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Lessons from foreign policy management ( Part – I )

I am often surprised by how many people believe that foreign policy is something that can be changed or should be changed radically every few years.

Foreign policy is not just a written document or a policy statement; it evolves every day and is an amorphous result of the decisions we take at various multilateral and bilateral levels. It is a product of a complex web of our actions and engagements. This complex web works well if there is clarity at the executive level of our broad goals and what we seek to achieve through the multiple layers of activity and engagement.

It is also important to then clearly convey the same priorities to the implementing arm of foreign policy, the able men and women of the Foreign Office, both at the headquarters and at various capitals of the world.

Every government since 1947 has promised to pursue an independent foreign policy. So, it is important to determine what really is an independent foreign policy. An independent foreign policy simply means that a country has the space, resources, and muscle to pursue relations with other countries or blocs strictly in the hard pursuit of its national interests. That begs the question: what are a country’s national interests? And who defines them? According to the constitution of Pakistan, the people of Pakistan, through their elected representatives, define the country’s national interests and empower the executive to pursue them through policy decisions.

We have seen that when democratic structures are weak, governments tend to sideline parliament to play a useful role in foreign policy formulation. It is often considered efficient and smart to keep the role of parliament to a minimum. Countries that have been able to pursue their national interests on the international stage successfully almost always have strong parliamentary oversight and input in foreign policy formulation.

One very good example is how in 2003, the Turkish parliament denied US troops access to Iraq through southeast Turkey, despite months of negotiations on the financial, military, and political levels. Just before that, in 2001, it is commonly believed that one call from the US administration was able to swerve Pakistan’s position on the Afghanistan expedition. The argument here is not whether it was the right or wrong policy, the argument here is that a country needs to have institutional structures that can determine the correct policy for its long-term interests.

We take for granted that in Pakistan institutional structures do not exist for parliament to play an effective role that can benefit the country. As the new government takes over, it is a good time to recall how foreign policy management can be broadened to create space for the government as it interacts with the rest of the world.

The 2008-13 term was remarkable for the strengthening of democratic institutions in Pakistan. This was a time after the martyrdom of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Shaheed, so the country was in a precarious place. Before her martyrdom, the collective lessons from all mistakes made by political parties were put to good use by creating the Charter of Democracy. The 2008-13 tenure was the first term after the CoD, it also became the first time an elected parliament in Pakistan was able to complete its five-year term.

As foreign minister, I remember we were able to use parliamentary bodies especially the National Security Committee which was headed by Senator Raza Rabbani and had senior representation from all opposition, to chart out the path forward when Pakistan was faced with the Salala incident, where 24 of our servicemen lost their lives to ‘friendly fire’ without any acknowledgment or apology from our friends.

A joint session of parliament was immediately called to chart out the way forward for Pakistan. I think this is a guiding example of how a government should not only go back to the people’s representatives for guidance but also create space for itself to negotiate with friends on the new terms of engagement which was required after such an incident. This should serve as proof of how democratic institutions can be strengthened and used to serve national interests.

This was also a time when the presidency under president Asif Ali Zardari played a crucial role in guiding foreign policy. Although the presidency is not involved in the day-to-day management of foreign policy, I remember how his guidance on some crucial decisions stood the test of time and guided a government that wanted to respond to the immediate pressures of close friends by remaining steadfast on its own course.

When the Arab Spring took over the Arab world, many of our closest friends, both from within the region and in Western capitals, expected this to herald a period of stability for countries like Egypt, Syria, Libya. At that time, our official position was that we would let these countries decide what they choose for themselves and would rather not interfere in their internal affairs. As a slew of Western capitals started celebrating and supporting elements responsible for the ‘Arab Spring’, immense pressure emanated from close friends.

‘Friends of Libya’, ‘Friends of Syria’ groupings emerged, and very friendly and important countries started pressuring Pakistan to join these groupings. I remember at that time, many of our ambassadors stationed in the same countries also felt the need to reconsider our position and not be left on the wrong side of the winds of change. At that time, then-president Zardari’s counsel that ‘watch the Arab Spring turn into a harsh Arab Winter’ turned out to be more accurate than anyone could have imagined, and it guided us at the Foreign Office to keep our position.

Another breakthrough that we have to squarely give credit to the presidency of that time was how the then-president Zardari insisted on visiting China as president every quarter. He was insistent that his visits were not to Beijing only but to different far-flung areas of China. Typically, bureaucrats react badly to anything novel in its scope and prefer to stick to the script. A president visiting one country multiple times in a year – and that too, not the capital city – can be a protocol nightmare and was certainly outside of the rule book. This constant engagement with China’s leadership and visits to different areas of China laid the groundwork for CPEC.

As the new government is taking the reins of the executive, it would be well advised to strengthen democratic institutional structures inside parliament and make foreign policy as inclusive as possible.

Foreign policy management must not fall prey to the ‘instant gratification’ way of thinking. Amongst all the policy domains the executive has to manage, this perhaps is the most complex, and must always have a long-term trajectory in mind. Only then can ‘all things merge into one and one river run through it’.

To be continued

Hina Rabbani Khar, "Lessons from foreign policy management ( Part – I )," The News. 2024-03-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Foreign policy , Democratic , Parliament , President Zardari , Benazir Bhutto , Pakistan , CPEC