Revisiting Pakistan’s soft power

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In contemporary international politics keeping all eggs in the basket of hard power is a naïve approach. State crafts utilize soft power in foreign policies in a bid to win the hearts and minds of the people. Joseph Nye in the 1990s coined the soft power articulating that “soft power, unlike hard power, relies on attraction and negates coercion and payments, paving the way for mutual understanding and cooperation”. Regrettably, the implementation of soft power in the foreign policy of Pakistan so far has not been improved resulted in damaging its image across the world. Given the changing global power dynamics, Pakistan’s foreign policy requires a fresh reassessment.

Arguably, soft power begins at home. The world will not pay attention to us unless domestic issues are addressed. For instance, lingering issues of missing persons and extra-judicial killings particularly in Balochistan have been eroding the soft image of Pakistan. Dialogue is the only viable option to resolve long-standing issues. Pushing Baloch to the wall indicates Pakistan’s ruling elites have not learnt any lesson from the 1971 fiasco. Such policies go against the canon of soft power which believes in pull not to push.

The 2024 is a momentous year for the elections in South Asia. Intriguingly, Pakistan seems to be the only state where prominent leaders are incarcerated in jails. Keeping Imran Khan behind the bars raised many questions about the transparency of the election. Rejecting the nomination papers of PTI candidates compromised the legitimacy of the polls. Political engineering causes political instability and worsening of the economy and soft image of the country.

Over the 75 years of Pakistan so far among 18 prime ministers of the country, none of them has completed his or her 5 years tenure. Political leaders are equally responsible for the non-completion of their tenures. They are willing to make deals to get power without realizing their obsession with power is weakening the democracy. The common masses are kept under fabricated illusions by civil-military leaders. The military terms the civilian leaders as corrupt and incompetent while civilian leaders remonstrate the military establishment’s interference in politics as the genuine cause of the derailment of democracy. Their tug-of-war for power stains the soft image of the country.

The economy is the new form of soft power. The stronger the economy, the better the state will survive. The World Bank asserts the current economic model of Pakistan does not work. World Bank Country Director Najy Benhassine argues  “There is a broad consensus that action is needed to change policies that have plagued development, benefitted only a few, and led to very volatile and low growth,”. In this context, brain drain in Pakistan has been increasing rapidly. The young bulge of the country desires to flee the country. Unemployment, inflation, growing radicalization, toxic work environment stoke brain drain. As reported by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics PIDE economist Faheem Jahangir Khan “67 per cent of Pakistani youngsters want to leave the country”. Arguably, 67 per cent of young Pakistanis do not have trust in state’s institutions. It is a clarion call for civil-military leadership to get into introspection and ponder over 67 per cent of young Pakistanis abandoning the country.

The Afghan refugees remained indebted to Pakistan for its 40 years of hospitability. According to the Pakistan Citizenship Act, of 1951 “Every person born in Pakistan after the commencement of this Act shall be a citizen of Pakistan by birth”. Over the last 40 years, many Afghans were born in Pakistan. Islamabad’s ties with Afghanistan since the recapturing of Kabul by the Taliban deteriorated. To exert pressure on the Taliban, Pakistan is believed to have taken harsh steps to repatriate the Afghan refugees. Farhatullah Babar former senator articulates “This latest crackdown by the government is not the first time it has happened. It’s the umpteenth time. We have always used Afghan muhajireen as a political football.” The forced repatriation of Afghan refugees appears to be eroding 40 years of hospitability and diminishing the soft image of the country. Pakistan is lucky enough to have the population of Pashtuns on both sides of the border. Utilizing them for soft power will prove instrumental.

Luckily, Pakistan is an exceptional and only state in the world at a time that has two great civilizations like Gandhara Civilization and the Indus Valley Civilization. Gandhara Civilization is the birthplace of Buddhist religion which is practiced in 29 countries across the globe. Exploiting Gandhara Civilization for religious tourism will buttress the economy and soft power of the country. Pakistan in 2019 took a mammoth initiative by opening the Kartarpur Corridor won the hearts and minds of the Sikh community. Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur is the holiest place in Sikhism located in Pakistan. Both Pakistan and India were part of the great Indus Valley Civilization. Opening yet another civilizational corridor on the Sindh border allowing Indians to visit the Mohenjo-Daro Larkana, the largest city of the Indus civilization will minimize enduring hostility, and foster cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

The country failed to focus on human resource development lagging far behind in health, education and other development indices which require comprehensive re-assessment. The youth bulge is a blessing the major economies of the world have ageing populations. If the younger generation is given an advanced education and trained to the requirements of the 21st century they could do miracles otherwise will turn into liability. Putting political and economic houses in order is a prerequisite. Both politics and the economy are intertwined.

Islamabad’s the newly formulated National Security Policy NSP 2022-2026 from geopolitics to geo-economic focusing on regional connectivity, cordial ties with the neighbouring countries, citizen-centric approach and mitigating climate change. Under NSP Pakistan can become a hub of regional connectivity by connecting three major regions, Central Asia, West Asia and Indo-Pacific. Islamabad needs to develop trade infrastructure and connectivity both north-south and east-west to become the hub of regional connectivity.

The trade deficit of Pakistan surges exponentially. The total annual export of the country is around 30 billion dollars while its import is approximately 81 billion dollars. Improving the whopping trade deficit requires Pakistan to implement a knowledge economy, industrialization and spending enormously on Research & Development R&D. Tourism and travelling contributed 8.5 trillion dollars to the world economy. Pakistan is bestowed with bastion of several faiths Sufi Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. Fostering civilizational ties, religious tourism, and people-to-people exchanges will improve tourism and soft image of the country.

In short, political instability, economic crisis, missing persons, brain drain, are the serious issues diluting the soft power of Pakistan. The country can improve image by strengthening democracy, improving political instability, economy, fostering regional connectivity, shunning obsession with hard power, investing massively in health and education sectors stimulating cultural values and its ancient civilizations.

Dr. Dost Barrech teaches International Relations (IR) at the University of Balochistan UOB, Quetta. He can be reached at bareach87@gmail.com