IF truth is the first casualty of war Pakistan’s foreign policy seems to have become the casualty of a raging political war at home. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech at a public rally in Mailsi and subsequent remarks certainly suggest this. At the rally a week ago, he accused the EU of trying to pressurise him on the Ukraine crisis and asked whether the EU thought Pakistan was its slave. He also repeated, for the umpteenth time, that he had opposed America’s war on terror and asked whether Nato had ever thanked Pakistan for its role in that war. Criticism of the US wasn’t exactly ‘breaking news’ as the PM has frequently assailed Washington for its military intervention in Afghanistan. But his wider attack on the West struck an angry and belligerent note.
This was classic populist rhetoric and campaign oratory aimed to galvanise his support base. But it also played on a theme that his ministers and media apologists are now regularly churning out — of a leader heroically standing up to the West. In fact, his increasing criticism of the West has come in the backdrop of growing political pressure on him from the opposition’s no-confidence move. The more this pressure has mounted and public discontent intensified over inflation, the greater the ruling party’s resort to disingenuous narratives about an international conspiracy. The PM himself was reported as saying that “multiple foreign hands” were behind the opposition’s campaign to oust him. A government spokesman repeatedly tweeted that the no-confidence move was being hatched by “international powers” with the opposition merely acting as hired “brokers”. Other ministers echoed this. The education minister tweeted a cartoon portraying Western support for opposition leaders.
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Are these conspiracy theories setting up an alibi to project the prime minister as a martyr if he loses power? Is this an effort to find external scapegoats for domestic trouble? It certainly seems that way. But other aspects of the PM’s utterances and his government’s statements also merit consideration. Since his Moscow trip and meeting with President Vladimir Putin the day Russia invaded Ukraine, the government has sought to blunt criticism of the visit’s timing by casting this as an effort to stake out an ‘independent’ foreign policy. This ostensible ‘independent’ policy prevented the government from taking a principled stand on the invasion of a sovereign state that clearly violated international law. Officials claimed Pakistan was neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but anodyne statements by the foreign ministry fuelled an impression of a soft stance towards Moscow. For example, official statements called on both sides of the conflict to “de-escalate”, raising the question of how a country that had been invaded was expected to de-escalate.
Foreign policy is falling victim to political confrontation and populist rhetoric.
Why did the PM lash out at EU countries and was it wise to do so? The Islamabad-based envoys of 22 mostly European countries, but including others, issued a joint press release urging Pakistan to back the UN General Assembly resolution and condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This public appeal was certainly unusual for which the foreign ministry privately and publicly admonished the envoys calling their action “unacceptable” and “contrary to diplomatic norms.” The matter should have ended there — both sides having had their say and disagreed. Instead, the PM chose to publicly slam these countries.
Calling out the West for their double standards and hypocrisy is of course hugely popular with the public but it does not behoove the prime minister to engage in this. Western countries have much to answer for as many have acted unilaterally on several occasions, intervened militarily in other countries and shown disregard for international norms and law. But that doesn’t make the Russian action beyond criticism. Two wrongs don’t make a right. In any case interstate relations should be handled strategically, not emotionally by those in power. Disagreement is one thing, but mounting the hustings and pouring scorn at countries that are Pakistan’s important trade and development partners does little to advance the country’s interests.
Beyond this avoidable diplomatic spat what is hard to comprehend is the unnecessary length to which the government has gone to avoid taking a clear position on Ukraine’s crisis as if Islamabad’s relations with Russia trumps all its other interests. It was crucial after the Moscow visit and Russia’s invasion to balance between a new-found but as yet undefined relationship with Russia and Western countries that have long-standing, substantive ties with Pakistan. Foreign policy after all is about deftly balancing interests to enlarge options not narrow them, and that too for the sake of a relationship with no strategic content and whose destination remains unclear.
Some might argue that the government’s stance has as much to do with its disappointment with the US and the scant attention it has received from the Biden administration than with any significant stake in ties with Russia. In other words, past grievances with the West and a jilted lover syndrome with the US may have been a factor for its stance rather than any grand strategy. This of course is arguable. But if true, it would mean subordinating the country’s foreign policy to injured ego and not basing it on a rational calculation of interests. Grievances shouldn’t determine policy, only the country’s interests should.
Meanwhile, the claim pressed by the PM and his ministers that Pakistan’s foreign policy has acquired ‘independence’ on his watch also bears scrutiny. No one has explained what this means other than serving as a slogan or gimmick for a beleaguered government. A single visit to Moscow is hardly evidence of an independent foreign policy. In fact, foreign policy under Khan has been marked by continuity, not departures from the past. Moreover, an independent foreign policy has to rest on the country’s economic independence and inherent economic strength. Chronic dependence on bailouts, loans and economic largesse from abroad for which governments have to seek perpetual help from other countries is hardly consistent with an independent foreign policy. Thus, the government’s claim of an independent foreign policy is just as hollow as it’s cry of ‘conspiracy’.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2022