Foreign Policy and Barbershop Gossip

Of late there has been extensive debate on foreign policy to be adopted by Imran Khan and will he be able to get complete control over it. We believe that instead of discussing what changes Imran Khan will bring in foreign policy, there is need to focus on foreign policy formulation process.

Pakistan has adopted a foreign policy derived through interpretation of her national interests in the international arena as well as space available to her within the power play of global powers. Foreign policy thus flows through a systematic and incisive analysis of the national interests, drivers, movers and shakers at regional and international level, economic interests, threat perception and international cooperation and competition, giving way to strategic direction and development of policy guidelines and operational strategy.

Foreign policy is like a house you built decades ago; any changes in the structure of the house will be tactical and limited in nature, a new government and its leadership may have new and innovative ideas to improve these structure, but there is less scope of drastic changes. Pakistan’s foreign policy has been built over a period of decades, nurtured by leadership from different strata and ideologies and run by the foreign office which is one of the oldest institutions in Pakistan’s bureaucracy. Good or bad, the foreign policy has acted as the first fire-wall in national security and helped Pakistan maintaining a reasonably a good stature in comity of nations.

Unfortunately, the last government badly eroded the institution of foreign office by two decisions:

Nawaz Sharif kept the portfolio of foreign minister with himself, resulting in low priority for foreign policy, lesser time for critical issues and relegation of this important ministry to a lower level.

The ministry of foreign affairs was headed by two head honchos, Tariq Fatemi and Sartaj Aziz, which divided the foreign office into two camps resulting in infighting and delays in strategic decision making; this chaotic arrangement adversely effected the policy direction as well as day to day functioning of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It may also be appreciated that foreign policy is a continuum of previous policies as it integrates the past, present and future and cannot survive drastic changes due to the fact that strategic environment around a particular state does not change overnight. Taking queue from US foreign policy and comparing Obama and Trump’s attitude towards Pakistan, one finds only cosmetic and tactical changes within US policy towards Pakistan and it has moved on a defined and stable trajectory. Similarly Indian foreign policy towards Pakistan has not seen any major changes in past three decades despite tactical initiatives taken by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Musharaf as well as Modi and Nawaz Sharif.

So those who are suggesting to Imran Khan that he should bring drastic changes to foreign policy must understand the nuances of continuation of policies in life of nations.

While foreign policy is not frozen in time, it evolves with time by a process of consultations, inputs and advice from foreign office, institutions, thinks tanks and academia. Modern nation state cannot have totally independent policies for different ministries and departments. Economy, national security, regional environment and politico-military leadership are so much interconnected and interdependent that pursuit of a policy in vacuum becomes impossible. For example, Pakistan’s current economic condition and dependence on international donors and friendly countries and groups, (US,EU, KSA, China, Islamic Development Bank and IMF) may not allow it to pursue a new policy on Middle East.

It may be pertinent to talk about the importance of the briefing part for the new government by comparing it with the US model. Every incoming government gets it’s set of briefings from different ministries and departments, for example Trump have had his set of briefings from State Department, CIA,FBI and NSA, two months before assuming office. Despite the fact that POTUS is the most powerful job in the world, Trump was forced to fire his National Security Advisor, General Flynn within seven days of his appointment; this was affected by CIA and FBI who concluded that Flynn had violated National Security and was unfit for the job.

It can be safely assumed that Imran Khan and his team will spend a reasonable amount of time and effort with Foreign Office, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance, think tanks and institutions responsible for National Security for developing broad contours of foreign policy.

The international system, global strategic environment and regional environment are not static and always remain fluid, this warrants that all states and their institutions remain abreast of international environment and adjust their foreign policy with changing times. Pakistan’s strategic environment is also changing with time, Afghanistan remains destabilized with US and NUG inviting Taliban for talks, US sanctions against Iran and the efforts of chaos generators to implode Iran from the inner front have created a potential for further instability in the Middle East. The imploding freedom movement in Kashmir and other movements resurrecting their head within India, (especially Khalistan 2020 campaign) may not allow development of cordial relations between India and Pakistan.

Reorientation of Pakistan’s foreign policy and engagement with Eurasian powers like Russia and China has not been well received by the US, no wonder Mike Pompeo named CPEC as a big irritant in US-PAK relations. If you compare current strategic environment with that of decade ago, it is a new set of challenges and opportunities for Pakistan. Our advice to Imran Khan and his team would be to take a deep breath, get comprehensive briefings from concerned ministries and institutions and then develop broad contours of a redefined foreign policy of Pakistan.

Meanwhile the jumping jacks from the barber shop (with no offense to barbers), chattering on electronic, print and social media about leverage available to Imran Khan to run an independent foreign policy should at least study the process of formulation of Foreign Policy.


The writers are freelance journalists.

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