It was easily foreseeable that Imran Khan and Donald Trump would develop a good personal rapport once they got the opportunity to meet in person. For Trump ,the personal is political and as such, dynamic, unique and charismatic leaders appeal to him over the bland, technocratic and uninspiring. For this reason alone it was assured that at the very minimum Donald Trump and Imran Khan would have an initially positive discussion. But even this upbeat anticipation was ill-preparation for the blossoming of a visibly joyous personal relationship forged under very difficult geopolitical conditions.
Just as PTI’s 2018 general election victory swept away the old dynastic parties from power, so too did Trump’s election victory sweep away two of America’s most infamous political dynasties – that of the Bush family and that of the Clinton family. Beyond this, both men have enjoyed glamour and fame outside of politics before entering the political fray. This helped set the stage for a meeting in which Trump largely cast off decades of mistrust that had brewed between Washington and Islamabad as a product of Trump’s predecessors (men that Trump has frequently criticised) as well as Imran Khan’s predecessors.
This helped to wipe a dirty slate clean and set the stage for the two leaders getting down to business in a realistic yet personally genial atmosphere. For Trump, there was no talk of the internal situation in Pakistan but instead he focused on Pakistan’s vital role in ending America’s Soviet style Afghan quagmire (a point that both Trump and his sometimes opponent Lindsey Graham now concede) whilst Trump also spoke of his businesslike desire to increase bilateral trade. Increased trade between the US and Pakistan would ultimately be better than the US “aid” of previous years that Trump admitted was paltry during his joint press conference with Imran Khan. A Pakistan-US relationship based on trust, trade and realism would not only create more sustainable economic opportunities but would allow Pakistan’s dignity to remain intact in a way that would represent the antithesis of that which transpired during the Bush and Obama years.
A very important moment occurred when Trump offered to mediate in the Kashmir catastrophe – an offer that Imran Khan accepted with grace and dignity. Making matters more intriguing was the fact that Trump stated that Indian Premier Modi had asked him to mediate in Kashmir when the two met at the recent G20 summit in Japan. However, hours after Trump’s remark was made, New Delhi denied that Modi had made such a request.
It was at that moment that Imran Khan was given a geopolitical gift by the hand of circumstance. Just as Pakistan’s new face was wooing crowds in Washington and smiling beside Donald Trump who presented Imran Khan with the clearly well-planned gift of a bespoke cricket bat, India had crossed a major red-line in the book in “how to do diplomacy with Donald Trump”.
By stating that Modi had not asked Trump to mediate in Kashmir, the Indian government was calling the US President a liar. Not only is this poor form in general terms but in terms of dealing with Donald Trump, it is highly toxic. As someone who values personal trust, loyalty and good humour in fellow national leaders, Trump will clearly be insulted by the fact that a partner country to the US has officially challenged his honesty. Only Donald Trump and Narendra Modi know what was said during their conversation(s) at the G20, but to insinuate that the US President had lied in public was not only poor diplomacy but when saying such things about Donald Trump – it essentially amounts to shooting one’s self in the foot.
Beyond this, India’s statement only made Imran Khan look like the good guy in the eyes of the world and by Indian standards, making any Pakistani leader look good is something of a taboo. Imran Khan’s gracious response to Trump and his highly elegant statements about the American position in the world were a masterclass in diplomacy that have already begun to change American perceptions about Pakistan including among the influential Fox News demographic. By contrast, India’s statement amounted to a rejection of a possibly fruitful peace process and an endorsement of a status quo that the UN itself regards as totally unacceptable.
In this sense, whilst Imran Khan moved diplomatic mountains by blowing away the cobwebs of two misspent decades of a grim Pakistan-US relationship, India did the rest of the work for him by countering Imran Khan’s grace with a statement that even if true was said in the wrong way and at the totally wrong time.
Overall, Pakistan and the US have a great deal of work cut out if relations are to fully reset, but just as Imran Khan has championed the win-win spirit of Belt and Road across much of the world, so too did he develop friendly relations with one of the most outspoken leaders of the 21st century.