A sound foreign policy calculated to safeguard a country’s national interests must always be grounded in pragmatism. Leaders and policymakers can ignore this cardinal principle only at their peril. Emotionalism should not have any role in the formulation and execution of foreign policy, which demands cool heads and calm deliberations to promote national interests. Unfortunately for Pakistan, we have lowered the serious art of diplomacy to raising cheap slogans and playing on the people’s emotions. There cannot be a better example of the incompetence of our leaders and the ineptitude of our policymakers than the clumsy manner in which they have handled Pakistan-US relations over the past few years and certainly since the attack by US forces on the Salala border post in November last year.
The harsh reality is that despite being a nation of around 190 million people and a nuclear power, Pakistan is an impoverished country with estimated GDP per head of $1310 and current GDP growth rate of about 3.5 percent. It is interesting to note for the sake of comparison that GDP per head of India, our next door neighbour, is about $1940 and its current GDP growth rate is about 7.8 percent. Our tax-to-GDP ratio is among the lowest in the world reflecting the unwillingness of our elite to pay taxes needed for running the government machinery and for economic development. The harsh reality is that the federal government is heavily dependent on foreign loans and deficit financing for balancing its books.
Further, because of the proclivity towards violence and extremism and because of prolonged periods of military rule which interrupted the political process, we have become a fractured society divided by ethnic, sectarian, linguistic and provincial fault lines. It is also a reality that because of our flawed Kashmir and Afghanistan policies of 1990s, we are considered by the international community as the breeding ground for international terrorism. We also need to take into account the fact that India has become the centrepiece of the US strategy in Asia aimed at containing China. We must, therefore, tailor our expectations of the US according to the changing strategic scenario around us. Of course, our location at the crossroads of South Asia, West Asia and Central Asia provides us with strategic advantages, which we must exploit to promote our national interests. Similarly, our strategic link with China is an asset, which must be developed further. Our location also makes us an important partner for the endgame, which is now being played in Afghanistan.
The grave situation facing the country demands political, economic, administrative and social reforms. We need to curtail to the maximum our current expenditure, both for the military and the civil government, with a view to diverting the resources thus saved for economic development and welfare of the people. This, in turn, requires that we pursue a low-profile and low-risk foreign policy. We must avoid Kargil type adventures. In view of the severe damage inflicted upon the country by the twin menaces of extremism and terrorism, we must take all possible steps for their eradication.
Ideally, a pragmatic foreign policy should not compromise a nation’s honour. It is the job of the practitioners of diplomacy to reconcile the compulsions of a pragmatic foreign policy with the demands of national honour. But this is possible only in a country which practices the policy of self-reliance and whose leaders and elite are prepared to make necessary sacrifices for the sake of the national honour. Sadly, none of these conditions obtain in Pakistan. How can we talk about national honour when we have made dependence on foreign economic and military aid our way of life as a nation? We also have the misfortune of having corrupt and incompetent political leaders at the helm of affairs. They have no sense of shame in living like kings at the expense of this impoverished nation and approaching, at the same time, other world leaders with a begging bowl in their hands to run the affairs of the state. The same in varying degrees is true about our civil and military elite.
Our national malady of living beyond our resources has robbed us of the ability to pursue an independent foreign policy in the best interest of the country. The moral, therefore, is that if we really want to have a sound foreign policy which can promote our short-term and long-term national interests, we would have to learn to live within our resources. This would require the willingness of our leadership and elite to adopt a simple lifestyle. Only then, we would be able to reconcile the dictates of a pragmatic foreign policy and the demands of national honour. Meanwhile, we must adopt a low-risk and low-profile approach to foreign policy keeping in view our political, security and economic vulnerabilities as well as the regional and international security environment.
In the context of our relations with the US and our Afghanistan policy, we must set our goals and objectives on the basis of a careful assessment of the regional and international security environment. We are in no position to take on the rest of the world, as we tried to do through our unwise pro-Taliban policy of 1990s whose disastrous consequences will continue to haunt us for years to come. This would entail the reopening up of the US/ISAF ground supply routes through Pakistan on the payment of appropriate transit charges reflecting the wear and tear of our physical infrastructure. For this purpose, the diplomats of Pakistan and the US should work out a statement for putting the Salala incident behind us. The statement must include the US regrets with emphasis on the prevention of such incidents in the future.
As for drone attacks, since we cannot stop them unilaterally, we should insist that they should be launched only on jointly approved targets. We should wholeheartedly cooperate with the US and Nato in fighting terrorism with two caveats: we should not be asked to do something, which destabilises our country and our cooperation should be within the framework of a policy of national reconciliation and the establishment of a broad-based government in Afghanistan reflective of its multi-ethnic character. Of course, it is in our own interest to participate in the forthcoming Chicago conference and other similar forums concerning Afghanistan. Our long-term policy should aim at gradually weaning ourselves away from over-dependence on the US by diversifying our external relations and adopting a policy of self-reliance if we want to live as an honourable nation.
n The writer is a retired ambassador and the President of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.