GOVERNANCE has never been the Imran Khan administration’s forte but his government’s incompetence in running foreign affairs is truly calamitous. The prime minister’s perception of diplomacy is as flawed as his populist politics. His virtual address to Pakistani envoys serving in different world capitals last week not only exposed a limited understanding of diplomacy but also a disdain for the foreign service.
Senior diplomats were censured live on TV channels. It was unprecedented and extremely humiliating. Diplomats were accused of acting callously towards the Pakistani diaspora and harbouring a colonial mindset. They were told that their Indian counterparts were more proactive.
Such unwarranted public remarks from the country’s top leadership is highly demoralising for the foreign service. The angry reactions from some retired foreign secretaries to these comments reflect the sentiments of the institution. Perhaps the strongest public criticism of the remarks came from Tehmina Janjua, Pakistan’s first woman foreign secretary. She tweeted: “Deeply dismayed at the unwarranted criticism of the Foreign Ministry. There seems to be woefully inadequate understanding of the Embassies’ consular work, the acute resource constraints, and the role of multiple departments, which [are] not under the control of Ambassadors.” Other retired officers shared her anguish.
The prime minister appeared to be using his container approach in the realm of foreign policy. He waved stacks of papers at the officers attending virtually. These apparently contained complaints filed by members of the Pakistani community abroad against the treatment meted out to them by some of their missions. The prime minister was upset with reports of the ill treatment of those approaching Pakistani embassies for consular services. He held the ambassadors responsible for their ‘callousness’. It was obvious that the whole spectacle that was telecast live was for political grandstanding.
How can diplomats work effectively if there’s no clear foreign policy direction?
Yesterday, a week later, the prime minister admitted that it had been a mistake to telecast the entire episode in such a manner. He also tried to retract some of his comments about the working of our foreign missions. But it was too little, too late. The damage had already been done. It was not just about the televised rebuke, but also our leadership’s lack of understanding of how diplomacy works.
The comments about diplomats catering to ‘goras’ reflected puzzling views. What does not seem to have been understood is that the primary responsibility of a diplomat is to interact with officials and the people of the country where he is posted. For successful diplomacy, one needs to have access to the host country’s officials. Good communication is a skill that diplomats need to learn. But unfortunately for the prime minister, all that represents a colonial mindset.
What is also of concern are the oft-repeated references to what the prime minister claims is his deep understanding of the West because of the time he spent in England playing county cricket. It is questionable whether this experience gives insight into the intricacies of diplomacy. Sweeping comments about Pakistani diplomats harbouring colonial tendencies will not help improve the working of our diplomatic missions.
The other criticism was that Pakistani diplomatic missions do not work hard to bring foreign investment into the country. In fact, it was pointed out, the Indian foreign missions play a much more proactive role in mobilising investments. Again, the comments reinforce the perception of poor understanding: it is not the efforts of the envoys but the domestic economic and political situation that brings in foreign investment. India attracts greater foreign investment because of the size of its economy.
We have seen foreign investment coming in when the country has been politically more stable. Instead of chastising envoys for not bringing in investment, our leadership would do well to focus on economic development and political stability in the country. Our foreign missions can certainly play a facilitating role if the country manages to offer a better atmosphere for potential investors.
The spectacle of religiously inspired extremist groups rampaging through the streets and demanding the expulsion of a foreign envoy will hardly make investors, domestic or international, comfortable. In fact, our leadership would do better to examine its own statements and actions that are often perceived as encouraging right-wing views. Our foreign missions cannot be expected to build an image of the country that is completely the opposite of what exists at home.
However, it is also evident that all is not well with our foreign service and that there is a need to reform the institution in order to make our missions more effective in dealing with challenges in a fast-changing world. But more importantly, there is a need for setting a clear foreign policy direction. Our embassies are as good as our state policies. We cannot expect officials of the foreign service to serve the country effectively when there is no clear foreign policy direction. We cannot have a voodoo foreign policy based on a bizarre worldview. A conference with envoys is meant to discuss the emerging international situation and our foreign policy imperatives. But there was nothing like that in the prime minister’s session with the envoys.
Surely matters related to foreign affairs are too serious to be dealt with in a cavalier way. And it’s not just the prime minister. Unfortunately, our foreign minister is also in the habit of commenting on serious foreign policy issues without any preparation, often bringing embarrassment to the country. There is a reason why foreign ministers are expected not to make unnecessary statements that they later need to retract.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s appearances on TV channels making inconsistent remarks about sensitive foreign policy issues have added to the prevailing confusion. For example, his latest comments on backchannel contacts with India and on India’s revocation of Article 370 of its constitution that led to its annexation of India-held Kashmir have fuelled a new controversy regarding our official position on these issues. Foreign policy issues must not be used for public grandstanding. There is a need for a more serious approach on foreign policy matters.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2021