MIXED messages, retractions and clarifications from the government have become an all-too-common occurrence when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Not only does this undermine the efforts of those in the foreign service, it also doesn’t help the country’s image in the international arena.

Recently, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi himself stirred controversy when he called India’s scrapping of Article 370 of its constitution an “internal matter”. His comment caused an uproar here and abroad for good reason. India has historically rebuffed Pakistan’s position advocating dialogue on India-held Kashmir by insisting that the latter is an ‘internal matter’. For Mr Qureshi to then use the same phrase in a discussion on Article 370 — the revocation of which has been firmly rejected by Pakistan — is truly astonishing. The foreign minister later tweeted that “nothing about Jammu and Kashmir can be India’s internal matter”, but his clarification only makes his initial remarks all the more bewildering.

Unfortunately, this is not the first communication mistake of its kind. Last year, Mr Qureshi was under fire when he publicly criticised Saudi Arabia and the OIC’s silence on occupied Kashmir and demanded that “Riyadh show leadership” on the issue. It took serious backchannel efforts on Islamabad’s part to repair the damage. This week, it was Prime Minister Imran Khan who after scolding Pakistan’s ambassadors on live TV — something that could have been avoided in the first place — flip-flopped and said that his criticism should not have been made public. Prior to this, the cabinet’s reversal of an ECC decision to trade with India, too, showed that there is utter disarray when it comes to communicating our foreign policy.

It is true that Pakistani expats have often complained of the poor quality of service at our missions. However, the foreign service’s contribution to international diplomacy is commendable and something that ought to have the support of the government. Slips of the tongue, U-turns on engagement with other nations and erroneous messaging on a key issue like Kashmir undermine these efforts.

Communication on any issue of foreign policy must be unambiguous and consistent. Given the repercussions such goof-ups have on sensitive relationships, it is the last place where the government should falter or take U-turns. These slips are a case of either poor judgement on the part of advisers or of top officials not listening to good advice. There is simply no room for such blunders in matters as delicate as foreign policy.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2021

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