President Trump’s decisions announced last month to withdraw American troops from Syria and Afghanistan were a stark reminder of the global strategic reality that the days of the US unipolarity, when the US could virtually dictate to the rest of the world, were over and the world was rapidly moving towards multipolarity in which there would be several centers of power vying for influence at the global level. Despite some uncertainty about the number and the time table of the US troops to be withdrawn from Syria and Afghanistan, there is no denying the fact that the US, because of the rise of new centers of power, has failed to have its way in these two countries.

In the case of Syria, the US was effectively checkmated by Russia and Iran. While the US achieved significant success in defeating ISIS, it failed to bring about the overthrow of the government of Bashar al-Assad which, with help from Russia and Iran, appears instead to have gained the upper hand in the fight against the insurgents in Syria. The withdrawal of the American troops, numbering about 2000, from Syria over time will further brighten the chances of the consolidation of the power of the Bashar al- Assad regime. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, if Syria in due course is accepted back into the fold of the Arab League. The obvious lesson for countries like Pakistan is to refrain from interfering in intra-Arab disputes so as not to be caught on the wrong foot when the Arab countries reconcile with one another.

In the case of Afghanistan, it was initially announced by the Trump administration that about half of the American troops, that is about 7000 US soldiers, would be withdrawn in the coming months. Later reports indicated some rethinking about the number of the troops to be withdrawn and the time table for their withdrawal. The decision regarding the withdrawal of troops, which came as a surprise to the Kabul authorities, was perhaps an initial response to the demand by the Afghan Taliban for the withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan. It also reflects the reality that the war in Afghanistan no longer enjoys widespread support among the American people or in the US Congress.

The Trump administration’s focus henceforth would be on encouraging a peace settlement among the warring parties in Afghanistan so as to provide it with a graceful exit from the country. The US may vary the number and the time table of the withdrawal of its troops to avoid anarchy and increased bloodshed in Afghanistan, maintain gentle pressure on the Afghan Taliban so as to persuade them to enter into peace talks with the Kabul government, and avoid a power vacuum to prevent the re-emergence of terrorist outfits in Afghanistan. It would be in the interest of Pakistan, Afghanistan and regional peace and stability to encourage the US to continue moving on these lines in an integrated and a well-calculated manner. Our policy makers also need to take note that as an important consequence of the growing multipolarity in international politics, regional countries, especially Pakistan and Iran, and major powers besides the US such as China and Russia will have an increasingly important role to play in facilitating the peace process in Afghanistan.

The most dynamic factor driving the trend towards multipolarity is the dramatic rise of China over the past four decades. The Chinese economy is already the biggest in the world in purchasing power parity terms and will become so even in nominal dollar terms by 2030. Its military power may catch up with that of the US by 2050. It is inevitable; therefore, that China will play an increasingly important role in the global and regional political and economic affairs in the years to come. A re-assertive Russia seeking its own legitimate place in international politics is another potent force behind the trend towards multipolarity. Other major economic powers like the EU, Japan, Brazil, India, South Korea, Nigeria, Indonesia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will further hasten this process.

Multipolarity will entail several important consequences. The global center of gravity is likely to shift to the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years because of the increasing economic, military and political weight of this region in the world politics. Besides the growing US-China rivalry, the world would witness increasing competition between China and India for power and influence in Asia, especially in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. These developments will inevitably lead to important policy adjustments and shifts in alliances on the part of countries in different regions. Pakistan needs to take note of these developments for safeguarding its security and promoting its economic growth and development.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the most important development is the rapidly growing Indo-US strategic partnership as part of the US policy of containment of China. In the face of these developments, there is an obvious convergence of the strategic interests of Pakistan and China which should lead to increased political, security, economic and commercial cooperation between the two countries. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which will bring the much needed Chinese investment amounting to more than $60 billion into Pakistan from 2015-2030 besides deepening Pakistan-China strategic partnership, is an offshoot of the rapidly growing cooperation between these two countries in various fields. Fortunately, the governments of Pakistan and China are fully cognizant of the importance of the Pakistan-China strategic partnership for both the countries as reflected by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s official visit to China in November last year. All the more reason that our ministers and advisers should avoid making disparaging remarks about CPEC in their official or public statements.

Multipolarity will also offer new policy options and opportunities to Pakistan’s policy makers in the face of the challenges of the 21st century. Building up bridges of understanding and close cooperation with Russia is one of them. It is, however, our relations with Iran which need especial focus and attention because of their close link to Pakistan’s security and economic well-being. Therefore, we should avoid taking sides in the disputes between Iran, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and UAE, on the other. Instead, our emphasis should be on promoting understanding and reconciliation between the two sides since our vital national interests are engaged with both sides. We should also nurture our friendship with Turkey with which Pakistan historically has enjoyed very close relations and cooperation. Central Asian Republics should be the other area for the development of close relations by us. While taking advantage of new strategic opportunities, we should not neglect the maintenance of friendly relations and cooperation with the US, which will remain the most powerful country in the world for a long time to come, and the European countries which constitute an important center of economic power in the emerging multipolar world.

Above all, based on an accurate comprehension of the emerging global scenario, Pakistan’s policy makers should have a vision of Pakistan’s place in the world of the 21st century and a well-considered strategy to realize this vision. Unfortunately, our leaders and senior officials have neither a vision nor a strategy for this purpose. Just to give an example, the most important determining factor for Pakistan’s future place in the international community would be its economic strength and scientific and technological advancement. Tragically, it is precisely in these areas that Pakistan is lagging far behind most of the rest of the world.


The writer is an author, a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.