What is America up to? This is the question on everyone's mind these days. A piece of 'news' made its way from email lists to the mainstream media last week. Blackwater, the dreaded security contractors who have wreaked havoc in Iraq, has a presence in Pakistan, and an NGO in Peshawar is a front for their mercenary operations in the Northern Areas and tribal belt.
However, this news is probably better classified as 'gossip' because Blackwater has been disbanded (renamed Xe but certainly not the same company it was two years ago) and a further check into the NGO in question, Creative Associates International, reveals them to be a legitimate organisation that's been operating in 15 countries for the last 32 years.
This incident deserves highlighting, though, because it encapsulates a fundamental conflict that characterises Pakistan's relations with the United States: not the clash of civilisations, but the clash between hard and soft power. We'll have to turn our attention from Samuel Huntington to Joseph Nye to understand what that means.
Nye is the origiNator of the phrase 'soft power,' and his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics outlines the differences between hard, military power and soft power, 'the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.'
In a few short years, Nye's work has had a profound effect on American foreign policy. Foreign policy experts, professors and government officials have understood that when American culture, politics and policies look attractive to a country, that country is more likely to move in America's direction. History testifies to the truthfulness of this concept: the most recent example being the protests and demonstrations held by pro-western Iranians after the elections of 2009.
Young, urban and educated, these Iranians liked what America had to offer, while rural Iranians, less immune to the charms and attractions of the American political system and culture, held steadfast in their support of President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad's government. It would have been a great victory for American soft power if the Velvet Revolution had triumphed, showing that major ideological shifts in countries traditionally hostile to America can be achieved without firing a single shot.
This may still happen elsewhere in the world; we can observe the two dynamics of hard and soft power battling it out in our own country, Pakistan. On the one hand, the classic hard power elements -- armies, military support and drone attacks which 'take out' Taliban and other militants -- are put to work in and around our borders, with varying degrees of success.
Baitullah Mehsud has been eliminated, the Taliban locked in a self-destructive succession struggle; but the grave price of this accomplishment is visible in every Gallup poll that shows exactly what Pakistanis think of America.
Soft power is more than just about filling our airwaves with rock and roll and our bellies with Coca-Cola, though, as in the Pakistan of the 1950s. Commerce, cultural exchanges, education and human rights and relief efforts are all the tools with which America is trying to win Pakistan's heart and mind, although given the inconstancy of Pakistan's heart and the fickleness of its mind, the US will have a harder task ahead than it anticipates.
As we all know, we are perfectly capable of enjoying all the benefits of America reaching out to us, and then thumbing our noses at them. Why? Because when you use soft power in conjunction with hard power, you have a hard time convincing people of your sincerity, your intentions.
All the good work done by NGOs, educational outreach and business groups wanting to promote trade between the two countries goes down the drain every time the news of another drone attack hits the headlines; the US runs the serious risk of looking even more diabolical by making the carrot and the stick so obvious to us here in Pakistan.
Furthermore, as nice as soft power looks on the outside, it still defines us by what we can get out of them and what they can get out of us, a mutually parasitic relationship that is no healthier than that of the conqueror and the conquered. My friend Zaheer Kidvai, wise in many more things than just computers, made an interesting observation about this: 'When the British occupied the subcontinent, and their 'troops' were here, the only way Americans could 'get in' was to send out comics and movies that invaded what [educator and media pioneer Marshall] McLuhan referred to as our 'space between the ears..'..
'Now the US troops are here and the British want to 'get in' " so a variant of the same strategy has come into play. Organisations that we once admired for their tremendous support of indigenous activities and initiatives ... are beginning to become more active and -- especially with their physical space, sadly, curtailed by risks of a different nature -- are trying to own our McLuhan Space.'
Will we ever be able to move beyond what they want from us or what we want from them? Recognising our interdependence, and working with mutual respect to achieve goals that have nothing to do with strategic power or influence, can we come up with a relationship that benefits us without making us post-colonial slaves to the western power dynamic?
Perhaps the answer lies in the concept of patient capital. I learned about this from Jacqueline Novogratz, whose company, the Acumen Fund, uses patient capital to 'build transformative businesses' that serve Pakistan's poor in the fields of water, health, housing, energy and agriculture. The hallmark of patient capital is that the investor makes a long-term investment in a business with no expectation of turning a quick profit. You make the investment, but you don't want an immediate return; you can afford to wait and allow the business to achieve self-sustenance, and then you will see a return on that initial investment.
It's primarily a business term, but think about the implications of
applying it to US-Pakistan relations. The US invests in our education,
health or power crisis, but with no short-term expectations, no
pressure, no demands. They act as a friend helping out another friend
in need. They wait, patiently, for the long-term dividends of this
investment: an improved opinion of the US and the elimination of
resentment and suspicion between the two countries. This kind of
patient capital will pay off in ways that will benefit us both for
generations to come.