Fixing image abroad

Published August 16, 2022
The writer is a political scientist at Tufts University.
The writer is a political scientist at Tufts University.

THE PTI isn’t the first political party to hire a PR firm to fix its image in the US. But the perceptions that other countries harbour towards Pakistan are nearly always a function of national reputation, less so the reputation of individual parties that make up our shifting political landscape. When international players like the US, the EU or China consider their investments in Pakistan, that calculation is based on a lot more than our electoral time horizons.

What, then, are some ways that political parties can work towards two synergistic goals: improving Pakistan’s image abroad, while advancing a complex set of foreign policy objectives (which by their definition should be non-partisan)?

The first recommendation is to urgently promote women’s empowerment at home. This year, the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan at 145 out of 146 countries in gender parity. Regardless of the WEF’s methodology, for a country that boasts a woman minister of state for foreign affairs, and was the first Muslim nation to elect a female prime minister, this is a dismal distinction that needs to be rectified, not just for the sake of prosperity at home, but to overhaul the country’s image as one that is proactively responsive to improving women’s safety, mobility and economic and political participation.

Making women’s rights and participation a national priority instantly services critical agendas that are both internal and external, and which incidentally include the credibility with which we can lean on a Taliban-led regime next door to allow all girls to attend school (it is worth noting that Pakistan is second only to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the WEF’s list of worst-performing countries, and yet among those that have consistently been calling on the Taliban to respect the rights of girls and women).

Bold and imaginative measures are needed.

The second recommendation in service of foreign policy abroad concerns the state of democracy at home. Pakistan’s inability to hold free and fair elections discredits the country internationally and creates a moral hazard for governments that try to conduct foreign policy on the tail-coats of dubious authority. This year, the Economic Intelligence Unit ranked Pakistan 104 on 167 states on its global Democracy Index (Pakistan received a score of 5.67 in the category of electoral process and pluralism; 5.36 on the functioning of government; 3.33 on political participation; 2.50 on political culture; and 4.71 on civil liberties).

In short, the ability of any government to project stature abroad will remain compromised unless these numbers go up and remain up. All parties and institutions must realise that their individual interests aggregate on this one fundamental issue: subverting democratic processes hurts us all.

The third recommendation in service of a reinvigorated reputation is to be bolder and more imaginative in who we appoint to key missions abroad. With no disrespect intended to those filling top diplomatic posts in New York and D.C., an imaginative foreign policy is one that leverages the technological and demographic changes and dividends of our times, optics that are presently not on display. Swapping out a familiar cast of septuagenarian retirees with younger, savvier talent may not be a popular choice, but it will be a bold one that can be the basis for a more dynamic, professionalised foreign policy that proactively protects and promotes Pakistan’s interests abroad, including on Kashmir, counter-extremism and climate change.

The fourth recommendation relates to a regional country that has not traditionally been on the receiving end of much of our foreign policy attention: Bangladesh. There are many reasons for a reinvigorated focus on ties with Dhaka. While Bangladesh’s undeniable economic success story on the back of export-oriented growth is one, there are also political advantages to building strategic ca­­pital here. Notwith­st­anding the pathologies of Sheikh Hasina’s government, Bangladesh has the potential to be a critical pivot and swing player in South Asia’s power politics in the coming decades.

While an RSS-inspired regime in New Delhi is likely to continue to explore ways to flex muscle in the neighbourhood (it is already attempting to build inroads with the Afghan Taliban), pragmatism dictates that Pakistan be bolder and more creative in its approach to engaging the neighbourhood, especially Dhaka. To start with, it could consider apologising for the events leading to 1971. Doing so on the 75th anniversary of independence won’t diminish our sovereignty. In fact, it would signal Pakistan’s evolution into a mature, self-confident republic, and be the basis of a bold reset that shores up our geostrategic reserves in the neighbourhood.

These are just a few ideas in service of national image, and therein a more ambitious, strategic and results-oriented foreign policy with 21st-century shelf life. Any takers?

The writer is a political scientist at Tufts University.

Twitter: @fahdhumayun

Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2022

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