On ‘revisiting’ our foreign policy
When the democratically elected government had assumed office one had taken the liberty to draw up a ‘foreign policy wish list’, in the fond hope that the new democratic government would move to turn the country’s foreign policy priorities around to conform to national interest. That, one now learns with the benefit of hindsight was perhaps a wee bit premature. Though considerable time has elapsed it may perhaps not be too late to revisit some of items of this wish list for the simple reason that not much has changed since that time.
Time may be ripe (as one had then opined) for the government to initiate a frank and candid discussion with the United States administration in order to separate the grain from the chaff. For starters – to fall back on an Americanism – we may feel the need to clarify to the world at large that ‘terrorism’ is not strictly our baby, even though we may have been left holding it due to circumstances perhaps beyond our control. We may have all sympathy with the Americans in their ‘war on terror’, but how long can the people of Pakistan honestly be expected to continue to bear an open-ended commitment like a millstone around their collective neck? Nine years should be enough to atone for whatever sins of omission and commission that they may have been guilty of. While fully realizing that we have the obligation to suitably tackle the genie of extremism and terrorism that has been let out of the bottle, we must be allowed to do so on our own terms, in keeping with our ethos and entirely without outside interference. Keeping our long-term relationship in view, could we not trust our ‘strategic ally’ to show the necessary understanding and/or flexibility?
Now, on to our relations with India! Given that we may have had little choice but to continue to pay lip-service to the moribund ‘composite dialogue’, the goal posts have now been discernibly moved. It may be time to give the process of bilateralism some purpose. While holding on to our conscious decision to maintain peace on our eastern border, must it not be clearly understood that we cannot be expected to continue the policy at the cost of our national interest. Quest for peace with our neighbour is unexceptionable. But, at the same time, there is need to show to our exasperated populace some tangible evidence of progress on settlement of contentious issues.
Public opinion can sometimes be totally fickle. CBMs did have a utility in their own way but they are little better than piddling painkillers; they should under no circumstances be confused with curative medicine. The imperative need to show visible progress on the settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute can hardly be over-emphasized. Any attempt to sweep the matter of the denial of the inalienable rights of the Kashmiri people under the proverbial rug would be self-defeating. The two countries may also need to start paying some attention to arriving at mutual accommodation in respect of such issues as a) sharing of water resources, b) adequate availability of energy supplies and c) demarcation of our maritime boundary.
Our dealings with the Muslim world have left a lot to be desired. Our policy in the past had bordered on the delirious. In so far as Islamic causes go, there are no two ways about it; we would and should continue to lend all out support. But do we honestly have to try to be the vanguard? We should be one with the Muslim world as brothers but not as standard bearers. It may be time to lower our profile a bit. Let us face it; most Muslim states have their own little preoccupations. And no country should be expected to sacrifice its national priorities, as we regrettably have shown a tendency to do in the past. This may require a re-think.
Economic issues deserve our top attention. Above all, efforts to reduce the foreign debt are called for. An in-depth exercise on the meandering path this debt profile has adopted in the recent past may not be such a bad idea. Remember the several pious declarations in the past to smash the wretched begging bowl? Has not the time come to do something concrete about this resolve? There has been a lot of talk about how to make the country attractive for foreign investors. In the ill-advised policies adopted so far, all we have succeeded in is to attract the wrong kind of investment. There is need to convince our international partners that we mean business; that our economic and fiscal policies are long term and market-oriented.
A Foreign Policy wish list should include the hope that hollow ostentation would be eschewed. In the short run, the country would do well to avoid an over-stretch. A low profile is what is called for. Above all, there is imperative need to avoid getting involved in international ventures that shine but have little substance. Concentration should be on strengthening ties with friendly states like China and with the Third World. Constructive regional politics should be an important objective. Developing newer and newer liaisons with far off lands and exotic destinations can wait. The country has unnecessarily spent a bit too much effort, resources and energy on projects of multilateral diplomacy. In the process, we have been badly neglecting what can be called state-to-state diplomacy. There is imperative need to cut down drastically on our efforts in multilateral diplomacy. This is a luxury that the Third World can indulge in only at its own peril.
All in all, what is passionately needed in this hour of destiny is a thorough and dispassionate self-examination of our past experience in the field of foreign affairs. This is an exercise that needs to be carried out in a thorough manner without fear or favour. Weaknesses evident in our system would need to be identified and responsibility for failures pinned down. No sacred cows should be spared and no quarter given. What is needed is a thorough purge and, if found necessary, drastic surgery. This is the need of the hour. To delay would be to miss a God-given opportunity. There may not be another waiting down the road.