US-Pakistan Ties Through the Lens of Pax Britannia

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 5/18/2011 12:01:00 AM
Would you like to see Britannia rule again, my friend?
All you need to do is follow the worms

[NOTE: With ex-Pink Floyd member Roger Waters currently playing the London leg of his globetrotting revival of The Wall, I guess this post is apropos. There are reasons why I've included a clip of Sir Bob Geldof in imperial mode from the film version of The Wall.]

It isn't news that already shaky US-Pakistan ties are under further pressure with the extrajudicial and extraterritorial elimination of Usama bin Laden. While you can certainly debate whether the intrusion was justified, this much is clear: Pakistan greatly resents the United States despite being quite dependent on it for aid, the IMF bailout, security cooperation and the rest. While we can debate American hegemony till the cows come home, there is little doubt that its economic and military heft is being felt by the Pakistanis. And, as many American commentators note, there has not really been all that much gratitude for US "largesse." You have Pakistani forces now shooting at NATO helicopters making excursions from nearby Afghanistan to avoid Usamagate II. Meanwhile, the Pakistani press is getting even more strident about American interference in its affairs.

Call it biting the hand that feeds what other provide. I'd argue, after all, that it's the Chinese ultimately lending to the Americans to lend to and supply the Pakistanis if we are more honest about this messed up world of subprime globalization. Pakistani PM Yousuf Raza Gilani has even called China his country's best friend in a reflection of strained ties with the US. Take that, Yanquis; some fine reward for all your troubles.

If you think US-Pakistan ties are frayed, roll back the years, decades, and centuries to the heyday of Pax Britannia for an even more uncomfortable relationship in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. While Pax Americana has not been formal in name--its tradition is ostensibly small r republican--Pax Britannia in all its majesty held sway over Pakistan at the height of its powers. Just as the visit of Senator John Kerry occasioned a lot of anger in Pakistan, it was only a few weeks ago that a representative of the erstwhile imperialist in Prime Minister Cameron visited Pakistan. Instead of urging further cooperation on anti-terrorism and so forth, I think Cameron actually did something smart by attempting to jettison some of the historical baggage.

You see, Cameron was caught on camera attributing a lot of what's wrong in Pakistan today to British colonial rule. By the measure of how the maps of today's regions look like--particularly in Africa and the Middle East--you can certainly argue that the British Empire has had a more profound effect on the modern world than the Americans ever did. Hence the unfinished business in places alike Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. Historical reappraisals of British Empiretend to go in cycles. Our own Niall Ferguson is of course of the opinion that yes they were often racist and killed/brutalized/enslaved us coloured peoples, but overall, they had a positive influence on the development of the modern world.

However, what Cameron did was, as far as I can observe, a more politically tactful ploy since he was received better than Kerry was. Indeed, British traditionalists were quickly up in arms against what they saw as the latest apologia for empire:
David Cameron has been criticised for being “simplistic and trendy” and for being “more PC than PM” for trying to apologise for Britain’s imperial past. Historians also said he was being naïve to suggest that many of the world’s ills can be traced back to when they were British colonies.

Seán Lang, a senior lecturer in History at Anglia Ruskin University, where he teaches British Imperial History, accused Mr Cameron of “touting for applause”. He told The Daily Telegraph: “His comment was simplistic and trendy - more PC than PM. I certainly wouldn't accept such a sweeping generalisation from one of my own students. “Perhaps the Prime Minister should spend a bit of time over Easter back at Eton, where the very strong history department could quickly put him right.”

The Prime Minister risked controversy when he appeared to blame Britain for the conflict in Kashmir and many other international disputes during a visit to Pakistan. Asked how Britain could help end the row over Kashmir, he insisted that it was not his place to intervene in the dispute, declaring: “I don’t want to try to insert Britain in some leading role where, as with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place” [my emphasis].

Mr Lang said the Prime Minister’s comments showed why “people in public life need extensive, detailed and accurate historical knowledge, and why the seed of this needs to be sown in the school classroom”. He said that while Britain’s hasty withdrawal from India in 1947 certainly led to the Kashmir dispute, blaming the British overlooked “notably the heightening of inter-communal tensions between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims”, he said.

Britain’s empire was a “multi-faceted phenomenon”, he said, which “cannot simply be categorised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’”. Mr Lang said that “even historians very critical of British imperial rule recognise that it also left considerable benefits.
In an odd twist, it turns out that Cameron meant this solely for Pakistani consumption, not British (although he probably had little fear of losing his invitation to the royal wedding). In fact, he's said to have directed some f-bombs in the direction of the reporters who made light of this slagging of Pax Britannia in Islamabad:
David Cameron swore angrily on the plane journey back from his trip to Pakistan after he learned of the row caused by his comment that Britain is to blame for many of the world’s problems.

The Prime Minister turned on a journalist who had reported his remark and said, ‘You f*****!’. The outburst came after Mr Cameron’s apparent attempt to distance himself from the UK’s imperial past had received a warm welcome from his audience in Pakistan.
The mixed legacy of British Empire continues to shape our world. However, I do think that despite being received poorly at home by some, Cameron's attempt at humility went down much better than did Kerry trying to lord it over the Pakistanis as if he were the new guv'nor. Having had much time to think what the loss of empire means, the British have a greater appreciation for the subtleties of winning friends and influencing people they did not necessarily have during their salad days.

With America waning, you'd hope it learns these skills, too. Lest we forget, others like the Chinese offer friendship with...fewer demands. At present, the US follows the worms.