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Choosing the next foreign secretary

Last week, the Foreign Office spokesperson conducted a press briefing during which he allowed himself to be baited, and ended up accusing social media activists that had disappeared (since accounted for) of not having spoken up for the rights of Kashmiris in Occupied Kashmir.

It was a classic, and telling, moment for the Foreign Service of Pakistan (FSP). A man who has ably served the country for almost 30 years was going to be skewered for a lapse of judgement displayed in a mere 30 intemperate seconds. Being a diplomat for Pakistan is a thankless job, and it is getting harder and harder to do. Yet our expectations should be no lower, but in fact even higher. How do we balance out fair treatment of our diplomats with reasonable expectations for them to do their jobs in the 2017 context?

It is said that the choice of the next foreign secretary has already been made, and should be announced this week. Perhaps one way to address the difficulty of managing a 21st century diplomatic service is to assess this government’s performance, almost four years into its term, in terms of its pursuit of the country’s foreign policy goals. To start with, what have been Pakistan’s foreign policy goals? In June 2014, Sartaj Aziz, articulated this government’s goals. In his words, these are:

“The first important foreign policy objective is to safeguard Pakistan’s security and eliminate the growing culture of extremism, intolerance and violence”.

“The second important objective is to make economic revival and sustained development, the centrepiece of our foreign policy”.

“The third important priority of a peaceful neighbourhood automatically flows from these two objectives”.

“A fourth pillar of this vision is to turn Pakistan’s strategic geographical location from a liability into an asset through trade, transport and energy connectivity with China, Central Asia and West Asia”.

Before assessing the performance of the government against these stated foreign policy goals, let’s examine whether these are legitimate objectives for the Pakistani diplomatic service.

The first goal is about internal security, and is largely a function shared by the Pakistan Army, the Ministry of Interior and the home departments in each province. The Foreign Service of Pakistan has negligible input in security policy, nor is the opinion of serving or retired officers of the foreign service on issues of extremism, intolerance and violence a particularly hot draw.

The second goal is about economic policy, trade and development. This is a function undertaken by the Ministry of Finance. In this government, this is especially true, as there is hardly any issue that the minister for finance is not involved in. Sometimes, the Ministry for Planning, the Ministry of Commerce and the Economic Affairs Division are also involved. There is virtually zero Foreign Office input in economic issues in Pakistan.

The third goal is about a “peaceful neighbourhood”. The foreign policy architecture in Pakistan is neither capable of controlling Jaish-e-Muhammad nor any of the other accused groups that scuttle peace processes. The foreign service is also not capable of building and sustaining a narrative about India’s brutal and unending occupation of Kashmir, or about India’s deliberate engagement of malign actors in Afghanistan to provoke unrest in Pakistan. Most importantly, when Pakistani political leaders have their big moment ideas for normalisation with India, Pakistani diplomats are usually nowhere close-by.

The fourth goal is about geo-strategy and connectivity, or essentially a combination of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC). The bulk of CPEC and CAREC work is managed by the planning ministry and the Ministry for Water and Power. The army handles anything that is really big, including CPEC security. Neither these ministries nor the army has needed the Foreign Office, except for protocol duties whence their respective officials land at Beijing, and other cooperation hotspots.

It turns out that the pursuit of the stated objectives of Pakistani foreign policy is an exercise for which Pakistan’s Foreign Office is largely non-essential, if not completely irrelevant. How is this even possible? First, let’s be fair. The Foreign Service of Pakistan (FSP) is constituted of men and women that make incredible sacrifices and work in incredibly difficult circumstances. Second, let’s remember that the FSP exists within the context of two overwhelming institutional realities: the intimate role of the army in shaping foreign policy, and the dominance of the Pakistan Administrative Service/District Management Group, in shaping incentives and streamlining power for itself in the public policy architecture.

As PM Sharif chooses the next foreign secretary, we need to understand the structure and system that is being entrusted to him or her. There are at least three major institutional dynamics that have served to render the FSP, and by extension the Foreign Office, relatively meaningless in the pursuit of Pakistani foreign policy.

For starters, a unified civil service steel structure is a drag on the diplomatic service. Internally, foreign secretaries (who must be BPS 22 members of the foreign service) have to quietly endure a handful of bitter old men and women (their BPS 22 colleagues from within the foreign service) as their senior most colleagues. At a time when an FS needs top shelf inputs from his senior most colleagues, he has to deal with men and women too busy licking their wounds for having not been chosen for the top job, or alternatively men and women too busy trying to angle for one final posting abroad before they retire.

Externally, the steel structure also means that Pakistan’s foreign secretary has to sit at par (and usually below) the secretary to the PM, the secretary finance, and the various officers of the military that rank him, either formally (like the COAS and CJCS), or informally, like pretty much every officer with more than one star on their shoulder. A chief diplomat’s voice is enfeebled from the very beginning in the institutional context of Pakistan: how can we expect better performance from a devalued and debased foreign service?

The second and bigger crisis is the corrosion of the foreign affairs function itself. The two most critical foreign affairs functions in the 21st century are trade relations and public diplomacy, and both rest with civil service groups not named FSP. Trade offices are the domain of the Ministry of Commerce and the commerce service closely guards its terrain. The public diplomacy function is dominated by the ISPR at home and the Ministry of Information and Information Service abroad.

Asking FSP officers to be better at their jobs in these domains is a ridiculous demand: they don’t get the jobs that need those skills. What skills are needed in the FSP? Protocol duties, staff officer duties, and in the rare case, political analysis. Increasingly, our diplomats are being reduced to embassy managers and executive assistants for ministers and advisers. The next chief diplomat of Pakistan is inheriting an FSP whose institutional context has asphyxiated the incentives and space for professional diplomacy.

Finally, there is the structure of the Foreign Office itself. The ministry has an array of dated and irrelevant geographical sections managed by BPS 21 additional secretaries, with officer deployment both at the ministry and at embassies and high commissions abroad reflecting little or no measure of the quantum of inputs being invested in relationships versus the expected outputs and outcomes.

No foreign secretary in memory has sought to challenge this internal structure, which is wasteful, dysfunctional and irrelevant, because such a pursuit would have little bearing on his or her next posting or extension in service – the principal aim in a machine bureaucracy from which everything else has already been taken.

The debate about the performance of the spokesperson, or the appointment of the next foreign secretary, is a useless debate. So long as the prime minister does not seek to enable and empower diplomacy as an important function of the state, our spokespersons will continue to be ambushed, at home and abroad, and our foreign secretaries will continue to seek their next jobs with great gusto and enthusiasm. But we shouldn’t be hating the players. It’s the game that is rigged.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Choosing the next foreign secretary," The News. 2017-02-07.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Foreign policy , Security policy , Jaish-e-Muhammad , Diplomacy , Extremism , Violence , Sartaj Aziz , China , India , Kashmir , CPEC , FSP