A Foreign Policy Wish-List | Khalid Saleem

SOME years ago, one had taken the liberty to draw up a ‘foreign policy wish list’ in the fond hope that the (then) new government would be looking to make moves to turn the country’s foreign policy priorities around to conform to national interest. That, one now recognises with the benefit of hindsight, was perhaps not only a wee bit premature but also something of an over-reach. It may perhaps not be inopportune to revisit some facets of this wish list considering that things haven’t changed much over the years. Time may be ripe for the government to initiate a frank, candid and above-board discussion with the United States administration in order to separate the grain from the chaff. The negotiations held earlier, in the murky behind-closed-doors atmosphere, do not count. For starters – to fall back on an Americanism – need may be felt to clarify to our ‘friends’ and, indeed, to the world at large that ‘terrorism’ is not strictly our baby, even though we may have been left holding it due to circumstances perhaps beyond our control.

Sympathy with the Americans in their ‘war on terror’ notwithstanding, how long can the people of Pakistan be expected to continue to bear an open-ended commitment like a millstone around their collective neck? A decade should have been enough to atone for whatever sins of omission and commission that they may have been guilty of. We must be allowed to tackle the genie of extremism and terrorism that has been let out of the bottle, on our own terms and in keeping with our ethos with the minimum of outside interference. Keeping our long-term relationship in view, could we not trust our ‘strategic ally’ to show the necessary understanding and/or flexibility and refrain from repeating the mantra of ‘do more’ every now and then?

Now, on to our relations with India! Given that we may have had little choice but to continue to pay lip-service to the moribund ‘composite dialogue’, the goal posts now appear to have been discernibly moved. With the new government in India, it may be time to insist on giving the process of bilateralism some purpose. Quest for normalising of relations with our neighbour is unexceptionable. There is just no alternative option for the two countries but to live as good neighbours. But, at the same time, there are no short-cuts to normalisation of relations. The exasperated populace of either country needs to see some tangible evidence of progress on settlement of contentious issues, beyond the lollypops of CBMs and liberal trade relations.

The two countries also need to start paying some result-oriented attention to arriving at mutual accommodation in respect of such issues as a) equitable sharing of water resources; b) adequate availability of energy supplies; c) definitive demarcation of the maritime boundary; d) disengagement in Siachin; and e) cooperating unreservedly, including intelligence sharing, on the matter of terrorism in both countries. Dealings with the Muslim World have left a lot to be desired. Our policy in the past had bordered on the delirious. We should be one with the Muslim world as brothers but not necessarily as standard bearers. It may be time to lower our profile a bit. As recent upheavals have shown, most Muslim states have their own internal – and regional – preoccupations. And no country should feel the need to sacrifice its national priorities for the sake of others, as we regrettably have shown a tendency to do in the past. We must also steer well clear of sectarian and denominational issues within the Muslim world.

Economic issues deserve top attention. Above all, efforts to reduce our foreign debt are called for. An in-depth exercise on the meandering path this debt profile has adopted in the recent past may not be such a bad idea. Remember the several pious declarations in the past to smash the wretched begging bowl? Has not the time come to break out of semantics and to do something concrete about this resolve? In the ill-advised policies to attract foreign investment adopted so far, all we have succeeded in is to attract the wrong kind of investment. There is need to convince our international partners that we mean business; that our economic and fiscal policies are long term and market-oriented. It is also about time that the prosperous dual-nationals did something to help get the country out of its economic woes. Mere buying of real estate and/or grabbing prime assignments on offer is neither here nor there!

A wish-list needs must include the pious hope that hollow ostentation would be eschewed. In the short run, the country would do well to avoid an over-stretch. A low profile is what is called for. Above all, there is imperative need to avoid getting involved in international ventures that may shine but have little substance. Emphasis should be on improving ties with friendly states like China, the regional states and with the Third World in general. Developing newer and newer liaisons with far off lands and exotic destinations can wait. There is in addition imperative need to cut down drastically on our bumbling efforts in the field of multilateral diplomacy. This is a luxury that this country can indulge in only at its own peril.

All in all, what is needed in this hour of destiny is a thorough and dispassionate introspection in respect of our past experience in the field of foreign affairs. And this should include a stringent re-appraisal of the yardstick that has been used hitherto in the process of selection of our diplomatic representatives abroad. This is an exercise that needs to be carried out betimes in a thorough-going manner, without fear or favour. Weaknesses evident in our system would need to be identified and rooted out; responsibility for failures pinned down. No sacred cows should be spared and no quarter given. What is needed is a thorough purge and, if found necessary, drastic surgery. This is the need of the hour. To delay would be to miss a God sent opportunity. There may not be another waiting down the road.

— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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