Sunday, November 4, 2007

Pakistan and Mexico: Acts of God and Acts of Men.

Talking about Pakistan's international image may sound irrelevant, trivial, even absurd, at this point in the country's history, but the simple fact is that every country on earth depends on its good name in order to achieve its aims in the globally connected world we live in today.

At some point in the future, when things have stabilised a little, Pakistan will find that its ability to interact effectively and profitably with other countries will depend to a considerable extent on its good or bad image; its ability to lure back its most talented emigrés and stem the tide of those leaving to study and work abroad; its ability to attract business and leisure visitors as well as foreign investment; the quality of its engagements with other governments and multilateral agencies: all of these transactions will be considerably easier if Pakistan's reputation improves, and they will prove a constant, uphill struggle if its reputation remains as weak and negative as it has become today.

With the current state of emergency, almost daily violence and constant political and social upheaval, the international image of Pakistan is in tatters, and is probably the last thing on President Musharraf's mind as he fights for his political survival. But there will come a day when the country needs to think again about restoring its damaged reputation: and the longer the country remains in free-fall, the harder a task this will be.

The Mexican government probably isn't much concerned about its international reputation at the moment, either: with the southern state of Tabasco partly under water, its main concern must be to get assistance to the population as quickly as possible. But when major natural disasters happen, people often do worry that it will damage their country's international interests by spoiling its image: and they are usually wrong. Most of my research suggests that the things which happen to a country (such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks) seldom affect people's perceptions of that country in any profound or lasting way: what dramatically changes the image of a country is the things that the country - its government, its people, its industries - does, and especially to people in other countries.

The population of Pakistan quite rightly feel that they are as little to blame for their country's current woes as the people of Tabasco: but they are nonetheless likely to suffer the consequences of them for very much longer. Mexico will recover from the floods, people will rebuild their lives and their communities, and life will return to something like normal for the majority of those affected; before very long, world opinion will focus on another disaster, and will forget the Tabasco floods, just as it has begun to forget Pakistan's devastating earthquakes of 2005.

But simply because Pakistan's present troubles are man-made, their effect on the world's perceptions of the country will persist, and Pakistan will struggle for decades to present itself to the world as a responsible, trustworthy ally and partner in trade, tourism and politics.

Acts of God can harm a country in many ways: but it is acts of men that cause the most lasting damage.