ABSTRACT

The ideas of ‘regions’ and ‘regional powers’ have intuitive attractiveness. Nevertheless, these concepts are fraught with difficulties, especially with issues of conceptual clarity and theoretical utility. The case of Pakistan as a ‘regional power’ (and, one should add, South Asia as a ‘region’) illustrates these problems well. Despite being endowed with significant material capabilities, which include being a nuclear weapon state, it is difficult to characterize Pakistan as a regional power. And, despite shared history, culture and social systems, it is equally difficult to characterize South Asia as a region in any theoretically significant ways. Paradoxically, for a state that may be too weak to be a regional power, Pakistan has been surprisingly successful in pursuing its grand strategic goals and in exploiting global and extra-regional powers in the pursuit of these objectives, sometimes even bending them to its will. This also contradicts much of the literature on regions and regional powers. There is a general assumption in much of this literature that, as a consequence of the disparity of power between regional and global powers, regional powers are severely constrained by the global power agenda.1 While material power disparities definitely constrain them, regional powers are also very adept at manipulating opportunities to advance their interests in a manner that belies their relative material weakness. Pakistan’s strategy during both the Cold War and afterwards illustrates the capacity of weaker regional powers to advance their interests through such astute strategies. The Pakistan case suggests that regional powers are not simply subjects of the global order, but rather are agents who actively seek, often successfully, to manipulate global power resources to their own ends. This essay is divided into four sections. In the next section, I examine the theoretical issues about regional powers by scrutinizing the regional theory literature in which the former is embedded, arguing that theories about the regional levels of analysis face a number of difficulties, especially in the South Asian context. Next, I examine the idea of Pakistan as a regional power and suggest that, despite its considerable material endowments, it is difficult to treat Pakistan as a regional power. But, however we decide on the conceptual issue of ‘regional powers’, the issue of agency remains: are weaker regional powers simply a variation of the vassal state, living out their lives at the mercy of great powers or do they have a measure of autonomy in pursuing their own goals in the international

system? I examine this in the subsequent section. Pakistan’s case suggests that, though material weakness is a serious constraint, shrewd and pragmatic state strategies allow for a significant measure of autonomous action. I briefly examine two key objectives in Pakistan’s grand strategy – those of balancing India and building a nuclear arsenal – to illustrate that Pakistan has been successful in using outside powers for its own ends. In the subsequent section, I look at the case of Pakistan in the War on Terror. Though Pakistan had to dramatically change its direction and dump the Taliban, it has managed to re-establish those ties. Drawing on the Pakistan case, I briefly outline the implications for conceptualizations about the regional-global nexus. In the final section, I conclude with some observations and questions about the utility of the regional power concept.