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Foreign policy challenges

July 13, 2017

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A SERIES of developments have made it necessary for Pakistan to review some of the basic assumptions on which its foreign policy has traditionally been based. Unfortunately, matters are coming to a head while a lame-duck government is only concerned with its own survival.

Take the threat the Indian prime minister’s visit to Israel poses to Pakistan’s policy of treating its association with Middle Eastern Muslim countries as a sheet anchor of its foreign policy.

India has since long been developing its relations with Israel but it had so far been low-key on this, out of fear of antagonising the Muslim world, especially the rich Arab nations. For that reason, India’s leaders avoided hobnobbing with Israeli rulers in public. Modi decided to add another feather to his cap, after being warmly embraced by President Trump, telling his people that he could free himself from emotional hangovers in the area of external relations.

He could do so because the danger of causing irritation to the Muslim world seems to have subsided. The present leaders of the Arab camp have been steadily warming up to Israel and have gone to the extent of seeking its support in their feuds with other Muslim states.

How far have we respected Jinnah’s ideal of friendship with all and malice towards none?

This situation poses two problems for Pakistan. It might get worried about the possibility of the hawks in India and Israel ganging up to hatch some mischief against this country; and the answer lies in constant vigilance. Secondly, the absence of an adverse reaction in Muslim countries to Modi’s trip to Israel and the prospect of increased cooperation between the two countries reveals a shift in the Muslim states’ attitude towards the Zionist state and casts doubts on the raison d’être of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Regardless of the state of frustration our policymakers may be going through, they must work with their OIC partners to redefine the organisation’s goals. They should not be shy of examining the tenability of blocs of states formed on the basis of common belief. Pakistan must still maintain close relations with all Muslim states but if they are guided by what they perceive to be their national interest, Islamabad will have to rethink its priorities.

The Muslim countries’ decision to maintain good relations with India regardless of its attitude towards what have generally been viewed as the ummah’s critical issues should not unduly upset Pakistan. Even if India is getting more benefit for its political and economic weight than it deserves, Pakistan need not fret. While most Muslim states may continue to value their ties with Pakistan, and some of them may even support it on Kashmir, none of them is likely to give up its advantages in having good relations with India for Pakistan’s sake.

A proper course for Pakistan would be to watch the situation with quiet dignity and concentrate on improving its stock with the comity of nations through better management of its affairs and constructive diplomacy in support of humankind’s pressing concerns.

It is also perhaps time to examine as to what extent Islamabad has respected the Quaid-i-Azam’s ideal of friendship with all and malice towards none. Students of external relations have been considerably worried over Islamabad’s apparent silence on the signs of malice towards Iran, a brother Muslim country and among Pakistan’s closest neighbours, in the recent Arab rhetoric. Except for countries with which normal friendship is not possible in view of serious disputes with them, Pakistan’s policy must be free not only of malice towards any people but also of indifference to the genuine interests of friendly nations.

Another assumption that now needs to be reviewed is that the United States so badly needs Pakistan’s help in getting out of the Afghanistan quagmire that it will go on giving aid to Pakistan without any quid pro quo. Perhaps it is necessary to not only heed the warning given by Senator John McCain, considered to be Pakistan’s best friend in the Republican party, but also to keep in mind the temper of the Trump administration. Since Pakistan has not prepared itself for life without Washington’s patronage, it should avoid straining the already shaky relationship any further.

The issues that are casting a shadow across Pakistan-US relations are no secret but whether they are born of differences over the future of Afghanistan or Pakistan’s growing relations with Central Asia or China they can be resolved through honest and frank negotiations.

As regards the US policy of deepening its strategic ties with India, here too Pakistan ought to rethink its response. The US always considered India as its preferred partner in Asia and often used Pakistan to achieve a breakthrough in its relations with New Delhi. That objective was realised somewhat unexpectedly after the needless Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. From that point to Nixon’s declaration regarding India’s place in the US policy about a decade later was only a small hop. Instead of cavilling at the Indo-American romance, Islamabad should let the Indians discover by themselves the cost of their flight from non-alignment to total alignment, if they do not wish to learn from the experience of the US allies who preceded them.

Finally, who should chart the way to meeting the foreign policy challenges? Much can be said for restoring the Foreign Office to its due status and helping it to think beyond the superseded wisdom of the past ages. It is also necessary to determine the security establishment’s contribution to our external policy and the mechanics of its assistance to the Foreign Office. Ultimately, it is parliament that must fulfil its responsibility to guide the state towards a well-defined and as independent a foreign policy as possible that can serve the nation’s best interests.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2017