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Pakistani Strategic Culture: False Invincibility or Persistent Revisionism?


The issue of revisionism is a strange and important one in International relations discourse. Revisionist states, simply put, are the ones wanting to revise the status quo. Tacit or explicit consent to the status quo leads to long term detrimental effects to their interests in their national security calculation and perception. The most persuasive of the justifications of revisionism is encapsulated in the following dictum: In a race as in the case of the International political system, if you are not moving forward, you are going backward. A state that is not dynamic in its strategic thinking and nation building will stagnate and be left behind. Scholars have further debated the nuances of revisionism. A state can be revisionist due to greed, growth, fear, insecurity, status or due to uncertainty with the status quo. Why states employ, shun or persist with revisionism despite success or failure is another significant question(Fair) [i]. Our neighbor in the northwest is an intriguing example in this discourse. Pakistan has remained wedded to the strategy of persistent revisionism despite repeated setbacks.

Pakistan’s strategic culture posits itself as the sole revisionist power to India. Alistair Ian Johnston characterizes strategic culture [ii]as an independent variable which affects other dependent strategic variables. It is defined as a ranked set of preferences which leads to clear strategic choices and is reflected in the symbols of the politico-security establishment and can be traceable across time. Pakistan’s strategic culture is to revise the status quo position of India in South Asia. Pakistan’s paradoxical position that India is already a hegemonic power who denies the origin and existence of the ideology of Pakistan and simultaneously a power which is unable to apply its hegemonic will on South Asia because of Pakistan is curious but calculated logic designed to address international and domestic audience respectively.

Kashmir is not a national interest in the conventional sense of the term for domestic nation building but in fact the centerpiece of a strategy to keep India’s rise in check both within the region and international system. Pakistan’s behavior is classic balance of power behavior garbed under the false significance given to Kashmir as indispensable to the long term survival of Pakistan.This is because Kashmir has led to repeated losses to Pakistan economically, politically and militarily. Why then does Pakistan persist with revisionism?

According to me the answer lies in the most basic of human tendencies- competition. The problem however, is that Pakistan has defined competition itself in South Asia in a paradoxical manner. According to Pakistani strategic culture, the only definition of defeat would be the complete inability or surrender of Pakistan to deter or revise Indian position in balance of power terms [iii](Fair).And since India or International community won’t ever inflict such a defeat on Pakistan, Pakistan will continue to conflate the false narrative that India and Pakistan are equal peer competitors despite the history of conflict and differences in their state building projects. On a much smaller scale, certain sections of India have faced similar problems of false self-perception vis-a-vis China but the problem in Pakistani strategic thinking vis-a-vis India is grave. India has displayed a better grasp of rational thinking in the relationship with its own big brother in the eastern north opting for sustained diplomacy and minimal conflict.

This argument is extremely prescient in the context of Pakistan being a nuclear power. Even after achieving mutual deterrence both conventional and nuclear for the last decade, Pakistan continues to grapple with revisionism of an existential kind. Pakistan wants to project the narrative of false invincibility but is not willing to legitimately compete for it by advancing its state building. Socio-economic progress, rule of law, separation of state and religion, sustainable development are all areas where Pakistan can channel this false invincibility. Yet it chooses to demonstrate the same by sub-conventional and asymmetric warfare.

While it is understandable as a tactic meant to test Indian resolve and delay strategic defeat but this strategy won’t serve Pakistan in the long term objective of revising and more importantly sustaining the revised status quo. This is because India is in a relatively better stage of its nation building and socio-economic development to engage in the rigors of long term strategic competition and India is better placed to follow conventional and symmetric strategies of reprisal more palatable to the international community.

An interesting counterfactual demonstrates the short-termism of the Pakistani strategy. If we assume that an unlikely scenario of an Indian defeat comes to fruition in a conventional conflict with Pakistan, India would merely employ a tit-for-tat diplomatic strategy and project herself as the aggrieved power professing persistent revisionism of her own leading to increase in the now dormant phenomenon of secular Indian nationalism and a further spike in strategic competition. Therefore, to claim persistent revisionism is not the sole province of either party.  Instead it comes across as false invincibility.

Thomas Schelling [iv] in his argument about tacit competition stated that nations in competitive relationships with fundamental and mutually exclusive differences should work towards tacit competition and understanding. Diplomatic breakthroughs are difficult to arrive at. If they define competition as mere persistent revisionism or false invincibility, the relationship is prone to become more intractable. Complete defeat and victories are false dichotomies in strategic competition and therefore persistent revisionism a misnomer strategy. He calls on countries to agree on qualitative thresholds of stability which are arrived at automatically rather than dictated by either country.Deviations from such thresholds lead to further instability. LoC is the qualitative threshold of India-Pakistan strategic competition. It was arrived at tacitly and represents the de-facto reality of the India Pakistan relationship. Both countries will continue to have alternative legal interpretations of the status of Kashmir but that is not the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is competition which is inherent in hobbesian human nature.

India and Pakistan need to work on strategies of cutting losses rather than revisionist gains as large gaps in conventional capability may lead to lowering of nuclear thresholds. Parity in India-Pakistan relationship can only be achieved when Pakistan follows sustainable competitive strategies not asymmetric strategies. Persistence with the same will lead to hardening of the relationship on either sides or worse lead to tit-for-tat strategies on both sides. India on its part will continue to grow and focus on its own nation building challenges and continue to drift ahead towards de-hyphenation. Due to the history of conflict and inherent competition, India and Pakistan need to first work on being rivals on fair terms. Only then can they ever be neighbors on fair terms.  False invincibility on either side is divorced from reality but the current onus is on Pakistan currently because it constantly claims to be the persistent revisionist power.


[i]  Fair, C. Christine.Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War.Oxford University Press, 2014.

[ii] Johnston, Alastair Iain. “Thinking about strategic culture.” International security (1995): 32-64.

[iii] Fair, C. Christine.Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War.Oxford University Press, 2014.

[iv] Schelling, Thomas C. The strategy of conflict. Harvard university press, 1980.

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