Writing about Pakistan’s foreign policy is not easy. It is a function of Pakistan’s national policy which is determined by domestic realities and power structures that have, by and large, proven inimical to the interests of its people.
What needs to be done to break free of these vice-like limits on Pakistan’s potential is generally known. Despite unwarranted constraints, the media is full of it every day. But the will and confidence to do anything to change the drift and stasis that afflicts Pakistan is absent, even though the existential costs of such national dereliction are well known.
If the home situation is seriously addressed, foreign policy will take care of itself. But, if not, foreign policy – however brilliant – can never be more than damage limitation and an exercise in postponing the inevitable. This function has been discharged. But it can at best reduce costs in the short run at the price of maximizing them over the longer term. The image of a country is determined by the quality of its domestic policies in the service of its people rather than the damage limitation capacity of its foreign policy. Moreover, a country’s image determines the range of options available to its foreign policy to have its voice heard in the capitals of the world.
Domestic policies which can broaden the parameters for foreign policy include: (i) governance in accordance with constitutional authority; (ii) human resource development including healthcare, environmental protection, and science and education policies; (iii) essential freedoms, human rights protections and non-discriminatory policies; (iv) reducing social, economic and political inequalities that hamper nation-development, national solidarity and respect for national institutions; (v) elaborating and implementing economic, social and democratic institution-building strategies to meet today’s challenges; etc.
A recent Grand National (Intellectual) Dialogue (for Reform) listed a number areas on which to focus, including democracy and the constitution; legal reforms; electoral reforms; institutions and governance; legislative efforts; civil service reforms; local government and devolution of power; the judiciary and its interaction with institutions; etc. This list could easily be expanded. Budgetary reform including the allocation of resources, which should be a transparent process, is a precondition for rationalizing national priorities and facilitating balanced and sustainable development.
The above is a massive undertaking without which foreign policy is left with little or no basis to develop its potential to serve the national interest, other than damage limitation through passive and reactive diplomacy. This undertaking has never been seriously attempted because political and representative institutions have not been allowed to develop and mature. On the contrary, subordinate institutions have taken over the commanding heights of national policymaking without the competence or capacity to discharge such responsibilities for which, moreover, they have no constitutional authority.
As a result, the Pakistan that Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Pakistan Movement brought into existence was lost within its first 25 years. Moreover, no lessons from this trauma were learned because those who had disastrously wielded arbitrary and unconstitutional power, and their successors, never permitted it. Undoubtedly, elected democratic leaders and their political parties are also to blame for the plight of Pakistan. Too many avoid the risks of relentlessly insisting on discharging their constitutional and democratic obligations to the people who elect them and, instead, settle for the perks and privileges of elected office. The few who do demur are dealt with.
There are other non-elected and powerful constituencies and institutions that stand in the way of rational policies and strategies to deal with national challenges. They have weaponized religious, political, security, economic and social discourse, and have tended to accumulate economic and political power – instead of looking at the well-being of the country. One of the consequences has been the subordination of national sovereignty to the agendas of predatory global capitalism including some ‘brotherly’ countries that are handmaidens of their great power protectors.
The governing elites of Pakistan have similarly been happy to be co-opted by international elites who insist on prioritizing their own agendas over Pakistan’s national survival, stability and prosperity imperatives. Within this milieu, Pakistan’s handicapped foreign policy has to discharge its responsibilities as the country’s first line of defence. It is also the easiest target of criticism for the failures of other more powerful institutions which refuse to take responsibility for their misdemeanours which have crippled Pakistan.
Very much apart from these constraints on Pakistan’s foreign policy, there are global developments that represent major challenges. In an age of globalization, governance has failed to keep pace with and manage the challenges of climate catastrophe, possible nuclear conflict, global pandemics, fake news, and the undermining of international law, especially international humanitarian and human rights laws. These challenges are global in their dimensions. But each of them has a national aspect which requires national governments to contribute to the world’s response to them.
Pakistan, for instance, is among the least contributors to climate change and yet it is among those countries which will be among the first and worst hit by it. If the world does not prioritize a Global Green New Deal (GGND) to prevent irreversible climate change within this decade its fatal consequences will ensure the 21st century will be the final century of human civilization. These consequences include: (i) unprecedented pandemics; (ii) loss of animal and plant diversity; (iii) desertification and loss of arable land; (iv) ever increasing temperatures; (v) the loss of coastlines as sea levels rise; (vi) international climate refugees numbering in the billions; (vii) conflicts and wars over disappearing resources; (viii) governance collapse at the international and national levels; (ix) genocidal culling of human populations; and (x) the emergence of political ideologies that support such crimes.
This is not conjecture. It is the scientific consensus of the world. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist, seems to have more common sense and human decency than most of the national and international leadership of the world.
The foregoing provides the frightening but real context for Pakistan’s foreign policy. The traditional foreign policy agenda of Pakistan includes relations with neighbours, regional countries, the major powers and the international community including international institutions of various kinds. More specifically, it includes relations with China, India (including the Kashmir dispute), Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, the Arab and Muslim world, the US, Russia, the UK and Europe, Japan, ASEAN countries, Africa, etc. These relations have the common objective of promoting Pakistan’s security, well-being and stability, the strengthening of the structures of peace and cooperation, and developing modalities for the peaceful resolution of differences.
As mentioned, such a foreign policy agenda requires Pakistan to put its own house in order which will be a humongous but inescapable undertaking. All this has to be accomplished on an emergency basis if Pakistan is not to be overwhelmed by the combined impact of global, regional and domestic challenges. This will require a total national and foreign policy transformation.
Is this a possible or impossible undertaking? Do those in charge have any real intention to even try, given their past records? Are the people ready to take charge of their fate or will they continue to leave it to the tender mercies of those who have never included them in their priorities? Cynical answers are easy but, even if they are justified, they are useless.
To be continued