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Short on vision: Foreign policy priorities

June 08, 2013

PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif’s initial despatch to Pakistani diplomatic missions mapping out his government’s foreign policy priorities is a document shorn of ambition and short on vision. Essentially, Mr Sharif has said that his focus will be on economic diplomacy and on stabilising the region on the security front — with a few words, platitudes really, thrown in about relations with the usual countries foreign policy tends to focus on. Perhaps the less-than-invigorating despatch is rooted in Mr Sharif’s decision to, for now, keep the foreign minister’s portfolio with himself and so he would prefer to unveil his major foreign policy initiatives himself at a later date. However, to the extent that the initial despatch is indicative of Mr Sharif and his team’s foreign policy thinking, it appears that a return to first principles is required.

What does the world see first and foremost when it looks at Pakistan? In his note, Mr Sharif has talked about boosting trade, foreign investment and economic cooperation. He has also talked about promoting peace in the region, with specific mentions of the attempted reconciliation process in Afghanistan and the pursuit of “normalcy” in ties with India. All laudable goals, written in Foreign Office-speak, but they miss the point. When the world looks at Pakistan, rightly or wrongly, it tends to see a security threat emanating from this soil. China, the perennial ally, looks to some investment opportunities but always returns to the issue of Islamists traipsing up the Karakoram Highway and into western China, where the rising power’s Muslim population is located. Afghanistan sees a role for Pakistan in the Afghan reconciliation process — largely because it’s tied to its fundamental complaint of Afghan Taliban sanctuaries on this side of the border. India, the central focus of the security state here, worries about another Mumbai, in addition to the original rivalry over Kashmir. The US worries about another 9/11, this time traced back to our tribal areas; the UK fears another 7/7-type attack linked back to Pakistan. Russia worries about Islamist ingress into its zone of influence in Central Asia. The list goes on.

The point is that Pakistan has a perception, reality and credibility problem: we have yet to convince the world that we are not a threat to ourselves and it. Until that changes, it will taint every aspect of Pakistan’s foreign policy. While Pakistanis fret over external violations of our sovereignty by external actors, the outside world wonders why we are unable to take on the threat within and re-establish the state’s writ.