As Imran Khan prepares for Washington there is something he must know. President Trump, IKís host for the visit - which will include a tete a tete with the man himself and a delegation level interaction to give the visit some formality Ė is under a storm and being called a racist; unprecedented for a president. He just called out four Congresswomen of colour and emigres, three of whom were born in the US, to leave the country because they didnít belong there. I partly paraphrase. What he said is more explicit and widely known to those who follow Washington politics.

Despite what is assumed of the American sociopolitical culture, it isnít normal to call someone out for colour, race, religion or gender. Trump invokes hate, fear and misogyny to cultivate political advantage around such sentiment. While most political opposition is up in arms, there are major segments which remain ominously silent. The outrage is thus partial and may not damage his prospects much. To thinking Americans, it threatens their value system as society is on a point of rupture; to the world, it is more of uncertain times ahead.

It is usual to dismiss what Trump says because it comes from him, but it shouldnít be. Because when Imran Khan does business with him it is Pakistan and the US doing business with each other. Because what comes from Trump comes from the president of the United States. That is the dilemma for IK and for anyone who feels the need to visit Washington to work issues with the US. True, meeting leaders is useful if not entirely gainful; but then we must not be out on a limb exposing ourselves far more than may be necessary. Thatís a caution well remembered. So, what brings IK to the US?

There are playful similarities going around between the two, triggering that ultimate curiousity on how the two will gel, and when they are finally done how the relationship between the two nations be defined. It will help to remember that the US and Pakistan have never been at war with each other. We have had our ups and downs, and the relationship has been transactional Ė but which is not? The amount of give and take that has gone on between China and Pakistan far outweighs any that Pakistan has ever returned to the US. International relationships are interest based and nations invest in each other to seek profitable returns. Period. But the worst of geopolitical reordering hasnít pitted the two in an armed conflict.

It also helps to know that the context and the environment both define how a nation is seen by another. Both the context and the environment have changed considerably since the early fifties when the US and Pakistan were conjoined in alliances against the Warsaw Pact. Communism is no more a threat, now replaced with Muslim radicalism framing Pakistan in the eye of the storm. That has sullied Pakistanís image for over four decades now as is its credibility and wider relevance in the global system. That has forced Pakistan on the defensive as it explains itself to the rest of the world, simultaneously forcing it to course-correct. It has come hard but it is welcome. Hence Pakistan is seen largely as a nation on the mend. It helps, and America may explain courting Pakistan to others in those terms.

Then there is Afghanistan which is now in its phase of closure. Conspiratorial thinking may suggest otherwise but the US may have far more important fronts to balance out. Iran being one. Also wars cost money and with a trillion dollars down the tube in Afghanistan the returns to the US are only minimal. Plus, Trump promised to his voter base, mostly white isolationists, that the US mainly will be about itself, working to serve its own people only. From Europeans to Americaís far-eastern allies to South Asia, he has a message: the US will fend for itself, others may do the same; as indeed take on responsibilities to serve American interests in return for American service to these nations securing their interests against external threats. The largesse is now no more on offer; each must pay his way out of its difficulties, especially the rich Gulf nations which may buy American military equipment to buoy its economy. A strong economy invigorates Trump's electoral base, helping him fantasize a utopia for them. That will limit Pakistanís options to pursue with Trumpís America.

So in such a state, what may IK hope to achieve? And even more importantly what may he be asked to do in return? One hates to think that the visit was negotiated to compensate Pakistan for services in Afghanistan. That would be denigrating. The work on Afghanistan is still in progress and whatever Pakistan may have contributed to the process may satisfy the stakeholders there, like the US and Afghanistan Ė Ashraf Ghani recently visited Pakistan in all likelihood as an expression of it Ė but it is in Pakistanís interest too to realise peace there. There is progress on the front of the US-Taliban and intra-Afghan dialogue. These should progress to deliver peace but there is little to gain from the US when it is closing shop here, neither would it be inclined to lavish handouts.

IK may have a larger plan to seek peace with India through Trump. Can Trump break this code holding South Asia back? Seems difficult unless IK is truly innovative in how he thinks the status quo could be retained Ė which is a major change from Pakistanís stated position. But is Trump invested in doing as great a service to the region Ė and at the expense of annoying India which finds greater gain in isolating Pakistan and is already seething for being disinvested from Afghanistan? Again, what are the dividends in it for the US? Will Pakistan gradually wean away from China to cosy up to America and India? That in the existing context may be the most optimal windfall for both the US and India but surely not for Pakistan. Regressing from CPEC is surely not an option. How will China react to such distancing by Pakistan if it indeed occurs? IK may ponder all possibilities before he sits across a very fickle and shrewd Trump.

US business investments may be a standard goal but what actually realizes is what counts. On Iran, Pakistan may tacitly agree to conform to international obligations but should keep a strictly neutral line even if things heat up in the Gulf. It will be a disservice to Pakistan to overstretch its commitment even if it were for a magnanimous MBS or Donald Trump. Pakistan cannot mortgage its future generations to another war for transitory benefits. Pakistan must be insistently strategic and abiding in what it might hope to gain in Washington. Till the joint declarations emerge, people back home will be on tenterhooks. In a difficult political environment in Pakistan, the distraction may be the only gain in the end but who has ever died from trying. Bon voyage, PM.