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Rethinking our foreign policy

September 26, 2011

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EPOCH-MAKING changes have vastly reshaped our world. The structure of the world economy has been transformed beyond recognition.

The information revolution and media explosion have expanded our consciousness about ourselves and the society and world we live in. There is a much greater awareness of opportunities for self-fulfilment and what is inhibiting this — denial of justice, lack of empowerment, economic disparities, etc. The domestic and the international order are under challenge.

Consciousness has risen not only about the future but also the past; about modernity as well as tradition inciting cultural wars, competing visions of religion and fierce nationalism.

Leaderships all over the world have been under pressure to revise national policies to bring them in line with these seminal changes. The priority is to meet growing aspirations for a better life by exploiting new opportunities and safeguarding political and social stability from grave new threats especially those from within.

There is a greater sensitivity towards the relationship between the internal order and foreign policy and enhanced economic focus in international relations. Many countries have come a long way in adjusting to the new world with innovative and bold foreign policies like our two neighbours China and India whose leaderships have been well ahead of the curve. As for us, we are sadly on the other end of the spectrum, regressing or standing still.

Our foreign policy is still trapped in old assumptions about the world, about ourselves and other countries. In some ways, we are still trying to preserve the fiction of the old world. We remain addicted to old alliances.

Essentially, while everyone was waking up to the new world in the late 1980s and the early 1990s and lapping up new opportunities with the help of appropriate political institutions, economic structures and governance adapted to the globalising world, we were busy launching jihads and trying to revive religious glory.

The damage has been cumulative for which the blame should be shared by both the civilians and the army, but it has been particularly acute during military governments, more so during periods of close US-Pakistan ties conjoined with a symbiotic Pakistan-Saudi relationship especially since 1979.

The army that led these military governments became the sole purveyor of understanding and analysing foreign policy and security challenges. It came to monopolise intelligence, strategic analysis and the political leadership. Indeed, national interests and major foreign policy issues were defined in a way that they were subsumed by the army’s interests — professional, political, strategic and corporate.

The army leadership felt comfortable with the unity of analysis as it helped its hold on political power even if the analysis was strategically flawed. The army made sure that its public relations machinery helped insert its worldview and national purpose into the public’s subconscious.

So we had jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, the Kargil adventure and alleged nuclear cooperation with North Korea, Iran and Libya, all without the benefit of any strategic analysis or input from the Foreign Office or leaders of public opinion.

And the civilian governments came to adopt the same winning formula to stay in power, i.e. service to Islam, the Kashmir cause and the strategic purposes of the US and Saudi Arabia in return for their bankrolling poor governance. The Foreign Office, too, became pliant. It did what many foreign offices in such systems do. It adopted this regional and worldview as it own, gave it a nationalist gloss, couched it in soaring rhetoric and excelled in operationalising it.

Cosmetic visits and empty UN resolutions became false icons of success. To be fair, for the attainment of nuclear capability and maintenance of a fairly professional army that has provided a modicum of security to an insecure population, the army does deserve some credit. But its fixed and unchanging position on India and political ambitions have come to impose an intolerable cost on the nation.

In this new world, we have not made new friends; and in fact have new enemies. To a degree, the whole world has come to see us, if not as an enemy at least as a threat. And our friends are treating us not only as allies but also as targets. Yes, relations with China enjoyed a national consensus and remain a success story to this day but largely because the Chinese laid down the terms of engagement and drew up broad parameters.

They did it so shrewdly that it gave Pakistan an illusion of being an equal partner. But wherever we were given a free hand in a relationship, like that with the US, we mismanaged it especially by overselling ourselves — ably assisted by Washington. And we paid for it dearly as we did for our friendship with Saudi Arabia.

Domestic and foreign policies are essentially an extension of each other. Very little has changed in our domestic power structure, civil military relations or way of governing. That is why our foreign policy, that has been designed to serve this dynamic, remains the same. The entire spectrum, domestic and external, defence and foreign policy, ought to be rebalanced if we are to progress as a nation. As Stephen Cohen has aptly said “Pakistan needs a new organising idea”.

The writer, a former ambassador, teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University.