Engaging with the New America
By Sherry Rehman
Donald Trump’s spectacular re-drawing of the electoral map of America on 11/9 has spawned more questions than answers for American global leadership in an increasingly uncertain world. Given the sharp angles of the Republican campaign, for American Muslims, blacks, women and minorities it has given rise to serial anxiety, and potentially redefined the social and cultural values that gave the United States an unrivalled edge in the projection of its soft power.
The land promising liberty, freedom, opportunity and equality as a beacon after World War II is now looking at its own navel for what it can offer first itself and then others, in a transformed 9/11 world. Early election data, among other trends such as public discourse, indicates that the divides within America matter. They matter enough to defeat a continuity candidate such as Hillary, and they propelled a huge swathe of white Americans to push back against a pro-race, pro-woman, and pro-immigrant agenda. The final vote, including medium-term trends towards alt-right conservatism, both signal a country in the grip of a deep vein of existential fear.
While this emotion has gathered blood by 9/11 and its borderless terrorist risks, it tracks roots in pre-WW2 isolationism, where American foundational stories isolated it from the pressures, toxins and politics of the rest of the world. After the winds of global integration triggered by 20th century social and economic trends, however, this idea of a creational, utopian ideal took off on a long sabbatical, and American global leadership assumed what seemed like irreversible trends.
Today, after the sunset years of the Obama administration has thrown up an America in deep global retreat and internal political gridlock, the change is palpable but clearly not charted or even understood.
Yes, the pollsters are all looking for new career paths, while enough non-whites rush to the Canadian immigration website for it to crash within hours of the election result. But given that the Democratic popular vote still hugs the wire (higher for Hillary by last count), which held fast to its traditional base of the economically marginalized, including whites, it should also be noted that today as well America is no monolith of identities, but a vast plurality of competing groups and voices.
The protests across America, and the high ratings President Obama still enjoys tell a more complex story. The new American story is not only about white privilege, big money and the fear of losing jobs to off-shore call-centers to cleave a reductionist slice of the apple pie; but it is certainly a leviathan turning in its two-ocean bed with a big sneeze. As global stocks stabilize after the free-fall triggered by the trouncing of Hillary, the world is clearly worried it will catch the cold.
Understandably, for the rest of the world, which is waiting for the post-presidential team to be announced, the speculation over an emerging new Trump Doctrine is a hot-button item in policy and government circles. If the campaign is at all an index of agenda setting for the future, then it is worth noting that on foreign policy Trump took cavil with the Democratic White House on broad policy goals, including reversing big free trade items, counterterror strategies on Da’ish and the Middle East, democracy-promotion abroad, immigration and great-power relations. Afghanistan, meanwhile, was barely mentioned despite being America’s longest war, with its biggest expenditures.
The first thing to note is that so far there is no foreign policy record or engagement to go by for President-elect Trump. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who came both with baggage and experience, the Trump machine has little work on record for signaling future alignments and actions except that of a singularly exclusivist electoral campaign. Trump’s interest in developing stronger relations with India should not alarm Pakistan, but the China-ambiguity in Washington may deepen into responses the Pak-China relationship does not need. Countering terrorism will become a hardline value for the Trump Administration, if campaign talk is anything to go by, with sharper but shorter intervention by the US in the Middle East, more cooperation with Russia for joint outcomes, and bigger defense budgets.
Trump’s transition team is hard at work running up names to run America and its interests abroad. The Republican call-sheet is heavy with names from close supporters or private sector allies. Although wild cards are the norm for cabinets, the buzz from Trump insiders suggests that Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Jeff Sessions and perhaps Sarah Palin may well make the cut for key posts, as may either Steven Mnuchin of Goldman Sachs or Forrest Lucas of Lucas Oil for the big job of treasury secretary, with influence on the World Bank and IMF boards. Early names for secretary of state are Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, John Bolton and Newt Gingrich, with retired Lt-Gen Flynn’s name in the ring for NSA to the White House.
Almost all point to hardline positions on South Asia and terrorism, including a dangerously narrow lens through which Pakistan may be filtered. Senator Corker, for instance, heads the Foreign Relations Committee and was a key voice in blocking Pakistan’s F-16s by calling for a special hearing while seeking a terrorist state label for Pakistan.
Given that any administration in the White House would have a tough time dealing with an anti-Pakistan agenda emanating from an all-Republican Congress, Senate and now judiciary, Islamabad should be working up a plan to stave off a bigger chill from DC than we see today. Any such transition should raise the level of time and focus the Pakistan government has been giving big-ticket foreign policy issues, but so far for Islamabad, engagement with America remains quite boilerplate, pivoting still on old-school tactical diplomacy.
Absent serious foreign policy focus, which stems partly from having no empowered foreign minister, the beleagured government in Pakistan is more than likely to react with more of the strategic muddle-through it has exhibited all term. No forward-planning or substantive action drives key ministries, or a partisan-politics, media-obsessed PM House. Unfortunately for Pakistan, with far-right governments changing the fundamentals of global and local governments all over the world, Islamabad is in no position to meet the head-on challenges of the perfect storm already hanging on its regional skyline.
By now stating that he represents all of America, and sounding an inclusionary note in his acceptance speech, Donald Trump may well be moving away from the flourish of the campaign headlight to the sobering cadences of incumbency. The fact that earlier anti-Muslim rhetoric has been erased from his website also speaks to the burdens of office and the power of institutional frameworks that temper extremes.
But in a post-Brexit world, where Trump will still lead the way on new roads to engaging the world, including a likely rebalancing in South Asia, Pakistan should in no way be sanguine that the geopolitics of its frontline or its nuclear deterrent will steer it away from tougher ‘do more’ lines coming its way. Expecting the Chinese embrace to deliver protection from oneself is asking too much in a world where even strategic rivals build trade with each other. While moral neutrality may be an abhorrent thing in personal choices, its opposite in diplomacy must never be pushed too far, let alone be over-used.
(Sherry Rehman has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and federal information. The Express Tribune)