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What's so bad about 'aggressive neutrality'?

Imran Khan may have found out the hard way that not toeing the US line on Ukraine — or anything else — can be dangerous.

Analysis | Europe

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan raised suspicions in Washington for his decision to maintain relations with the Kremlin. In a characteristically unsubtle move, Khan also visited Moscow shortly after the war began. He returned to Islamabad with a chip on his shoulder.

“What do you think of us? That we are your slaves and will do whatever you ask of us? We are friends of Russia and we are friends of the United States,” Khan told a crowd of his supporters. “We are friends of China and Europe, we are not part of any alliance.”

Little did Khan know that these words may have helped bring about the end of his political career. According to Pakistani diplomatic cables published by the Intercept, U.S. officials reacted to Khan’s stance on the war by subtly encouraging his opponents to remove him from power.

While it is doubtful that the United States was the sole or primary actor in the events that would land the prime minister in jail and lead to a military crackdown on the country’s political system (a state of affairs that remains in place today), the cables reveal that opponents of Khan were informed of U.S. anger over Khan’s statements on the Ukraine War and may have moved to oust him with the expectation of being rewarded with closer ties by Washington.

Most of the reactions to this breaking story have understandably focused on the Cold War-like aspect of what seems to be brazen interference in another country’s internal affairs. However, what is in danger of being overlooked is something more fundamental to how so many in D.C. conceptualize foreign policy as a whole. 

While it is hardly surprising that Washington would leverage its influence to support a soft regime change of sorts in Islamabad, what is remarkable is the desire to punish a country far away from Europe and the conflict raging in Ukraine for daring to take an “aggressively neutral” stance (the State Department’s terminology, according to the cables) on what to them is a regional conflict far away from their core security concerns.

The presumption among leaders in the U.S. foreign policy establishment is clear: States with less geopolitical influence have to follow Washington’s lead on major global crises, whether it benefits them or not. Pakistan’s neighbor India, by contrast, has charted a remarkably neutral stance over the course of the war by balancing opposition to border revisionism with a clear-eyed determination to maintain its long-standing military ties with Moscow. But New Delhi knows that its much greater power on the world stage gives it some protection from the wrath of Washington. 

Smaller countries do not share this privilege. Meanwhile, it is hard to see why Pakistan’s views regarding European affairs even matter to Washington any more than, say, an Eastern European country’s formal stance on the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Bulgaria, to use one example, would not be expected to declare a strong position on the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean. 

But the U.S. foreign policy elite, so monomaniacally fixated on Ukraine, believes it is of vital importance that everyone else adopt its priorities. This assumption is not only dangerous to many of Washington’s partners in various regions around the world; it is also dangerous to the grand strategy of the United States itself. By taking regional conflicts and unnecessarily globalizing them, the risk of spreading instability through the interdiction of vital raw materials or manufactured goods increases. Trade networks adversely impacted by sanctions can thus undermine developing economies. Smaller countries, whose interests must be more narrowly defined, are always going to prioritize regional concerns over the more globally-oriented positions of the major world powers. 

The most likely explanation for this behavior on the part of Washington is an attempt to shore up a dedicated “international community” that it can use to blunt the ambitions of revisionist powers like Russia and China. The problem with this approach, however, is that it breeds resentment and an even greater desire for pressured countries to break out of the U.S. orbit. This helps explain why an increasing number of states are considering dropping the dollar as the default global currency. When there are multiple options available, the least invasive one is usually considered the safest.

Thankfully, a better approach is possible. A great power that can compartmentalize various regions and not assume all that its smaller compatriots must adopt its priorities is one that will actually have an advantage over its rivals in the contest for influence abroad. The more the United States allows its smaller partners to pursue their own paths, the less threatening it will seem and the more desirable a partner for voluntary association it becomes. 

This was a major part of why the United States once had so much more global goodwill compared to traditional European powers, as it leveraged its geographic isolation with its economic power to be comparably less threatening than most of its rivals. If Washington is truly serious about showing the world the danger presented by the ambitions of Beijing and Moscow, then U.S. policy should be less threatening to the sovereignty of others than that of its rivals.

As the relative power of ‘middle power’ countries increases, many regionally anchored states will increase their autonomy of action and so greatly expand their ability to diverge from great power expectations. As this trend accelerates, their ability to choose partnerships will tilt more towards reliability and mutual respect rather than simple deference. In this polycentric and, yes, multipolar world, massive overreaches into a partner’s domestic policy are far more likely to create backlash than truly constructive long-term results. 

To bring about this turn of thought and increase the amount of strategic empathy in a blinkered U.S. foreign policy establishment, perhaps it would be wise to consult the words of George Washington’s farewell address, which sounds notes quite similar to Imran Khan’s speech about Pakistani foreign policy:

“Nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

Many countries today find themselves in the same uncertain place as the early United States once did. The U.S. foreign policy apparatus would do well to remember that.

New York, NY— September 27, 2019: Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan addresses 74th U.N. General Assembly at U.N. Headquarters (lev radin /
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