Some surprising actors want the Yankees in their backyard

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 26, 2022

Wearing trademark Oakleys. Photo from Oakley website:

The Estonians want the Americans to stand guard in the Baltics.

So too, it seems, do the Pakistanis.

The clamour for Yankee attention, if not always the person of the Yankee soldier (in his trademark Oakleys) is striking. It seems to be shared on the fringes of Europe just as much as in South Asia.

There is no mystery, nor any surprise about Estonia’s position. Prime Minister Kaja Kallas spoke to the Financial Times (paywall) against the backdrop of rising tensions on Nato’s eastern flank – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Having stationed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, Moscow has been making outrageous demands about Nato returning to its pre-1997 borders, when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were not members of the military alliance.

Accordingly, Ms Kallas’s comment that Estonia would like to see “the big allies present in our region” makes perfect sense. It is an oblique call for American soldiers to be stationed in the Baltics. Estonia is the only large Nato country without a US presence in the region. The British lead the current Nato deployment in Estonia and Danish and French troops are also present. (In Latvia, Canada leads the Nato forces. In Lithuania, Germany is in the lead.)

The Yankees in their Oakley sunglasses are in Poland.

Ms Kallas spoke in less indirect terms too: “The biggest deterrence there is that you have big friends. If you are bullied at school, the bully doesn’t bully you if you have strong and big friends, and it’s the same with deterrence . . . The biggest deterrence to Russia is an American flag”.

In the circumstances, there really is no mystery about Estonia’s plea for American attention.  What’s surprising is that Pakistan should share it. The day before Estonia’s prime minister spoke out, The New York Times carried an op-ed (paywall) diagnosing the Pakistani army’s feelings about the US, China and the Pakistan’s situation.

Arif Rafiq, who wrote the op-ed, is president of a political risk advisory firm that specialises in the Middle East and South Asia. It’s pretty standard for him to obsessively track events big and small and read the runes. That’s how he makes a living. Accordingly, it was interesting to note the anecdote with which he started his piece.

After Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan declined the Biden administration’s invitation to its Summit for Democracy, Mr Rafiq wrote, a prominent Pakistani television news anchor posted a video on social media denouncing the “wrong decision”. The anchor said that Mr Khan had made his decision  at China’s behest and had “put Pakistan openly in China’s lap”. The anchor went on, the op-ed noted, to claim that Beijing’s loans had “entrapped” Islamabad and even called for an “audit” of the pros and cons of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Mr Rafiq went on to (correctly) read the journalist’s fulminations as a reflection of the opinions prevailing among “the country’s khaki masters”. This, because in Pakistan, press freedom and politics are a fairly complicated matter, with the army managing the “red lines”. True.

So, what emerges from the television anchor’s take on China and Pakistan, is this: Pakistan’s army would have wanted Mr Khan to attend Joe Biden’s democracy summit to re-charge the bilateral relationship. As an aside, the piece noted that a US diplomat was also granted “rare access into the tightly controlled, Chinese-operated port of Gwadar.”

The pull of America has nothing to do with its attractiveness as a democracy. But Pakistan’s generals have “a sharp sense of realism”, the op-ed noted, and constantly seek “strategic maneuverability…to avoid dependence on a single patron, proxy or ally”.

It may sound surprising that Pakistan’s army would want the Americans back in the region, having laboured for 20 years to push them out, notably in Afghanistan.

But the generals want to have a choice – of superpowers (presumably to play them off each other) and also perhaps the option of US military hardware some time in the future.

China, Pakistan’s largest arms supplier and bilateral creditor, is demanding that Islamabad pay the $1.4 billion it owes Chinese power producers.

Unlike the Americans, the Chinese keep careful record of the loans they hand out and after a certain time, they want their money back. Back in April 2018, Yi Gang, the new governor of China’s central bank, said: “Ensuring debt sustainability — that is very important”.

This could mean further economic problems for Pakistan, possibly social and political unrest and, the main thing that an army cares about, reduced military spending.

No wonder they’re remembering Uncle Sam so fondly. Perhaps American ‘declinism’ is a tad overrated?