BREAKING: Trump Just Made An Insane Statement That Could Push Asia Closer To Nuclear War
We all knew this moment would come sooner and later, and here it is. President-elect Donald Trump just made his first extremely uninformed statement that was also potentially terrifying for its implications for the world. Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif called President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory, Wednesday. According to the official Pakistani government readout of the phone call, amidst a load of puffery, Trump said to Sharif,
“I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it.”
That is an absolutely insane thing for the president-elect to say to the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Pakistan is the nexus of one of the most complex and treacherous regions of the international arena. An incoming American president should tread very carefully with Pakistan, and should not promise anything without gaining concessions in return. There are many reasons for this, and all of them are high-stakes diplomacy. Trump implying that he’s giving Pakistan a blank check is dangerous. What follows is a brief overview of the dimensions of diplomacy with Pakistan that could become turbulent because of Trump’s statement.
The relationship between India and Pakistan is potentially the most dangerous in the world, simply because the two countries have long-standing fraught relations, a frozen conflict in Kashmir that is just as intractable as Israel/Palestine, and both countries have large militaries and a significant nuclear arsenal. An American president signalling to the two countries that he’s taking Pakistan’s side in everything could radically change strategic calculations in New Delhi in a way that could spiral dangerously out of control. This is no joke. The two countries have fought 4 wars that have left hundreds of thousands dead since their bloody partition in 1947. Since Pakistan rattled its first nuclear warhead in 1998, the world has widely agreed that this relationship needs to be constantly tended to, since it is one of the most tense borders in the world, and the one most likely to go nuclear. US diplomacy has worked to carefully balance the two powers ever since. Trump either doesn’t know this, or doesn’t care.
The Diplomat, a journal on security policy in Asia, which usually features calm, sober analysis, was clanging alarm bells following Pakistan’s release of the Sharif-Trump phone call.
Vipin Narang, a nuclear weapons and security studies expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the The Diplomat that “the one thing that would give [the Government of India] an aneurysm is any US effort to ‘mediate’ Kashmir, which is, it sounds like, what Trump was offering–or at least it was vague enough that India could interpret it that way.” Narang’s right that a U.S. offer to mediate between India and Pakistan is the last thing that would interest New Delhi given repeated incidents of militant violence in Kashmir since September. “On the heels of Uri and Nagrota, this is probably the last thing India wanted to hear. Phone calls like this where [the president-elect of the United States] goes off-script can create problems for US policy and global security — in a volatile nuclear-armed region — where one previously did not exist.”
“This could literally start a nuclear war,” Narang added.
Pointing out that, since September, dozens have been killed in cross-border raids by Pakistani militants and “surgical strikes” by the Indian military, The Diplomat author Ankit Panda argues that the last thing the relationship needs right now is wild uncertainty in what the US will do. The two countries have restrained themselves and avoided ratcheting up tensions in the face of the attacks. This is largely because under President Barack Obama, the US has achieved a sort of arms-length detente with both countries, treating both as not exactly an ally, but not exactly a rival. Abruptly dropping that policy rather than nudging it in a new direction would introduce high instability in a place that can’t afford it.
Panda argues that India will have to take the statement seriously, despite Trump’s penchant for flip-flopping and telling his audience whatever they want to hear. New Delhi can’t afford to just assume the best. And there will deep confusion there, as an Indian adviser to Trump has assured New Delhi that Trump will soon label Pakistan as a “terror state.” Even if he realizes that his statement is “untenable,” backtracking from it may unnecessarily strain US relations with Pakistan.
Beyond the dangers of the India-Pakistan relationship, Pakistan plays a key role in another dimension of US foreign policy. The US is still engaged in a bloody war in Afghanistan. Pakistan plays a key role in that war. Pakistani intelligence nurtured the Taliban as a way to dislodge the Soviet Union from their neighboring country in the 1980s. After the Cold War ended, the Mujahedin took over the country. When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration quickly became heavily reliant on Pakistan to crack down on Taliban fighters who were crossing back and forth between Afghanistan and the badlands of northwest Pakistan. The Pakistani government rather treacherously used this dependence as a lever to pressure Washington diplomatically. When the US gave Pakistan concessions, it rounded up Mujahedin and handed them over. When it didn’t get something it wanted, Pakistan released militant Islamists back into the wild, and American soldiers died. The American people became fully aware of Pakistan’s duplicity on May 2nd, 2011, when Navy SEALs bagged Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, in a compound virtually next door to Pakistan’s version of West Point.
The reliance on this complex relationship, and the need to shepherd it carefully so that it doesn’t get out of hand, is key to American success in Afghanistan. If the US is ever going to extricate itself from Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan’s cooperation, based on mutual understanding, not on Trump groveling to Pakistan. The road out of the Hindu Kush runs through Islamabad, not through Kabul, ironically. Trump seems to not understand this at all.
It’s worth remembering that when a US top secret stealth helicopter crashed at bin Laden’s compound during the special forces raid that killed him, Pakistan gave China access to it, even though the US specifically warned Pakistan not to let China see it. This was partially an act of retribution for America conducting a raid on their soil. But it also underlined the fact that even though the US has a partnership with the US in some ways, Pakistan views China as more of an ally in other ways.
The Pakistan-China relationship began in 1950, and stems from a hardcore realist calculation in both Islamabad and Beijing that both countries share an abiding interest in checking India’s power. China signs massive arms transfers to Pakistan, making Pakistan a country whose military punches well above its weight. China uses this relationship to flank India to the west. China and India fought a border war in the Himalayas in 1962. Heavily arming Pakistan is a sort of insurance policy that if the two billion-plus population countries ever came to blows again, India might also have to deal with Pakistan. For Pakistan, China is a great-power sponsor that has the ability to balance India and keep it at bay diplomatically.
By promising to give Pakistan whatever the hell they want, Trump apparently doesn’t understand that, by proxy, he’s also handing policy change on a silver platter to China. If he went along with it, he could dangerously alter the balance of power between India and China, potentially freeing China to pursue a more aggressive regional strategy, or even pushing India and China toward conflict, which would also be extremely dangerous.
Trump And The World
By promising Pakistan’s Prime Minister that he will “play any role” for him, Trump sends several awful signals into the world’s diplomatic arena. For a man who campaigned on the idea that he alone knows how to strike aggressive deals, it sends the signal that Trump is something beyond a pushover. He’s a human Welcome mat, allowing the leader of a complex country that isn’t even completely an ally to step on him.
In the phone call, Trump offered to visit Pakistan, a country which has not received a presidential visit since 2006. Trump apparently doesn’t understand the diplomatic value of a presidential visit, and doesn’t understand that he could gain concessions from Pakistan by dangling that carrot. It has high value, and he just gave it away.
It sends the signal that Trump is oblivious to recent history and the general trajectory of America’s interests in its relations with other countries. He’s not interested in the nuances of how America’s relationship with Pakistan has evolved over time, and is also not even interested in where he is going to drive it. He’s just going to give Nawaz Sharif whatever he wants, apparently. This will allow other countries to push him around and knock the US on its heels.
Unless, of course, none of this is true, and Trump was just treating Sharif the same way he treats the crowds at his rallies: telling them whatever they want to hear, with no commitment to any policy, or to reality. This would also be highly problematic, because it would tell the world that you can’t believe anything Trump says. An American president whose word means nothing would also inject dangerous instability into world diplomacy.
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