Necessary and desirable, a reset of foreign policy is possible — if the government approaches the issue sensibly, cooperatively and with a genuine intent to effect change.

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has spoken candidly and persuasively about the key flaws in Pakistan’s foreign policy and the need for change. In truth, since the end of the Afghan war of the 1980s, the country’s foreign policy has been characterised by ad hoc decision-making and an excessive militarisation of national and security interests.

Relations with neighbouring countries other than China have ranged from relatively cool to outright hostile, while the inconsistency in ties with the US is yet again on full display. Foreign policy experts would be hard-pressed to find an overarching constructive theme in Pakistan’s ties with the outside world; a logical trade and regional connectivity agenda has languished as security fears have dominated.

If a new foreign policy vision is to be developed, the principles underpinning the country’s approach to the outside world need to be fleshed out cooperatively across national institutions. In theory, the government’s approach of having the Foreign Office initiate proposals that will be debated by the National Security Committee and approved by parliament is sound.

It contains the possibility of frank civil-military dialogue and a joint institutional response to the country’s challenges on the external front. But much will depend on how meaningful the engagement is on both sides.

Experience suggests that sweeping public criticism of the military establishment’s worldview triggers reactionary condemnation of the civilians’ perceived lack of seriousness in matters of national security. The Constitution requires and democracy demands that civilians lead policy debates, a reality that must be acknowledged by the military establishment. In return, the civilians should demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of national security and foreign policy considerations and accept that military input on policy matters can be helpful.

There is also a very real constraint: time. Having wasted four years by refusing to appoint a full-time foreign minister and failing to strengthen the civilian institutions that could develop a new approach on the external front, the PML-N government must now move swiftly.

Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s message on Defence Day recently in which he rightly asserted that the state must have a monopoly over violence — an implicit rejection of all non-state militant groups — can be combined with Foreign Minister Asif’s admission of past failures by the state to form a new platform for Pakistan’s engagement with the outside world.

The platform must be an unequivocal rejection of any form of militancy and a firm commitment to regional cooperation and trade. Certainly, Pakistan’s desire for peaceful relations with, for example, India will not be immediately reciprocated or easily achieved. Nevertheless, a foreign policy reset is a necessity for Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2017

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