THE Pakistani state’s strategic outlook is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Security policy drives overall foreign policy rather than the other way round. The establishment has spearheaded this agenda.


One reason the prevailing strategic paradigm seems under no real pressure is the increasing irrelevance of ‘strategic liberals’ (I am referring to strategists with a liberal view on geopolitics, not liberals writ large). Given their knowledge of strategy and liberal orientation within this domain, one would expect them to spearhead the challenge to the status quo. The state has been myopic in keeping them at bay. But they haven’t done themselves any favours either.

The Pakistani liberal discourse on strategy tends to present the realist framework as something of an anathema. Realism personifies the ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ mindset. States tend to be realist beings — those in conflict zones more than others. They see the logic in defining national interest in hard security terms and manoeuvring to secure themselves as they see fit — irrespective of normative concerns like morality of their choices.

The liberal paradigm challenges this mindset on multiple counts — generally the least effective in influencing policy is what I see Pakistani strategic liberals employ the most: declaring this mindset paranoid, self-contradictory, immoral, etc. (Western policy discourse on Pakistan often takes this line as well).


Pakistan’s current policy has led to its growing isolation.


They are not wrong. Taken too far, realism leads to these perversions. And the establishment has developed somewhat of a habit of living dangerously close to this zone. Yet, while a challenge merely pointing to these fallacies and highlighting liberalism’s normative superiority may be powerful for public intellectuals of liberal-leaning, it does little to effect realist policy minds. Not in Pakistan, not anywhere else.

Achieving this requires engaging the state’s brand of realism in its specific context and highlighting how it may be undermining its self-defined ‘national interest’. It is about talking realism and presenting realist alternatives to the status quo, but ones that proximate liberal outcomes.

Take the example of the regional policy debate in Pakistan. The liberal pushback against the establishment’s outlook argues that: (i) the state must not interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs if we expect others not to do the same to us; (ii) the state should promote regional economic integration to improve Indo-Pak ties; and (iii) we should not use militant proxies against neighbours because of the instability it creates. All undisputable on normative grounds.

But a hard-core realist would calculate otherwise: (i) will my opponent not gain if I stop interfering in  Afghanistan? India has favourable geography with all other regional countries. Why should I not take advantage of my geography vis-à-vis Afghanistan to outmanoeuvre it in this theatre? (ii) Trade with India is my bargaining chip. If I give it up, I’ll lose leverage and my core interest in Kashmir would be permanently compromised. (iii) Am I the only one using proxies? Isn’t this a game that goes on in South Asia and elsewhere?

How does one anchor in liberalism while engaging realism? By explaining that Pakistan’s current strategic outlook is not realist, it is ‘hyper-realist’ (an example of realism gone wrong); it defies the two most cardinal principles of realism: the costs of your policy choices must match your capacity and resources; and policy outcomes must be in line with your self-defined goals.

(i) Afghans see Pakistani policies negatively. The sentiment has made it politically beneficial for Kabul to reach out to New Delhi, increasing the latter’s manoeuvring space in Afghanistan, precisely the opposite of what the establishment wants; (ii) engaging regionally on the economic front will increase, not reduce, Pakistan’s leverage over India. Any deal that makes Pakistan the transit route for energy, trade, or transport that a sizeable part of the Indian population depends on will strengthen Pakistan’s bargaining position. And (iii) proxies are directly responsible for much of the internal militant chaos Pakistan has faced since 9/11. Pakistan’s capacity and resources no longer allow use of this tool, irrespective of how others may be approaching the option.

Overall, Pakistan’s current policy has led to its growing isolation in the region — the Indo-Iranian-Afghan clique being the latest example. This is self-inflicted.

Of course, my intent is not to dismiss either Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns or the intrinsic value of the liberal public discourse. But separately, neither is optimal. Pakistan’s foreign policy would gain tremendously if the two sides were to speak more directly and constructively to (instead of past) each other.

The state can help create this space by making the strategic liberals feel more welcome — for starters, by stopping the ridiculous trend of declaring naysayers unpatriotic or anti-national. And the liberals would do themselves a favour by stepping out of their social media echo chambers and recognising how irrelevant they have become.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, DC