the region are a key obstacle to strengthening defense cooperation between the two countries, Secretary Gates undertook a series of interviews and public appearances that were designed to reassure Pakistanis about U.S. goals, as reported in this Los Angeles Times piece as well as in a Wall Street Journal news analysis. As we discussed in class on Thursday, this negative view of the U.S. role in Pakistan and American efforts at outreach to the Pakistani public was laid out in a recent op-ed piece by former Pakistani foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad entitled "Where is US public diplomacy?"

In a January 22 speech at the Pakistan National Defense University, Gates acknowledged that relations between the two countries had been soured by "a very real, and very understandable, trust deficit -- one that has made it more difficult for us to work together to confront the common threat of extremism." In particular, he cited as the root causes of the distrust the U.S. decisions to disengage from the region following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 and to distance itself from the Pakistani military in the early nineties. Gates cited these decisions as "a grave strategic mistake." In contrast, he stressed, the U.S. today was determined to build "a stable, long-term, enduring friendship with Pakistan -- based on common interests and mutual respect that will continue to expand and deepen in future years."

How successful was Gates in promoting a more positive view among Pakistanis of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation -- or at least in responding to the more outlandish conspiracy theories in Pakistan about U.S. actions and intentions? Time will tell. Some commentators have suggested the Pakistani army chiefs had already signaled -- embarrassingly, on the very eve of the Secretary's arrival -- that they had no plans to ramp up Pakistan's military efforts along its border with Afghanistan for at least the next six months.

That may well not be the last word. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Distrust is very expensive," and that certainly holds just as true in international relations as in anything else.

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