Elections 2020 have stained the American democracy, and the toxic political divide will continue to polarize the US politics for an indefinite period – unless some societal leadership or intellectual movement emerges that comes up with new solutions to unite America’s fractious multiple identifies.
United States in the beginning of 21st century is a victim of its social and political evolution. Steadily progressing from the all-white male republic of the founding fathers, it has evolved through its war of revolution against the English crown, its civil war against slavery, its industrial revolution and participation in European wars to become leader of the western world and its civil rights movements that ultimately led to America electing its first black president in the form of Barack Obama who was so popular till the end that – if law permitted – could have been elected the third time.
But in the process of its remarkable evolution, United States – once a conservative Christian society of White Puritan founding fathers – kept reinventing itself again and again. It accepted and embraced newer immigrants, ideas and freedoms with relish becoming something so openly diverse in the process – White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and also Gay, lesbian and ultraorthodox – that has perhaps never existed before in the history.
Francis Fukuyama who had once stimulated our minds with his “End of History” thesis had a few years ago written another masterpiece, under the caption of “Identity-the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment”; that work most accurately describes America’s current dilemmas and agonies. And it helps understand why its elections are no so divisive. This year, as some commentators have described it was not about Biden at all; it was about a war of identity between those who loved “Trump” and those who hated him.
Unless a new intellectual movement unites these “fractious multiple identities” within the same crucible, it will either implode like the Rome of 5th century (though this time from barbarians from the inside) or will unite under Margaret Atwood’s frightening vision of “Gilead” as beautifully conjured up in her novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
No one has realized, so far, it’s not China that threatens America; its America’s fractious polarized politics that now threatens the soul, mind and body of America. The great “American Dream” world had seen is fast becoming the “Undiagnosed Nightmare”
Joe Biden: Why Pakistan must understand this post-modern American?
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will now take over as President of this divided, split and dangerously fractious America. Pakistan and the Imran Khan government – unlike the Hindutva regime of Narendra Modi that had openly aligned itself with Trump – had no candidates in this race. This will help in its initial dealings with the new man in the White House. However, to understand how Biden will interact with Pakistan and the world around Pakistan, one has to understand his post-modern personality and political background.
Trump and Biden; it is difficult to conceive if two men in US politics could have been more different. Trump a product of the power-driven culture of construction industry sold himself as a super-masculine, real man who was known for possessing beautiful trophy wives. Biden is known for his affectionate relationships, empathy and compassion for family and friends.
In August 1966, a 24-year-old Biden married Neilia Hunter a student at Syracuse University after persuading her parents to let her wed a Roman Catholic. In 1972, the year a young Biden was elected first time Senator from Delaware, Neilia died in a tragic car crash along with daughter Amy leaving behind two injured sons: Beau and Hunter. A distraught Biden decided to resign to take care of his two young sons but was persuaded by Senate Majority leader, Mike Mansfield, to continue.
Many believe that Biden’s outlook on politics – and his lifelong quest to promote human rights, health and public welfare – was much affected by that early traumatic period. In May 2015, his son Beau Biden died of glioblastoma, a kind of brain cancer. Throughout election campaign, Trump and his supporters kept attacking Biden for the drug and psychological addictions of his only surviving son, Hunter. Biden kept defending with compassion, without irritation but would never indulge in personal attacks on Trump’s troubled married lives and horrid women accounts.
But the list of differences with Trump runs long. Trump’s first public office was US presidency. Biden, in 1970 at age 28, was elected New Castle County Councillor and became the sixth youngest senator in the US history in 1972. He was later elected six times to the US Senate, from 1973 to 2009, and was its fourth senior-most member when he resigned to become Obama’s Vice President in 2009 continuing in that position till 2017. Biden had earlier run unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and again in 2008.
Biden, as US Vice President, was a great supporter of opening up with Iran and remained engaged with the 8 year-long “Five plus Two Negotiations” with Iran that ultimately concluded in the form of 2015, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the US-Iran Nuclear Deal that was unilaterally violated by the US under Trump in 2018.
Biden always took great interest in how the world was being shaped under the US leadership; he was a long-time member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and eventually its chairman. He also chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995, dealing with drug policy, crime prevention, and civil liberties issues; he led the effort to pass the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Violence Against Women Act, and oversaw six U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, including the contentious hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.
