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The meaning of sovereignty

Publication Date : 08-05-2012


Since parliament completed its review of US-Pakistan bilateral relations, there have been two drone strikes in North Waziristan. The strikes have occurred despite repeated US assurances that it respects Pakistani sovereignty.

As such, the strikes undermine Pakistan’s one-track demand that the US take Pakistani sovereignty more seriously.

One can imagine that engagements in late April with US special envoy Marc Grossman entailed a lot of fist-thumping, flying spittle and demands for sovereignty. Discussions on televised political talk shows and in drawing rooms across the country certainly have. Given how frequently the issue of sovereignty has reared its head in recent months, it is high time Islamabad sought to clearly define the concept in a Pakistani context.

Contrary to popular opinion, which has flatly misinterpreted sovereignty to mean obstinacy, the concept requires interpretation. Each nation defines its sovereignty differently and Pakistan has yet to make the effort to articulate a definition.

Since Islamabad has seized the notion of sovereignty in recent years, specifically in the context of US-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s role in the war against terrorism, it has defined its sovereignty with regard to what the US can get away with on Pakistani soil.

For Pakistan, sovereignty means no drone strikes, no CIA contractors sneaking about, no US boots on the ground, no US planes in our airbases. Unfortunately, a definition crafted as a reaction to events and external policies, rather than as an articulation of a national vision, is necessarily lacking.

Endless column inches have already highlighted that lack. The point has repeatedly been made that Pakistan decries US transgressions as a violation of its sovereignty, but has far less to say on the matter of militants — described by the government as ‘non-state actors’ — operating on its territory.

Liberals have termed Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s extended stay in Pakistan a violation of sovereignty. Others have argued that foreigners who travel to Pakistan from the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe seeking militant training and sanctuary in the country’s northwest are also violating its sovereignty.

These contentions are the initial flickerings of debate on how Pakistan plans to define sovereignty. To get a sense of how animated the discussion is likely to become, should Pakistan choose to pursue it, it’s worth glancing across the border at India.

Earlier this year, the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi released Non-Alignment 2.0, a policy document by leading public intellectuals that aimed to update Indian notions of sovereignty. The document argued that “strategic autonomy” has long been the defining value of Indian foreign policy and reiterated the importance of New Delhi being able to shift its allegiances in accordance with evolving circumstances: “We must seek to achieve a situation where no other state is in a position to exercise undue influence on us — or make us act against our better judgment and will.”

The report generated a lot of debate in the Indian public sphere, with many critiquing the concept of non-alignment as dated and anachronistic. In an article for The Caravan magazine, Shashank Joshi questions the viability of non-alignment as a reigning foreign policy.

He argues that India’s weapons purchases from the US and Russia necessitated alliances as New Delhi was compelled to entrust Indian security to nations that could supply spare parts for its defence systems: “The paradox is that India has sought autonomy through alignment — diversifying defence suppliers is seen as a way of insulating oneself from the whims of any one power. It’s not clear where non-alignment stops and alignment begins…. What is certain is that India is already aligned — with various powers, in various ways, and certainly to an increasing degree with the United States.”

Joshi goes on to argue that alignment and sovereignty are not mutually exclusive, and that India could still define foreign policy on a case-by-case basis while preserving the broad contours of bilateral understandings, such as US-India agreements about creating a counterweight to an ascendant China.

Others dismissed public posturing about Indian non-alignment as a form of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, much like Pakistan’s cries for greater sovereignty. In an article for Foreign Policy, Sadanand Dhume argues that recent Indian foreign policy choices — for example, the decision to stick with Colonel Qadhafi by opposing a no-fly zone over Libya and supporting Iran through its sanctions stand-off with the US — are aimed at thwarting the US.

It’s up for debate whether Indian policy decisions were shaped in opposition to US strategy, or whether, as Dhume himself suggests, they were a throwback to an old-fashioned belief that state sovereignty matters more than individual rights.

Clearly, India is still stumbling its way to its own definition of national sovereignty. But it has instigated the debate and chosen to front-end Indian national interests and the abstract conception of non-alignment. That’s the step that Pakistan has skipped over.

For the moment, Pakistani sovereignty is defined (by accident, rather than design) on a case-by-case basis and is firmly rooted in pragmatic here-and-now considerations such as how much money can be extracted from Washington in exchange for reopening Nato supply routes. Going forward, Pakistan must link its demands for its sovereignty to be respected with a coherent national vision and complementary — and hopefully consistent — foreign policy goals. After all, unless they cohere into a bigger picture, little details cease to have any meaning and are easy to overlook.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


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