In a few days the fractious and divisive Trump-Biden binary would throw an outcome, which apart from being electorally memorable, could define the course of American politics for decades to come. While Joe Biden is a step ahead, swing voters change of heart or a last-minute Trump resurgence is not out of the realm of possibilities.
It is true that while, generally, the prospect of another Trump term sends shivers across the world’s capitals, Islamabad isn’t one of them. In fact, more of Pakistan’s present decision-makers are rooting for Donald Trump than for Joe Biden. Donald Trump represents the kind of mindset the Imran government can engage with — swift, transactional and exceedingly short-term. This serves Pakistan’s immediate strategic interests, for example in Afghanistan. The thinking is that we are close to writing a quick, marketable success story in this war-torn place. This is exactly what Trump has been pushing for as well in a desperate attempt to showcase his foreign policy success.
On the contrary, Joe Biden can bring to the presidency a cumbersome load of complex decision-making involving all stakeholders, which, in the past has been the bane of Pak-US bilateral talks on Afghanistan. The turf wars of the various US departments involved in the policy formulation stalled quick-fixes Pakistan has been proposing for many years. Trump changed all of that. He wanted to drawdown and asked for a Taliban-backed graceful exit that did not look like a retreat. Using the threat of tweeting a total withdrawal from Afghanistan to his principals of policy he created space for Islamabad’s power brokers to get the Taliban on the table and start the endgame. Without Trump’s personalised push, the thinking goes, Afghanistan’s peace process would have been stuck in the long-windedness of Washington’s power politics.
A review of Trump Administration
This process is still work in progress, which another Trump term could take to the logical conclusion. On the contrary a Joe Biden Administration will review everything Trump has done. And from what the Democrats have been saying about this Administration, it will be a review as deep and expansive as Trump did of the Obama Administration. Much of foreign policy that Trump built with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, may not survive the review. This makes the Pakistani establishment uneasy. While they know that the Doha Agreement on US troops withdrawal is a strong document, how many US troops will remain and how large will their footprint will be, might an issue up for debate in Washington. This can be a new headache.
Also by making use of the built-in transactionalism of the Trump Administration’s approach to bilateral relations, Islamabad thinks it has done rather well building bridges with a president who earlier was accusing it of deceit, lies and of not doing a “damn thing” in return of billions of dollars that the US “paid them”. In admittedly oversimplistic self-praise, Pakistani establishment also believes that they have made headway in breaking the animosity-laden mode of the present Administration through personal diplomacy which involved business men like Ali Jejhangir Siddiqi.
In fact, so invested is Islamabad in the Trump Administration that until some months ago no one thought of engaging with the Biden Team. This can be a costly mistake if Biden wins. He understands Pakistan better than most presidential candidates. As former vice president and as a member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has a long history of interface with Pakistan. What is more, he knows the political landscape quite well and has ties with former president Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, for whom has a ‘positive fondness’, to use the words of a seasoned Pakistani diplomat who served in Washington.
This compounds the folly of banking on Trump at the cost of neglecting Biden, who as an unwavering Democrat and someone who puts high premium on values like press freedom, centrality of elected representatives and human rights. The Trump Administration never cared much about the internal affairs of Pakistan and viewed the country purely from the prism of a deal on Afghanistan, reducing everything else to irrelevance. It may not be the same under Joe Biden.
Human rights framework of reference
A new Administration that wants to engage with politicians, speaks openly in favour of free and fair elections, decries assault on democratic institutions and gives centrality to these issues in its bilateral ties can change the domestic environment in Pakistan. A Biden presidency can also be tough on issues that directly involve Pakistan’s establishment like the Financial Action Task Force requirements and also extremist groups activities but that framework can also bring extra focus on the Kashmir dispute where Biden has taken a rather strong position using the human rights framework of reference.
There will be constants, too, regardless of who wins, Trump or Biden. China is one such constant. Even though the Trump camp calls their opponent “Beijing Biden,” the fact remains that taming a rising China is a bipartisan concern in the US. As Pakistan’s closeness to China becomes more pronounced in the next half a decade on the back of the completion of many Belt and Road Projects including infrastructure, roads, ports etc, Washington’s refrain that Islamabad is becoming too close to Beijing for its comfort will surge.
The more so since Joe Biden will be dealing with hawks within anxious to not let the Republicans attack them for being soft on China. The same situation can also emerge if Trump returns to the presidency — super powerful and free of the constraints of the first term. He can be tougher on China than before, making Beijing a prime target of his foreign and defence outlook. In all, Pakistan has high stakes in who wins the presidential polls. If Pakistanis could vote, the Opposition will swing for Biden and the government will stand with Trump.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12