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No space for foreign policy

Neither the election campaigns nor the manifestos of major political parties have mentioned anything concrete about the country’s foreign policy.

The PML-N was bitten badly for eating from that tree of life while the PPP found itself handicapped in pursuing its agenda. So, it comes as no surprise that the PTI has also decided to avoid stepping into uncharted terrain.

In order to steer the country out of the crisis fuelled by recent terror attacks, the new government will have to adopt skillful diplomacy. But major candidates have avoided introspection and debate. By doing so, they have clearly shown who calls the shots when it comes to dealing with internal and external policies as well as matter pertaining to defence.

Imran Khan has impatiently waited for his innings for two decades. Now, the climate has changed in his favour. At this stage, independents will be the kingmakers. This leaves little doubt as to who is licensed to thrill at the polls.

These developments are being closely observed by the diplomatic community in Pakistan and in major capitals of the world. Can the world expect a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy if a coalition government or the so-called Donald Trump of Pakistan comes to power?

There are many obvious scenarios. But it is premature to say how the new government will formulate its foreign policy. Yet, we can be sure that if the PTI is at the helm of the government, the foreign relations of ‘Naya Pakistan’ will be developed under the vague slogan of preserving the ‘national interest’. Over the years, this terminology is used as a painkiller to garner support for policies that are later labelled as a form of personal agenda by successive governments. So, in order to devise a suitable external policy, the new government will face several challenges. Will the foreign policy towards Asia – India, Afghanistan and the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran – Europe and America be clandestine or reflect the collective will of the nation?

The crucial question is: will the new government take a concerted effort to mend deteriorated ties with the US or simply allow relations between both countries to further deteriorate? After a few hiccups during Obama’s administration, bilateral relations between Pakistan and the US have been practically reduced to ceremonial meetings and greetings.

Since Donald Trump became president of the US, Pakistan has witnessed only two high-level visits from the top brass of American leadership. Rex Tillerson, the former US secretary of state, visited the country for four hours in October 2017 while US Secretary of Defence James Mattis paid a day-long visit to Pakistan in December last year.

The threshold of America’s demands that we ‘do more’ to confront militants seems to have increased. Not long ago, Bush Junior and Obama used to give Pakistan black and white choices in which there was no scope for grey areas. And yet, Islamabad successfully managed that pressure for two decades. However, Trump sent James Mattis to Pakistan last year with a clear warning: that Washington is willing to make one more attempt to work with the Islamabad before it considers other options to ensure that the alleged safe havens are wiped out. Pakistan’s people want to know how our leaders will deal with Donald Trump.

America holds the keys to solving the problems emanating from Delhi and Kabul. Pakistan shares a 2,912 kilometre-long border with India where the hostilities between both countries are manifested in the form of ceasefire violations. The country 2,430 kilometre-long frontier with Afghanistan faces a similar dilemma. It is, therefore, time to include the relevant stakeholders, not further isolate them.

Trump has remained hostile towards Pakistan. Most signs are sufficient to make us realise that offers of a “positive, consistent and long-term relationship” are elusive diplomatic gestures. Washington has also offered a ‘vital role’ in facilitating a peace process in Afghanistan and bringing peace to South Asia. Is this being taken as an opportunity or a threat?

With Trump carrying a carrot in one hand and a stick in the other, our candidates for the top slot should have apprised the people about how they intend to deal with the relentless allegations from America and guard the country against any pitfalls. A shrewd but respected foreign minister is the need of the hour.

Islamabad has become part of the One Belt One Road initiative through CPEC. This economic corridor has the potential to transform into an enormous security force. However, the so-called game-changer comes at its own price. The Chinese are culturally known to ask: ‘have you eaten?’ But we must not forget that there is no such thing as a free lunch. This became evident when the FATF placed Islamabad on its terror-financing watchlist. On that front, Pakistan was not only left in the lurch by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but was also ditched by China.

It has yet to be seen how the future government will cultivate relations with China and make CPEC equally beneficial to Pakistan. Over the last decade, Islamabad has also explored its relations with Moscow. Watching Pakistan being cornered by the US, Russian President Putin has tactfully exploited the situation by sitting next to President Mamnoon Hussain during the SCO’s summit in June, and sending his spy chief to our capital. Despite all these overtures, Islamabad is still keen on holding a summit with the Russian president. Can those who seize the reins make it possible to host a long overdue visit with Russian president? If yes, then to what advantage?

For now, Pakistan is relieved that another permanent member of the UNSC has come to its rescue. Moscow has appreciated Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan and is also supplying military essentials. Putin is certainly not love with this country. Common threats, emanating from Daesh a few factions of Taliban, have brought the region closer.

Amid growing fears over the Balkanisation of Afghanistan, Russia and China – with the help of Pakistan and Iran – are pressurising the Taliban to make a deal. Without taking the occupying force on board, can we bet that any deal under Moscow’s format will last long? Our candidates for the PM slot should have also provided answers over whether an alliance between China, Pakistan and Russia would be a solution to the country’s problem.

Pakistan has a set of thorny international problems to solve, and chronic internal crises to address. The generation that saw these issues emerge and had first-hand information about them is growing old and moving away from the mainstream. The next generation will never be in a position to accept realistic solutions. It will also never believe how tolerant and outward-looking Pakistan once was and how advantageous it would have been for it to remain this way.

Neglecting foreign policy debates at this critical juncture is akin to burying our heads in the sand. This nonchalant attitude shouldn’t persist. If the new government fails to engage in these debates, it will find itself handicapped, and will be forced to rely on the very forces that are accused of intervention. The ground has already been lost in some major spheres. It is time to develop a practical partnership to save the other spheres.

Nasim Haider, "No space for foreign policy," The news. 2018-07-21.
Keywords: Political science , Political parties , General elections , Foreign policy , Diplomatic community , National interest , Security forces , Economic Corridor , Federal government , Democracy , PTI , PML-N