Unlike Donald Trump, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. is an institutional man who has remained deeply involved with fifty years of US domestic policy making, legislative agendas and foreign relations. He has voted for and against wars and has worked assiduously for a carbon-free world, for Paris Convention on Climate Change, expanded Health coverage and poverty alleviation.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office and commentators have to grasp that at age 78, he is bound to act through the prism of politics and principles he has lived through. If Trump represented Margaret Atwood’s “reactionary America” that almost created the dystopian “Republic of Gilead” then the Roman Catholic Biden who supports “same sex marriages” represents the complex microcosm of a multi-dimensional America that has evolved over the past 50 years through civil rights, Vietnam Anti-war, feminism, Gay & Lesbian movements and the experiences of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and opening of China.
Biden-Harris Administration: Attitudes towards India & China
Kamala Harris, standing next to Biden as vice-president of the United States means several things: She is first woman vice president in the US history; she represents US minorities – Black Asian and Latino and provides face to 1.4 billion Indians (20% of world population) on the arena of US politics; she thus appears as a symbol of post-modern, multicultural, liberal democratic America.
Joe Biden – Kamala Harris administration will thus firmly engage the old world of Europe and will love the narrative of Nehruvian India but will shy from hugging the butcher of Gujarat. Indian establishment will probably tutor Narendra Modi to avoid his embarrassing crude bear hugs with Biden. This new administration may sound critical on Indian actions and relentless human right violations in occupied Kashmir and the ill-treatment of minorities. Arundhati Roy may get a senate testimony.
But nothing much can change beyond that; such is the depth of Indian English speaking communities, and nature of American paranoia about a “rising China” and Indian Establishment has so cleverly sold itself as both “victim of Pakistani terrorism” and “counter-weight” of China that Biden who shares a rare “China Fear” with Trump will not be able to see through the Indian chicanery of wheels within wheels.
So New Delhi will cry “Chinese wolf” and will continue to arm itself with the latest American gadgets to be used against Pakistan. So next time PAF may find it difficult to jam the communications of Abhinandan’s plane – as American policy makers will keep selling latest technologies to a foxy New Delhi dreaming of the day when an assertive India will be ready to confront China.
Pakistan’s challenge is to keep telling Americans and the west (even when they pretend not listening) that wily Indian Establishment – that has never fired a bullet or lost a life for the west – is taking them for a joy ride. No one has fooled “the west” more than the Indian Establishment – and at some point, western intelligentsia may get to realize this.
On China – like India – there is a bipartisan consensus. Biden’s democratic administration will share Trump’s fear of China – minus his uncivilized rhetoric. American crusade against Chinese telecommunications and trade will continue with greater elements of multilateralism, European support, albeit with a softer language.
Pakistani governments, GHQ and foreign office should not confuse Pakistani Urdu media’s desire of Sino-US confrontations with ground realities. Beijing has neither the capability nor the desire to confront the US. This whole paradigm of an “assertive and combative China” under Xi Jinping is mostly an American and western construct now ably exploited by Indian story tellers to extract more and more from Washington.
Chinese do see a commercial and technological competition between themselves and the US. BRI is a vision of economic engagement and managing Chinese growth engines but there is no palpable desire for all that competition to turn into a rivalry with the west. Most Pakistanis ended up hating Trump, as their own enemy, because their only sources of understanding the US politics are the CNN and the New York Times.
It’s important that Pakistani institutions, media and govt officials should resist understanding China and the world only through the prism of US and Indian media. Pakistan needs to find a balance between Beijing and the US; it had once played a crucial role in creating trust and opening China to the west; it still needs to develop capacities for intense diplomatic engagement on both sides and should conceive itself as a bridge between the US and China. Admittedly, it’s an uphill task made more difficult by the deep penetration of Indian and US media and ideas into Pakistani minds but that is the way forward and is not impossible.
Biden: Challenge & opportunity in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, Pakistan has now both a challenge and an opportunity. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s PM, writing in Washington Post in September 2020, “Peace is within reach in Afghanistan” argued that a hasty international withdrawal would be unwise. Was that pre-positioning by Pakistani government in anticipation of Biden? It’s not clear; but Pakistani state institutions, media and public opinion have often shown remarkably contrasting positions on the issue of US withdrawal; till a few years ago it looked as if everyone in Pakistan loved the idea of an “immediate US withdrawal” however over the past few years both Foreign Office and the GHQ started showing greater acceptance of the US role in Afghanistan in terms of providing stability to the region.
