Analysing Biden's Statement regarding Pakistan and Islamabad's Response

“The United States is confident of Pakistan’s commitment and its ability to secure its nuclear assets”. This was stated by the spokesperson of the US State Department as a response to a question asked during the October 17, 2022, press briefing. This statement by the US State Department’s spokesperson came after President Biden’s somewhat malformed, vexing and uncouth remarks about Pakistan during his speech at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Reception on October 13, 2022.

Before discussing Biden’s statement about Pakistan, it is important to highlight the context in which that statement was made. While making these remarks, he was speaking in a global context to which he referred as “a totally different world right now”. Meaning international political constellations and dynamics have undergone a massive transformation since 1946 (post World War II). He further elaborated by giving examples of President Putin being the first leader of Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis to give threats pertaining to the use of nuclear weapons (tactical) vis-à-vis the War in Ukraine. Biden then mentioned the contemporary situation where China is figuring out its role relative to Russia, India and Pakistan. It was followed by the US President boasting about his understanding of Chinese President Xi based on his interactions with the Chinese leader spanning numerous hours and thousands of miles of joint travel over the period of ten years.

After acknowledging President Xi’s clear-headedness in policy and mentioning that he (Xi) faces an array of problems, Biden asked how to handle this challenge (China) and how to handle it relative to Russia. It was after these inquiries that President Biden, rather incontinently, stated, “And what I think maybe one of the most dangerous nations in the world: Pakistan. Nuclear weapons without any cohesion [sic]”.

The actual statement of President Biden was a shot at Pakistan’s internal cohesion, which is falling victim to societal polarisation on multiple levels, economic and security woes, and political instability, among other factors.

This statement’s reception in Pakistan was highly sceptical and resentful. The collective response from the people of Pakistan (including the political leadership across the spectrum) represented their disgust, anger and disappointment. Although, in my opinion, the kind of attention and response given to this statement by President Biden was more than it warranted or deserved.

At the cost of sounding like the devil’s advocate and not discounting the benign messaging behind Biden’s statement, it was a political and not a policy statement after all. As mentioned earlier, the statement was made at a political gathering (the DCCC) of US Democrats right before the upcoming mid-term elections (in November) in which Biden was trying to boost the morale of his party members, convince them to get more Republicans on their (Democrats) side to maintain a majority in the House and highlighting his “wins” in the office to date, which by the way, were all domestic and none on the foreign policy front, namely the passing of the Recovery Act, Infrastructure Bill, Inflation Reduction Act among others.

On the latter front, all President Biden did was: highlight the changing international political and strategic environment, identify different emerging threats throughout the world, accentuate threats if Democrats no longer have office, and elucidate how the world is looking towards the US to address existing challenges.

However, it is also important to understand the reasons and context of Pakistan’s reaction towards President Biden’s statement, which might make the response seem not so unwarranted. First of all, Pakistan’s nuclear program is one of the most protected, regulated, well-monitored and safest in the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has attested to it on multiple occasions through its various, regular reviews that it publishes after inspections of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. Despite its various woes pertaining to the economy, political instability and security, Pakistan is fully capable of ensuring the safety and security of its territory, assets and interests. Therefore, the remarks made by Biden were gratuitous, to say the least.

Secondly, to be fair, India, like Pakistan, is also a de facto nuclear-armed state. But unlike Pakistan, India’s nuclear safety and security record remain highly questionable and abominable. India has a history of missing (serving) nuclear scientists, nuclear information leaks by officials, nuclear accidents (as recent as in 2021) and violation of safety and security protocols (case in point, the March 2021 “accidental missile launch into Pakistan”). However, President Biden conveniently ignored all of this and decided to mention Pakistan and not India, which is becoming a threat as its cohesion is increasingly in jeopardy as of late.

In addition, nuclear capability is a sensitive issue within Pakistan. It is considered a vital component of its defence, especially in a volatile neighbourhood (particularly to its East) and against a rival that is conventionally several times larger than itself. A capability that was acquired after overcoming daunting odds and profound sacrifices. Therefore, mentioning its nuclear weapons with a negative connotation was bound to have a disproportionate response from Pakistan. Especially when Biden’s statement failed to mention India against whom (in defence) this capability was primarily acquired in the first place and whose incumbent government seems to be extremely trigger-happy, which is evident from several statements by its defence minister implying the use of nuclear weapons and indicating changes to India’s “No First Use” policy.

It is a common understanding that interests reign supreme, and currently, Indo-US relations enjoy unprecedented convergence of interests in multiple areas. It is unlikely that the US will be fair in its assessment vis-à-vis India and Pakistan, and US calculations will comparatively favour India more. It will be highly naïve to expect morality in politics, let alone international politics, but for the sake of international peace and security and to avoid setting any “wrong precedents” once again, statements, such as the one made by President Biden, should be avoided which can easily be manipulated, misinterpreted and misunderstood.

After all, the statement came from the President of the only country in the world which has set the precedent of exercising nuclear weapons against another country and currently maintains the second-largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. This, despite the US’ position as a major power, compromises its moral position to school any other country about nuclear weapons safety and security.

Coming back to the actual statement of President Biden about Pakistan, it was a shot at Pakistan’s internal cohesion, which is falling victim to societal polarisation on multiple levels, economic and security woes, and political instability, among other factors. A pragmatic and objective analysis points to the fact that these rifts are increasingly becoming a national security threat of profound proportions. They have distracted Pakistan from the redressal of a plethora of important matters which are necessary for its overall progress, security and prosperity. Rather than initiating unnecessary debate over Biden’s statements, Pakistan should take stock of its contemporary situation, adopt remedial steps, and avoid escalating the situation with political sloganeering and rising up the ante with the US.

As was evident from the statement of the State Department’s spokesperson, a prosperous Pakistan is considered critical to US interests, bilateral cooperation is valued by both, and a strong relationship is mutually enjoyed. There have been several meetings of high-level officials recently to this end as well. It is important for Pakistan and the US to maintain active engagement and further build on this current momentum in the bilateral relationship, gained after a substantial trough over the last few years. It is in the best interests of both countries to maintain a working, symbiotic relationship based on mutual trust and understanding rather than it becoming a victim to unnecessary and irresponsible political point-scoring on both sides.

Taimur Fahad Khan

Taimur Khan is working as a Research Associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). His research focuses on non-traditional security issues and foreign policy analysis.

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