by Saad Hafiz
President Obama’s recent visit to India, while ignoring Pakistan, is being seen as a “diplomatic failure of Islamabad”. Failure or not, the visit does warrant a review of the effectiveness of Pakistan’s foreign policy given the changing nature of a state and the realities of the international scene. Generally speaking, a country’s foreign policy is the face that it presents to the rest of the world and should, therefore, be based on a unified vision of the national interest. In foreign policy terms, one good definition of vital national interests is those “conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance the well-being of the people in a free and secure nation”. Weak states like Pakistan, defined by underdevelopment, economic and political vulnerability with limited political and economic influence, have much to gain from positive relations with the rest of the world. A successful foreign policy employs a balance of economic, diplomatic and military tools to reach its goals. The key benchmarks are: first and foremost, a country’s foreign policy should help secure the nation against external threats. Second, governments are also supposed to help their citizens lead more comfortable and happier lives. Third, a country’s foreign policy is consistent with accepted moral standards and is effective at promoting broader political values.
Historically, the ‘military controlled foreign policy of the Pakistani state has been driven by short-term goals and self-preservation. Internal political and economic weaknesses have compelled the state to seek outside support, developing a syndrome of external dependence and unequal alliances. The continuous look for external channels to resolve internal issues has also meant that the primacy of domestic issues has never been fully established. The Pakistani state, apart from the military, is considered shaky and its economic performance judged to be disastrous. It is often listed as a precariously poised country that could be in a downward spiral towards becoming a failed state. Pakistan’s domestic failures have seriously constricted its foreign policy options. Decades of political instability resulting from protracted military rule, institutional paralysis, poor governance, socio-economic malaise, rampant crime and corruption, and general aversion to the rule of law have exacerbated Pakistan’s external image and standing. Terrorism seems to be its sole identity now. The country is seen both as a problem and as a key to its solution.
The main interest of Pakistan’s major foreign patrons, the US and China, is to ensure that their client state does not to fail. Beijing and Washington want a stable, viable Pakistan able to contain its viper’s nest of terrorists. Both want to ensure the Pakistani military keeps a firm hold on nuclear weapons. Washington and Beijing also want to see an end to the long era of enmity and a turn around of Pakistan’s troubled bilateral relationship with India. For foreign patrons, the maintenance of a strategic balance in the South Asian region takes a backseat to Pakistan’s alleged support for terrorism. Today, there are few buyers for Pakistan’s narrow India-centric worldview. Sloganeering on atrocities in disputed Kashmir, India’s hegemonic designs in South Asia and its conniving machinations to undo Pakistan does not resonate internationally. What would really make the difference for Pakistan’s allies is if the country were to come to terms with its reduced ideological and cultural appeal, its technological backwardness as well as limited economic resources, and if it abandoned, as a practical foreign policy objective, the aspiration of being a regional equal of — to say nothing of being superior to — India. India is well positioned to use a “policy of strength” and “exploit the power disparity” in its relationship with Pakistan. Turning the ‘ominous’ signs of the US-India embrace into an opportunity to normalise the relationship with India would improve Pakistan’s international standing and resolve many domestic challenges that have stymied progress.
There is a pressing need for a transformative rethink of Pakistan’s foreign policy, which appears to be firmly rooted in the past. The review must be with an open mind but without wishful thinking and excessive sentimentality, and away from a slavish commitment to the status quo and the rejection of change. A shift is required from the distinctive security conscious mindset propagated by the military that has uncritically continued the idiom of the foreign policy debates of the past. The focus should be on strengthening democratic institutions that can ensure civilian control of national policies. The fight against the scourge of terrorism will be helped by less religious influence on the state and a reduction in the often out-of-control religious fervour. The country has to focus on improving national capacity, education, economy, infrastructure and good governance. The contours of foreign policy must change from a “desperate search for arms” to international private-public partnerships to spur economic development. Pakistan should take unilateral steps to resolve differences with its neighbours, tear down trade barriers and usher in a new era. It must demonstrate a new sense of purpose, a new realism and a new creativity in international relations — away from excessive dependence on aid to trade and economic relations. If Pakistan can shed the mentality of dependence on external patrons, it could begin to harness the potential of its people and its land towards independence and self-reliance.