Trump VS Imran – A case of two populists

  • Foreign policy dynamics have changed in the age of social media

Pakistan and the United States are at it again – a war of words featuring allegations and counter allegations. This blame game between the US and Pakistan is not new. The US has since recent past been taking a tough stance towards Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of not doing enough while it continues to remind Washington of the losses it has suffered in the war on terror in a meagre voice.

However, what’s new this time is the leadership on both sides. In the US, there is Donald Trump who keeps telling the world of his populist, hyper-nationalist agenda while in Pakistan, we have Imran Khan who came with a somewhat similar mind set – of making Pakistan great again. If we come to analyse the policies of the two heads, we’ll see that there are striking similarities in their narratives – they are rightists, nationalists, anti-elitist and, above all, both are keen to shift from the policies of the preceding government (anti-PML-N and anti-Obama).

Having said that, let’s now come to the issue that has made headlines throughout the world: A Twitter war between Trump and Khan. A previous such episode took place with Trump’s New Year tweet against Pakistan but at that time it was Nawaz Sharif in power and we had Khawaja Asif as short-time foreign minister. Our Foreign Office in the previous turbulent government had remained largely inefficient because of the empty portfolio but it’s different this time.

With Khan sb in power, Pakistan simply could not do away with these allegations. When in a fresh spat, President Trump alleged Pakistan of not doing a ‘damn thing’ for the US, PM Khan – who has been showing his charisma as the leader of the Muslim world – was quick to respond to him. Keeping the tone same as Trump’s, Khan sb set the stage right for a Twitter war. This has again led the world attention to the straining Pak-US relations. However, there are three prisms through which the new low in these ties can be viewed – Afghan peace process, Indo-Pacific policy and Twitter diplomacy.

The US has wanted to get out of Afghanistan for a long time now but has remained unable to bring an end to the conflict it started. Pakistan, who acted as a frontline US ally in the war on terror, is also tired of hearing the ‘do more’ demands, that too without any monetary compensation now. Nonetheless, Pakistan still holds an important stake in Afghanistan. Since the Trump administration now realises that a military solution is not a viable option for Afghan peace, Pakistan can play (and have played) a key role in bringing Taliban to the talking table. The US can try all it wants trying to negotiate directly with Taliban, it still needs support from Pakistan. This frustrates the US which is visible from the harsh words thrown at us.

Trump is known to be naïve enough to wage a Twitter war against just about everyone – from Canada, France to its very own CNN. Khan sb seems to be following in Trump’s very footsteps

Secondly, like Pakistan became a US ally in war on terror, India is its new friend for the Indo-Pacific policy aimed to contain China. The US wanted India to play a larger role in Afghanistan as well as mentioned in its South Asia Strategy which hurt Pakistan more than ever. Pakistan is having a hard time realising that it no more a US darling and Indo-US nexus is far greater than Pak-China friendship. Also, Khan sb needs to remember that US is our main export partner and in case of any anomaly, Trump could impose tariffs on us as well.

Finally, Trump is known to be naïve enough to wage a Twitter war against just about everyone – from Canada, France to its very own CNN. Khan sb seems to be following in Trump’s very footsteps whereby he is ever ready to respond to anything and everything, sometimes appearing as irrational and politically immature – not to mention referring to Indian PM Narenda Modi as a ‘small man occupying big office’. The foreign policy dynamics have changed in the age of social media. Twitter diplomacy has taken over other modes of inter-state communication. Therefore, the tweets ought to be written carefully and with the consultation of the entire Foreign Office. Now who Khan sb consults with before tweeting is not known but his social media team definitely needs to learn to write more balanced and mature responses.

Pakistan has to fit in within these changing circumstances. The regional and international political alliances are shifting. The world focus has turned from terrorism to the rise of China. Being in favour of China is good for Pakistan but it need not repeat the mistake it made after becoming a US ally – turning its head away from the entire world. Keeping a balance between foreign relations, including that with the US, China, India and Afghanistan is what we need to learn to avoid further international isolation and embarrassment.