Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


An obsolete policy

March 14, 2018


WHEN should a country become aware that its foreign policy is past its shelf life and that change has long been due? Here are some telltale signs. You start having trouble with all or most of your neighbours. And instead of making new friends you make enemies. Your friends are treating you not only as an ally but also as a threat. And you are being left behind by a changing world that is beginning to regard you as a problem.

Pakistan may not have reached the point of isolation yet, but it is certainly stranded. And that is a good enough reason for it to change its foreign policy. But change does not come easy when a policy has been followed well beyond its period of utility, and rivals have already wrested the initiative, leaving one with few options and little room for manoeuvre. Foreign policy change in any case is not easy, except in the case of the big powers. Most other countries end up simply reacting. The irony is, our foreign policy is not even reactive. It is reactionary.

Democracy or no democracy, national priorities in most parts of the world have come to focus on economy and social change. Populations want a better life and there are opportunities and tools to fulfil their aspirations that were previously not available. Governments have thus compulsions and incentives to change their policies.

To enhance economic benefits, countries are strengthening or loosening traditional ties, and seeking new friendships. Old, fixed and unchanging alliances are being questioned. The idea is to get economic benefits from wherever you can by cooperating while competing, and subordinating your conflicts to economic interests where necessary.

We may not be isolated but we are stranded.

Take the example of China and India. Bilateral trade reached $84.44 billion in 2017. There are also stirrings of change in their overall ties. The moral is that in this changed world, disputes are not standing in the way of economic cooperation.

Unfortunately, our foreign policy is beating to the rhythm of an extinct world. Our national priorities, power structure and governance remain imbalanced: security is prioritised over economy; the power balance is weighted in favour of the security establishment, and ‘democracy’ is trumping governance. No wonder the foreign policy to sustain this dynamic has remained static. It safeguards the class and institutional interests of the ruling establishment, civilian and military alike.

What we need is a structural change redefining Pakistan’s national purpose and organising ideas which focus on people, and a foreign policy that goes with it. The onus for change is on both the civilians and the security establishment. While the latter must relinquish their hold on what is seen as an expanding definition of security, the former must improve governance by focusing on nation building which means education, economic change, respect for the rule of law and human dignity, and modernising social structures and habits of thought.

Without nation building, governance remains poor. And without good governance, democracy remains hollow. Indeed, democracy is the form and governance the substance. Only by completing the democracy chain can one win the fight against corruption and extremism as a nation. CPEC cannot win that fight for us. A stand-alone democracy is not a sign of progress. Examples abound of a reasonably functional democracy but of a dysfunctional country.

If the civilian leadership is unhappy about the civil-military imbalance it must be seen to perform. Power has to be contested and that contest cannot be won without the people’s support. This is what democracy is all about. It is not about winning the elections. Pak­istan’s external debt stood at around $85bn by the end of 2017 and the IMF has said that risks to Pakistan’s economic and financial outlook have increased. What is the political leadership doing about it? Militant groups may have been considered strategic assets by the establishment but they are also serving as political assets of the civilians. Look at the company we will be keeping in the FATF grey list as a result.

As for the establishment, it must realise that the search for absolute security never succeeds. This is exactly what India, often with the help of Afghanistan, wants us to remain trapped in to keep competing with it at the expense of economic progress, stability and human welfare in Pakistan.

It raises the question of who is benefiting from all this. It is not the people. We need a foreign policy that will catalyse domestic policy changes. Pakistan is secure enough to take chances with change and has enough national strength to navigate the path to a future that is not only secure but also prosperous — one that benefits the people of this country.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown University and Syracuse University.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2018