Its heard, in Islamabad’s diplomatic circles, that even Chinese, Russians and Iranians assess the same. It’s not that all these stakeholders don’t want the US to withdraw, but they want to avoid a sudden US withdrawal – a continuing limited US engagement is considered necessary for the region to adjust to new equilibriums.
Trump had committed himself to almost total withdrawal, he had the guts to defy the input of Pentagon and CIA but Biden – the quintessential institutional man – would listen more to his military and intelligence. US thus may be staying in Afghanistan for long in some capacity. While this may be considered desirable from Pakistan’s own point of view as Islamabad wants Washington’s continuing help in producing political solutions and peace inside Afghanistan – but there is a lingering fear of how Indian Establishment may like to exploit this situation.
After 9/11, India, under the US watch, penetrated deep into the newly emerging Kabul government and its institutions like NDS. It then ruthlessly exploited its space and access inside Afghanistan to play havoc inside Pakistani tribal areas, Baluchistan, SWAT valley, Karachi and used Afghan proxies to launch attacks all across Pakistan creating a spectre of an ungovernable nuclear state – imploding from within.
Pakistani media, thinktanks and intelligence have been slow and disorganized in understanding the Indian strategic game. It was difficult because Indians as a strategy were using Afghan and Dari speaking assets from within Afghanistan – but with gradual arrests and disclosures and finally, with the high-profile arrest of Indian intelligence officer, Commander Kulbhashan Jhadav in early 2016, things started to become more and more clear.
Throughout this time period, despite Pakistani protests and intelligence sharing, the US side kept ignoring the Indian activities inside Afghanistan giving rise to Pakistani fears that perhaps the US is a party to the design of an imploding Pakistan.
Much improvement and trust developed under Trump and the relentless work done by his envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad who in his commitment and indefatigability was a reincarnation of Richard Holbrooke. Will Khalilzad continue under Biden? Too early to say, but Pakistani Foreign Office and military need to redouble their engagement with all stakeholders of Afghanistan including the US, Russia and China to ensure continuing peace and stability.
No one – after Afghans themselves – has suffered more the consequences of Afghan civil wars. Much negativity and mistrust exist in Kabul about Islamabad, but Pakistan remains the biggest external stakeholder of Afghanistan – which provides Pakistan with much needed geographical, historical, religious and cultural connectivity.
With Biden administration in place, Pakistan has an opportunity to continue with the mission of pacifying and uniting Afghans under one government in Kabul. India will try its level best to ensure that this does not happen – and in that respect, Islamabad has a huge diplomatic challenge at hand.
New opportunities with Iran, Saudi Arabia & Israel
Biden administration’s expected pacifying approach towards Iran opens up multiple opportunities for Pakistan. First, it will instil a sense in the over-eager minds in Riyadh who after placating Trump through arms deal and hasty moves towards Israel were behaving erratically in the region – including towards Pakistan.
Yemen war will hopefully come to an end, Pakistan will have greater opportunities to resolve its recent tensions with Saudis and also UAE and should be able to expand its engagement with Tehran. Qataris might breathe a slight sigh of relief, and Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan of UAE, might replace Saudi MBS in terms of US affections.
Pressures upon GCC countries – and thus indirectly upon Pakistan – to recognize Israel will stop for the time being. This offers Pakistan a great opportunity for some important diplomatic work.
Because of the toxicity of its domestic Islamist politics where idiocy has turned “Israel” and even “Yahudi” into blasphemous words, Pakistan missed the bus in early 1990’s when, after the collapse of erstwhile Soviet Union, it was the real time to make meaningful moves towards Israel in a luxurious time frame. India realizing that it had been in the anti-west Soviet camp hastily landed in Washington through Tel Aviv.
This smart move did much good to overall Indian strategy since then as it successfully aligned the powerful Israeli lobbies with the Indian needs – causing much harm to Pakistan’s interests. Admittedly, Pakistan missed the bus for not being able to manage its medieval domestic politics. But given this new opportunity when the middle eastern rush to recognize Israel will stop for the time being, it needs to move quietly to engage and build bridges of trust with Tel Aviv.
This engagement can be done through friendly third countries including the US. Whenever this topic is broached up by this analyst, many idiots across Pakistan think that a case is being made for the diplomatic recognition of Israel and that public opinion is being shaped. Reality is that Pakistan is far from that point. Its key institutions first need to do internal soul searching, detoxifying themselves from the incessant low-end mind destroying theories of mullah mind set in Urdu media and now a series of deranged vloggers.
