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Realism meets nation building

26 November 2013

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Alicia Mollaun is a third year Crawford School public policy PhD candidate. Alicia lived in Islamabad from 2010-2013.

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Alicia Mollaun looks at the views from both sides on US foreign policy and engagement in Pakistan.

US engagement in Pakistan remains a hot topic of discussion among policy wonks – and these discussions are becoming ever more important as the Obama Administration’s deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 edges closer.

What the policy wonks – or the ‘policy elite’ – think, matters. Some commentators have argued that think tanks are at the centre of the policy formulation process, and what they say certainly has an influence over policymaker and public perceptions.

With this in mind, I am conducting research into elite perceptions of US foreign policy (particularly aid policy) in Pakistan and comparing the perceptions of the US policy elite with that of the Pakistani policy elite. In March 2012, I interviewed 38 of the US policy elite with expertise on Pakistan at institutions including: Brookings, New America Foundation, Woodrow Wilson Centre, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Georgetown, NYU, USAID and the State Department.

These findings provide a US policy elite-based critique of US policy in Pakistan: what the elite think about the main challenges facing Pakistan, what the US seemed to want most from its cooperation with Pakistan, and what they would do differently with US policy in Pakistan.

My hunch is that in a ‘normal’ bilateral relationship, the richer partner (i.e. the US) would want to assist the poorer, developing country to overcome its challenges. This relationship fits with aspects of nation building or state building, which is seen by some as an activity undertaken by foreign countries attempting to build, or re-build, the institutions of weaker, post-conflict or failing states. I argue that the Obama Administration has a nation building policy in Pakistan; given it is the third largest recipient of US aid (behind Afghanistan and Israel).

Further, Pakistan, alongside Afghanistan, is the US Agency for International Development’s largest development program. Since 9/11, the US has given over $20 billion in economic and military aid to Pakistan. However, with Pakistan-US relations being anything but ‘normal’, I expected that the US elite would have more of a realist perspective.

My research, though, shows that most of the elite perceive Pakistan’s problems to be internal, or problems that could be ameliorated with some form of nation building activity, with 83 per cent of respondents naming at least one internal challenge – like the economy, energy or governance. When it came to nominating what the US wants most from its relationship with Pakistan, over half of the elite named cooperation in Afghanistan and 63 per cent of responses could be categorised as realist objectives, for example cooperation on counter-terrorism or enhanced security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

On the question of what the US elite would do differently with US policy in Pakistan, the level of complete dissatisfaction with the current policy settings is surprising. 25 out of the 26 of the elite who responded to this question provided at least one response suggesting that relations between the United States and Pakistan need to be completely overhauled. A wide range of ‘resets’ were suggested, including: ‘take a longer term approach’ and ‘improve US credibility’. In particular, dissatisfaction with current policy was expressed in relation to the United States’ approach to Pakistan in relation to Afghanistan.

The results indicate that the US is very dissatisfied with the current direction of US policy in Pakistan. So why is this? I think there are three key reasons.

First, it is difficult to achieve realist and nation building goals in Pakistan at the same time. Too many goals and aspirations in Pakistan and for Pakistan have diluted the United States’ messaging to Pakistan resulting in dissatisfaction and confusion on both sides.

Second, there is disconnect between US goals and Pakistan’s priorities. Many elite believe there is little convergence of national interests.

Third, the pursuit of realist objectives undermines nation building goals because the relationship becomes transitional and short-termist. The elite contend that this exists because of the US presence in Afghanistan. Looking at responses across all three questions, some interesting patterns emerge with respect to elite perceptions, that: Pakistan needs help primarily with its internal challenges; US primary goals in Pakistan are realist; and US policy in Pakistan needs to be overhauled.

The applications of this broader research are important to foreign policy making. Ultimately, the US will have a greater probability of success in Pakistan if its broad geopolitical interests dovetail with those of both the elite and the people in the target nation.

In the post 9/11 era, US engagement in Pakistan has had mixed results, with the US having difficulty in achieving its strategic goals in Pakistan, while Pakistan, at times, has been deeply unhappy with the state of the bilateral relationship. Anything that goes some way towards helping both sides understand the other’s attitudes and perceptions has a potential payoff in more informed policy.

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