THE latest foreign policy debacle in the shape of Pakistan’s last-minute decision to pull out of the Kuala Lumpur Summit illustrates Imran Khan’s Trumpian-style of dealing with highly sensitive policy issues. It is decision-making driven by whims rather than reason.
While it was unwise to take the decision to attend the summit without deliberating the pros and cons, even worse was backing out of the commitment under pressure from another county. The entire episode reflects a new low in our diplomacy. It happens when institutional processes are set aside to accommodate the quirks of an individual. It is a voodoo foreign policy that has caused us loss of credibility among friendly countries. Yet we are blind to this.
Notwithstanding the Foreign Office claiming otherwise, there is a ring of truth to what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said about Saudi pressure being the reason for Pakistan’s abrupt withdrawal. The prime minister’s sudden dash to Riyadh, followed by the announcement of the cancellation of his visit leaves nothing to conjecture. What could be more humiliating for a sovereign nation than to accept the dictates of another country? It has been a loss of face from all sides.
No precedent in recent history comes to mind where Pakistan has allowed some other country to take a decision on its foreign policy imperatives and how to conduct its relations with other states. Despite pressure, Pakistan had previously maintained a balance in its relations with countries hostile to one another. We have kept ourselves out of the civil war in the Middle East and declined to send troops to help Saudi forces in Yemen while withstanding intense pressure from Riyadh. So what has happened now?
A major problem with the PTI government is its non-serious approach to critical foreign policy issues.
Saudi Arabia may have its own reasons to oppose the KL Summit but it could not prevent other countries from participating. Surely, the Saudis have strong leverage over Pakistan because of our increasing financial reliance on the kingdom, and yet we have weathered similar pressure in the past and managed to pursue an independent policy. In fact, Imran Khan should have thought through all aspects before committing himself to attending the conference in the first place.
Interestingly, the agenda of the conference was discussed in the prime minister’s meeting with the Turkish president and the Malaysian prime minister on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. The main objective was to evolve a joint strategy to counter Islamophobia. The prime minister had sounded very enthusiastic about the project.
It was not the first time the KL Summit was held. It was the fifth, and larger, edition of the forum. Apart from the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Qatar, delegates from some 20 Muslim countries participated, including Islamic scholars. Indian action in India-held Kashmir was also part of the agenda.
While the Saudi objection that the forum was meant to undermine the OIC was not legitimate, the Saudi opposition did expose the rivalries among Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries see the emerging alliance of Turkey, Iran, and Qatar as detrimental to their interests. The presence of the leaders of these three countries was the main reason for the Saudi opposition to the summit. Surely, Pakistan should not be a party to such rivalries, but the conference was not in any way an anti-Saudi forum.
Succumbing to Saudi pressure has called into question Imran Khan’s talk of mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is apparent that Pakistan has no clout over these two countries and it is not in any position to make them talk to each other. In fact, the latest episode raises questions about our independence and neutrality in a regional power struggle.
While Saudi support for Pakistan’s cash-strapped economy is important, the latest event underscores the risk of the country being pushed into a regional power game. True, Pakistan had done well by balancing its relations with Iran and Qatar despite its closeness with the kingdom but the latest diplomatic blunder has shaken this balance.
The complex external circumstances surrounding the country demand prudent management of foreign relations. But a major problem with the PTI government is its non-serious approach while dealing with extremely critical foreign policy issues. Imran Khan is in the habit of not engaging in serious discussion with senior officials and other stakeholders before making policy announcements.
Some of his comments during his visit to New York in September this year indicate his limited understanding of complex foreign policy issues. For example, at the Council of Foreign Relations, he reportedly said that the Pakistani intelligence had trained Al Qaeda. He also claimed that it was his idea for the US to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban for ending the Afghan conflict, forgetting that this was Pakistan’s consistent position since the beginning of the US-led war.
Similarly, during one of his visits to Tehran, he reportedly stated that Pakistani soil was used for militant attacks in Iran. It has taken a lot of effort to do damage control. The irresponsible statements of some federal ministers also affected our relations with China at one point. A major problem is the gradual decay in the ability and capacity of institutions to evolve a clear policy direction. The decline is much more rapid under the PTI government.
Pakistan’s diplomatic clout has eroded over the years because of political instability and economic insecurity. The government has failed even to build a national narrative on this critical issue. Imran Khan has been warning the world of catastrophe if the Kashmir problem is not resolved. But he has failed to come out with a clear policy direction on the issue.
Meanwhile, internal political strife in Pakistan and its economic dependency on other countries have raised questions about our ability to effectively fight our case in international forums. The latest foreign policy debacle speaks volumes for the government’s inability to deal with fast-changing regional geopolitics. Unfortunately, we are miserably lacking in skills that require maturity.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2019