Pakistani institutions need to focus on a dialogue of civilizations. For the greater part of history, since 7th century, Muslims and Jews have lived in harmony. Zionist movement in the early 20th century, Palestinian Naqba and then Arab Israel wars created anti-Israeli toxicity of Pakistani street. But given the developments of the past quarter century – Camp David, Oslo Accord, Palestinian recognition of Israel, Intifada movements, Iraq Syrian Wars and growing Arab need to recognize Israel – it’s time to move beyond those mid twentieth century street feelings.
At this point, efforts are not needed to test and shape public opinion in Pakistan, this will be a useless provocation; this is the time to quietly engage Israeli institutions and sensible personalities through third countries – like the US, Jordan or Norway – on neutral grounds, to understand each other to build bridges of trust.
Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are the three most important Muslim nation states– because of their historical inheritance, interaction over centuries and potential for the future. Islamabad and Istanbul share an increasingly common world view – though it needs more meaningful engagement and bridges of understanding.
Tehran is part of the geographical continuum. In the 1960’s when all three were in the US camp, then something like “Regional Cooperation for Development” (RCD) looked possible. Future can hold much for these three countries and the region if better sense prevails. Can Islamabad and Istanbul also impress upon Tehran that policy of confrontation has not done much good to it over the past 50 years and may be all three need the “Biden moment” for deeper reflection, renewal and reengagement?
Engagement on issues of Environment & Climate Change
Since 1979, the single issue on which Pakistani governments and establishment have found engagement with the US administrations is Afghanistan and after 9/11 it was terrorism but that too mostly in the context of Afghanistan. India successfully added its strategic needs – to suppress Kashmiris struggle for freedom against Indian occupation– to the international agenda against terrorism– and ultimately landing Pakistan into FATF.
Many in the Foreign Office, government institutions and corporate world have wondered if there could be something else to define relationship, but they have failed to find issues where Pakistan can resonate with concerns important to the US and the west. With Biden administration there is a new opportunity.
Given the traditional hard issue thinking and related mental barriers in Foreign Office, military, media and the business community this can be easily ignored but with Imran Khan government – and its track record of genuine interest in these issues – this may be an opportunity.
Since 2014, PTI led govt in the province of KPK, with its “Billion Tree Tsunami” became the first sub-national govt., in the whole world, that had tried successfully to align itself with the international commitments reached at “Bonn Challenge”.
The Bonn Challenge was a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s degraded and deforested lands by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. It was hosted and launched by Germany and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Bonn on 2 September 2011, in collaboration with the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration and targets delivery on the Rio Conventions and other outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit.
Pakistani Foreign Office had been happily signing international conventions without bothering to implement these or even understanding the implications of the commitments given. However, PM Imran Khan has for the first time – as part of his manifesto and electoral pledges – given political leadership to issues of forestation, climate change, food security, agricultural yield and poverty alleviation-for instance his repeat emphasis on Ehsas program run by Dr. Sania Nishtar and his shift of CPEC phase II towards environment friendly industrial zones, agricultural yield, and food security.
Most of these issues connect with the Paris Convention on Climate Change. For instance, restoration of 150 million hectares of the world’s degraded and deforested lands by 2020 would have helped in sequestration of 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide which could reduce the global emission gap by 20%.
President elect Biden has, amongst his first public declarations, announced re-joining Paris Convention on Climate Change and added that his administration will pledge $2 trillion for clean energy and infrastructure and will set programs in motion to achieve “Zero Emissions” from the US by 2050. Currently China, the US and India are amongst the worst global emitters.
Pakistan, under PM Imran Khan, needs to emerge as a major player and advocate of these concerns on international stage. It must align itself deeply with institutions, movements and commitments like the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), World Economic Forum’s “Trillion Tree Campaign” Bonn Challenge, Green Belt Movement launched by Nobel laureate, Wagari Maathai, and Plant for Planet Foundation. All this connects with the Paris Convention on Climate Change.
Under someone like Imran Khan, Pakistan can provide much leadership to these causes and find genuine issues to resonate with the post-modern world of Joe Biden.
Moeed Pirzada is Editor Global Village Space; he is also a prominent TV Anchor and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. Pirzada studied international relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at the London School of Economics, UK as a Britannia Chevening Scholar. His columns have appeared in various national and international publications. He tweets @MoeedNj.