Rarely, in modern history and even less so otherwise, have international relations experienced such fluidity and tumultuousness as is seen today. For the most part, alliances were carried on from one generation to the other, from one war to the other and from one era to the next. Whether it was the pre-war world of international relations, or the post-war era of the Cold War, alliances across the spectrum of international relations were significantly defined, they seemed to have a more evolutionary nature rather than revolutionary.
Recently, the Saudi monarch paid a visit to Moscow. It was the first-ever visit by a Saudi king to the Russian capital. This is interesting because Russia and Saudi Arabia have always had reasons to get to know each other better. Both of them are significant oil producers and are part of a select group of countries that exert huge influence over the world economy through oil production. The two countries share regional interests, in that their geopolitical situation is influenced by a mutually interesting region. And of course, there are a number of other reasons why two such significant countries would cooperate to manage their shared interests.
This hasn’t been the case simply because the two countries have often found themselves on opposing sides of the previously well-defined groups of global alliances. The Saudis have had a longstanding and significant alliance with the US, the significance of it being such that too often the Saudis have been predisposed to an impossibility of cooperating on significant global issues with the Russians, considering their alliance with the Americans. What prompts, then, the Saudi King’s visit to Moscow?
The old guard of international relations has retired. International relations as they existed for decades if not centuries have ceased to exist. Today, a more dynamic form of international relations rises, one that isn’t pre-disposed to the restrictions that accompany a binary view of international relations. In simpler words, alliances and enmities, aren’t those anymore, they are something much more fluid, much more energetic.
For the longest time, a most staunch demand of the Saudis, considering that they had a significant interest in the Syrian conflict and its impact, was that the Syrian president be removed as a player in any possible post-war future for Syria. This was in stark contrast to the Russian position on the matter, Russia being allied to Iran, a regional rival of Saudi Arabia.
However, when King Salman met President Putin in Moscow, the issue didn’t seem to trouble what looks like the beginning of a significant relationship. This is because matters other than that of disagreements were discussed, the two sides realising the need to widen their relationship. And so, a single meeting has discontinued what is an eternity of an estranged relationship. It’s not just a drastic change for the Russians or the Saudis, but for the world, with foreign policy analysts across the world scrambling to determine the possible impacts of such a groundbreaking event. It’s not just the Saudis or the Russians that are indulging in this new brand of international relations.
International relations today then are inclined to be revolutionary instead of evolutionary. They are characterised by unpredictable tectonic shifts instead of predict slow-paced diplomatic movements. The Turks find themselves in new meaningful relationships with the Iranians and Russians, both not natural allies of the Turks for a long time. At the same time, Turkey and the US, longtime allies and Nato members recently decided to stop the issuance of visas to each other’s citizens. Iran fought a decade-long, incredibly bloody war with Iraq just a couple of decades ago. And while the memories of the war haven’t even past a generation, the two neighbours seemed to be finding common ground on more and more things, most recently, the fate of the Kurds. These aren’t temporary fluctuations in an otherwise stable order, but the revolutionising of the order itself.
This dynamic new brand of international relations finds its purpose in settling matters in relationships that aren’t binary. These relationships are much more complex. With the advent of aggressive globalisation, increased layers have been added to what were previously one-dimensional relationships. Diplomats now have to sift between various possible and existing layers of a particular relationship which include economic, political, social, regional and global considerations. As diplomats adapt to the new order of international relations, they must learn to, as many diplomats across the world are doing today, alienate specific aspects of a relationship from others. This means ensuring mutual cooperation in the economic aspect of a relationship.
What does this mean for Pakistan?
Pakistan has been an active member at the forefront of what was the previously existing order of international relations, one with defined ‘enmities’ and ‘friendships’. Quick to pick sides, Pakistan has often found itself in highly opinionated positions when it came to conflicts between other countries. For this reason, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been almost completely one-dimensional. Pakistani diplomats have characterised relationships in an arbitrary manner, where you are lifelong ‘enemies’ or ‘friends’ with a particular country. It now finds its friends or enemies behaving uncharacteristically as they adapt to the new ill-defined notions of alliances and conflicts. Allies of Pakistan don’t feel that they can’t be allied with enemies of Pakistan, and vice versa. While some consider this to be a less ‘honourable’, selfish form of international relations based on self-interest and no conception of good or bad, one begs the question if international relations are meant to be anything but self-serving and selfish. It’s simply the case that international relations have evolved to a point perhaps where they don’t feel the need to don the false cloaks of morality or altruism and just present themselves in their inherently, purely, utilitarian nature. International relations hardly ever stood for ‘good’ in the world, more so perhaps to the contrary.
Pakistan, therefore, faces an urgent need to completely revise its idea of international relations. This means re-characterising relationships not with the broad strokes of ‘enemy’ or ‘friend’, but with the articulate and delicate distinctions of completely separable interests over which Pakistan agrees or disagrees with the other country. It means not viewing international relations through the arbitrary lens that was a remnant of a once uni-polar world, and identifying and exploring new avenues of regional and global cooperation. It means forging new alliances and engaging old enemies.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2017.