Pakistan: failed state or Regional Power


The unexpected and abrupt change of power in Pakistan has shown the weakness of semi-isolated autocracies in an unstable and transit system of international relations. Researchers of political science and international relations receive another empirical proof in their database: the consistency of political processes is unshakable. In the context of the growing US-Chinese great-power confrontation for leadership, no country or region is guaranteed a “safe haven” of non-alignment. Consequently, the events in Pakistan show that autocracies are the most vulnerable, and their stability is imaginary and wrong. In addition, such players in world politics cannot play for two camps. They should decide. At the same time, in the case of Pakistan, a change of power does not mean a fundamental change of priorities and course since, according to the political culture, the country is ruled by the military. 

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is often referred to as the sick man of Great Asia. A young country with a weak, unbalanced pre-industrial economy, lacking deep identity factors, disparate demographic elements, and constantly at war. The country with more than 220 million people is located between Afghanistan in the West, China in the Northeast and India in the East, which gives it important strategic importance. But why is a political system of this kind vulnerable? Why can’t an autocracy with a theoretically advanced Westminster parliamentary form of government and the hypertrophied influence of the army exist stably and without shocks?

The events that occurred in Pakistan raise another series of issues. First, we must pay tribute to the imperfect Pakistani political system. For the first time in many years of the existence of this state, the change of power took place within the framework of formal institutions and processes provided for by the country’s constitution. According to the basic law, the Parliament can vote and declare a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. And unlike previous periods of coups, this time, everything happened in a highly civilized manner, without violence and armed forces. These circumstances confirm those theories of political science that assert the steady evolution and improvement of the ideas of humanism and democracy in the world, albeit with significant reservations, amendments, exceptions and different speeds in certain regions of the world.

This time Islamabad failed to pass rain and stay dry, or, as they say, between Scylla and Charybdis. It may seem that another internal political crisis and a rollback to internal affairs are inevitable. However, in reality, the Pakistani political system is very complex and is influenced by a political culture that has no formal description and is not constitutionally and legislatively fixed. Pakistan is still a military country, and key decisions about power are made exclusively with the participation and coordination of military elites. Thus, those who claim that the change of power will not lead to fundamental changes in the foreign policy course and accepted approaches and practices in domestic politics are right. The military rules Pakistan, and they have remained in their positions. Therefore, it is unnecessary to wait for significant democratization and a tilt towards the Global West.

Remind you that on April 10, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan was dismissed from the post due to a vote in Parliament. Deputies put forward a vote of no confidence in him early on Sunday morning. Khan acted as Prime Minister for four years and seven months and, apparently, managed to create a lot of enemies during this time, both inside and outside Pakistan. A bright tribune with little political experience (Khan is a well–known cricketer with high results in the past) spoke brightly and confidently and did not hesitate in his expressions to the great powers and influential political leaders in the region and beyond. Since coming to power in 2018, Khan’s rhetoric has become more anti-American, and he expressed a desire to get closer to China, and recently, on February 24, the day the military conflict in Ukraine began, Khan held talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif was appointed the new Prime Minister. The new leader of Pakistan is considered more pro-Western by politicians with close contact with elites in the UK and the US. It should be noted that the Sharif family has serious positions in the political elite of Pakistan. Thus, Nawaz Sharif has held the post of Prime Minister four times, has serious business positions, and has a particular influence on the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) party. At the same time, some observers note that despite family ties, there are complex relations associated with some competition for influence and power within the clan between the current prime minister and the former. But, despite this, from the perspective of political science, we can say that the current political leadership of Pakistan is much more pro-Western than the elite of Imran Khan.

In addition, the Sharif clan has always sought more than the rest of the political forces of Pakistan and especially the military to bring their positions closer to neighbouring India. So, as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif maintained good relations with Narendra Modi and hosted him at his residence in Lahore in December 2015, when the Indian leader made an unexpected trip to Pakistan.

Imran Khan cited his independent foreign policy and ties with China and a visit to Moscow as the reason for his resignation. It should be noted that his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin took place in the days when Moscow launched a military operation against Ukraine. However, these statements should be treated with scepticism, and it is evident that they have a political background. Firstly, Russia does not have a serious political influence on Pakistan and cannot be seriously considered as a competitor to the United States, the Global West. Given the economy’s weakness, the Pakistani elite, no matter what orientation it has, will not choose a conditional alliance with Moscow instead of a pro-Western vector. Another thing is China, which has significantly strengthened its economic and political positions in the world in recent decades, especially in Asia. The Celestial Empire is a severe challenge to the West. Perhaps the most serious in recent decades. However, Pakistani-Chinese relations are natural and mainly concern economic cooperation. In addition, the history of the formation of the Pakistani army, where British and American specialists played a significant role, suggests that the political system still has specific informal barriers to the excessive strengthening of China’s influence.

Apparently, the events in Pakistan are unlikely to be of much interest to the American administration. “We have many other problems,” said Robin Raphel, a former assistant Secretary of State for South Asia senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. According to some analysts, since the Pakistani military maintained its behind-the-scenes control over foreign and security policy, the change of government did not cause serious concern. “Since the military determines the policy that really concerns the United States, that is, Afghanistan, India and nuclear weapons, domestic Pakistani political events are largely irrelevant to the United States,” said Curtis. He served as senior director of the National Security Council of US President Donald Trump for South Asia.

Equally important in this context may be Pakistan’s systemic policy of supporting the extremist Taliban movement, which has come to power in Afghanistan since the summer of 2021. Support for Islamist groups in the region has become a systemic component of Pakistan’s foreign policy, and given the influence of the military, it is unlikely that a change of Prime Minister will make significant changes to these processes. 

Thus, it can be assumed that the change of power in Pakistan will not make fundamental transformations in its foreign policy. Islamabad will continue to maneuver between the Global West and China, trying to bargain for more advantageous positions for itself. As for the Afghan track, the Pakistani military elite will continue to build strategic depth by supporting the radical Taliban movement. The Sharif clan is unlikely to be able to promote its advanced ideas for reconciliation with India, which is in the interests of Pakistan, and strengthening democratic principles inside the country, as this does not meet the vital interests of the Pakistani military. The military elite in Rawalpindi can ensure its dominance and dominance over the political system and economy of Pakistan only if the current status quo, the current configuration and political culture are preserved, where the last word remains with people in uniform and no checks and balances against the army work (they are not even provided). The Islamic Republic of Pakistan will remain a militarized country vacillating between the status of a failed state or a regional power.

Georgi Asatrian
Georgi Asatrian
Georgi Asatryan, associate professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University and Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.


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