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Democratising foreign policy

September 26, 2016

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THE Uri attack’s aftermath showcased Indian media and public discourse outlets winning the subcontinent’s battle for inanity and disinformation. From rushing to conclusions, to hard-nosed jingoism, to actually making up stories about counter-raids and retaliatory operations, they’ve passed anything their Pakistani counterparts could offer with consummate ease.

Beyond the battle cries and nuclear wars planned, launched, and won on Twitter, there is something instructive in the way political parties react to India-Pakistan issues on both sides of the border. In India’s political party sphere, there are plenty of voices that articulate — for the lack of a better term — a hawkish view on Pakistan. The BJP during its time as an opposition party promised to go ‘tough on Pakistan’ if given the chance in government.

There are smaller parties from within the Hindutva right that take far more militaristic positions. If nothing else, there is a range of opinion in India (perhaps rightly so) over Pakistan being a problem that needs to be resolved with sticks, or carrots, or a combination of the two.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, the political party space is largely empty of any foreign policy posturing. Apart from the Jamaat-i-Islami, no party appears to hold Kashmir as a mainstream agenda point. All major parties express a desire for better relations with India through greater trade, and enhanced people-to-people contact. The PPP in recent months attempted some hawkish posturing during the AJK assembly elections, but electoral results show nobody took it seriously.


In the justified quest to articulate an anti-establishment position, the task of defining any strategic interests of the Pakistani state is ignored.


The difference between India and Pakistan on this particular front is a function of nationalism and the way the state is designed. In India, the Congress party articulated a state-centric nationalist project in the run-up to partition, and eventually made it part of official government discourse. Since then, the Indian state’s foreign policy and strategic agenda has remained the domain of bureaucrats and elected representatives. In turn, public intellectuals and policy wonks offer opinions and views within the historical limits set by various parties and their governments.

This is clearly not the case in Pakistan. Foreign policy and strategic interests are defined, articulated, and in most cases, implemented by GHQ. This is a problem at many levels, but most so because Pakistan’s GHQ-controlled foreign policy history is littered with shortsighted mistakes, delusional adventurism, and a narrowly defined concept of interest.

As harsh as it sounds, the country’s tag as the world’s problem child and an exporter-facilitator of militant activity is mostly in line with the Pakistani state’s historical actions. These tags may often be used in situations that are unwarranted and undeserving, but that’s simply a function of how perceptions operate in the international arena.

It is abundantly clear that if Pakistan were to operate as a stable, Constitution-run state, it would have to change the way it imagines itself and its role in the world at large. For that to happen, it would have to open up those deep, dark security establishment-controlled policymaking corners to alternative voices.

This is easier said than done. Institutions rarely give up power and control in any area. This is doubly true in instances where their material resources and advantages are tied to their dominance in a particular sphere. Therefore it is only fair to assume that a greater say on the foreign policy front will not be handed to anyone on a plate.

Compounding this problem is the issue of non-existent capacity. In a country where the civil-military divide is a deep-seated fracture, political parties have, by default, not had much to say about foreign relations. As an article by several retired diplomats highlighted in this paper, the lack of authority has also led to a hollowing out of intellectual and institutional capacity within the foreign service.

Frankly, that’s not surprising. How can you have a well-informed opinion on something you have little knowledge about or say in? Instead, the most parties and diplomats have to offer is a civilian face and a mellow speech when things go pear-shaped.

The capacity for well-informed and historically grounded thinking is also non-existent in intellectual spaces outside of political parties. Islamabad is full of half-baked think tanks and university centres doing ‘research’ on international relations. Many of these operate within the patronage sphere of the military establishment, and are populated by dubious characters with even more dubious credentials.

At the other end, the civil-military divide colours the foreign policy perspective of many liberals and progressives in this country. In the justified quest to articulate an anti-establishment position, the task of defining any strategic interests of the Pakistani state is ignored. Liberal foreign policy in the country ends up mostly being liberalism without the policy aspect.

The net sum of institutional encroachment and hollowing out of capacity is that there is no coherent civilian position on foreign policy issues.

This is true inside political parties, and it is true outside of them as well. It is no surprise then that in the last two or three decades, there are a handful of ‘embedded’ individuals who seem to be the only candidates for important foreign policy posts and advisory positions. After years in the public sphere, their actual contribution in improving Pakistan’s condition may be close to zero, yet they still magically find themselves at the top of every short list.

What the Pakistani state needs right now is a rethink on the issue of its engagement with its neighbours and the rest of the world. The military mind has proven itself to be largely incapable of doing this. However, wresting control and democratising foreign policy making in Pakistan may only be possible after both political parties and civil society actively develop the intellectual capacity to think up alternatives.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: umairjaved@lumsalumni.pk

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2016