At his address to the US Congress in June, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked: “The Orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal. And there is a new symphony in play.” Following that, the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman, Ed Royce (R-CA) echoed similar sentiments of a bright future for US-India partnership: “with that symphony that you spoke of, set a new note.”


This is Modi’s fourth visit to the US since becoming the prime minister in May 2014. But this trip holds particular significance for not only India but for Pakistan as well. Although leader-level US-India summits have become fairly common since the 2000s, Modi is leading the Indian foreign relations transition to embracing a swift and robust security partnership with the US. Alarmingly for Pakistan, the increasing Indian security engagement with the Americans has meant a refocus on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership for India, a venture that could alienate Pakistan from the NSG for eternity (given the NSG’s membership rules).


Perhaps the timing of the Modi-Obama meeting validates the concern and observation regarding the NSG issue. The two leaders met as recently as in April 2016 at the Nuclear Security Summit as well as at the September 2015 opening of the UN General Assembly. However, experts believe these two outings didn’t meet “initial expectations” and lacked formal meetings. To his credit, Modi has emphatically demonstrated himself to be a more hands-on leader than his predecessor or his Pakistani counterpart. And in both US-India and US-Pakistan relations, it will be the top-down government leadership that will make the difference to favorably sway US bureaucracy towards patronizing India or Pakistan.


It would be fair to classify bilateral relations broadly into ‘defense’ and ‘economic’ ties. The US-India relationship is no different. The economic relationship is still plagued by the fact that the US and India remain on opposite sides of multilateral talks and back different trade blocs, with India excluded from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Indo-American disagreement over agricultural protectionism effectively caused the collapse of the 2008 Doha Round of international trade negotiations.


However, the defense ties have blossomed under the Modi-Obama leadership. The January 2015 signing of the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’, the renewal of the US-India 10-year defense framework agreement, the development of projects under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), and the launching of the ‘Maritime Security Dialogue’ all bear testament that US-India defense ties have not only been amended but are crystallizing to elevate India to the status of an American NATO ally. That being said, the US will wait for India to articulate security objectives more precisely and boldly before US-India defense partnership hits full stride. This will allow the US to better grasp the actual security commitments India is willing to undertake and consequently, chart US-Indo defense relations.


Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a Harvard Kennedy Professor and former US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, judiciously explains the significance of India in Washington’s so-called pivot and the rebalancing of American attention to Asia: in the near future, American “strategic interests will align more closely with India’s than they will with those of any other continental power in Asia”. The Ambassador reasonably believes that the US-India ties will be well grounded in efforts to “spread democracy, expand trade and investment, counter terrorism, and, above all, keep the region peaceful by balancing China’s growing military power”. Such views are vociferously echoed in Washington’s rhetoric of equating India with elite US allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea.


What Pakistan needs to understand and act on is that the US tends to view nations vis-à-vis a certain issue or competitor. Today, Turkey is viewed with respect to the migrant/refugee crisis of Europe while South Korea is supported due to its strategic position against North Korea. Similarly, the US views India particularly vis-à-vis China and has every reason to do so: India has time and time again exhibited its defense and economic value to the US.


Pakistan must realize this simple yet critical piece of American foreign policy. US strategy with Pakistan mirrors the prototypical Washington approach of short-term crises crowding out long-term ambitions for bilateral relations. Pakistan needs to respond swiftly and effectively to maintain American interest. Most importantly, Pakistan must score what India has successfully accomplished over the past two decades: acquire bipartisan support from US Democrats and Republicans alike to enable the White House to author the rise of US-Pakistan relations ties, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.


At this point in time, Pakistan offers little economic value to the US, which is why, Islamabad will have to continue to woo Washington by showcasing its security commitments. This has historically been the case for US-Pakistan relations. Ultimately, as far as the sort-term ‘band-aid’ solution is concerned, Pakistan must make the Americans cognizant of what the latter are forgoing (at least as far as security is concerned) by opting for New Delhi rather than Islamabad. US discourse on Pakistan does recognize Islamabad as an asset for supplying US troops in Afghanistan, the future challenges to Pakistan from the emerging US drawdown in Kabul, and the Pakistan Army’s dedication to counter-terrorism efforts. Islamabad must build upon this delicate relationship: Pakistani courtship needs to involve a practical blend of articulating the American need to maintain strong Pakistan ties, displaying the relationship benefits, negotiating the bargain and most critically, framing the relations diplomatically to conclude the transaction as the optimal success for the US.


What goes hand-in-hand with this foreign policy approach is the need for a domestic game-plan to prepare the Pakistani public to accept the US as a much-needed ally, garner supportive rhetoric and expand the political space to allow the plan to take place on the ground. And that is indeed, a Pakistani challenge alone and will have to originate from Islamabad.


Stephen Walt terms the US as “the single most influential actor on the world stage”, being “the only country with global military capabilities”. These views are in line with Sam Huntington’s thoughts that US primacy is “central to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.” Michael Hirsh too declared: “the role played by the United States is the greatest gift the world has received in many, many centuries, possibly all of recorded history.” Perhaps exaggerated, such views are not too far from the truth and Pakistan needs to educate its citizens and politicians alike that a friendly US brings with it more than just a mere bilateral partnership, including richer dividends globally and on multilateral platforms. Such discipline is most likely to come from the Pakistan Army rather than from Islamabad.


Additionally, Pakistan must recognize American ambitions to pursue strong relationships independently with both South Asian powers, a continuation of Condoleeza Rice’s ‘dehyphenating policy’. The US is unlikely to be “held hostage” anymore to the frequent Indo-Pakistan tensions. Acting as a mediator (and not always a successful one) between India and Pakistan has not always reaped rewards for the US, which seeks to develop a longer-term tilt towards India. That said, Pakistan should take heart from the fact that the US will not abandon or isolate a rapidly evolving nuclear power that is strategically positioned with respect to Afghanistan and China. Furthermore, with US-Iran ties having the potential to improve to a certain degree, Pakistan can play a major role in facilitating that ‘improvement’ as well. Pakistan’s successful role in assisting the US and Nixon to reach out to China didn’t go unnoticed in the West. Pakistan may well be required to perform a similar role today with respect to Iran.


Ultimately, Pakistani diplomats must be aware of American sensitivities, moving forward with a realistic sense of what is (and what is not) possible with the US in current times. Simultaneously, Pakistan must make the US aware of what the latter stands to profit from tenacious US-Pakistan relations.




Muhammad Omar Afzaal

Muhammad Omar Afzaal

is pursuing his doctoral studies from Brown University.

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