Perils of public diplomacy


Shahid M Amin

FOREIGN policy is a framework of objectives and priorities set by a state to promote its national interests in the international arena. These objectives are translated into specific action by diplomats trained for conducting foreign policy. They possess the academic background, intellectual caliber, awareness of intricacies of international protocol and years of experience as negotiators with counterparts in other states. Diplomacy is the art of conducting and implementing foreign policy. It consists of formal and informal discussions between diplomats aimed at resolving matters of mutual concern. Diplomats are the eyes and ears of a sending state in another state. They collect and analyse the relevant information and transmit it to their governments along with their recommendations and options. Confidentiality is always insisted upon by diplomats holding negotiations between states. Leaking out of confidential information can cause irreparable damage to the negotiating process.
On the other hand, when diplomacy is conducted in full glare of publicity, it leads to public posturing and promotes “atmospherics,” characterized by self-serving rhetoric and adoption of rigid positions for political gain either at home or abroad. “Public diplomacy” often leads to impasse and failure, since any flexibility is interpreted as surrender. This discourages compromises, based on give-and-take, which are so essential for effective negotiations. National interests of states dominate discussions in international affairs, involving highly sensitive and delicate negotiations. Untimely publicity can derail, distort and even kill such negotiations. Confidential diplomacy is the standard practice of all states. Whether it is China or India, USA or Egypt, negotiations are held behind the scenes and public announcements are made only when necessary. Another standard practice of all states is that the executive branch of government makes foreign policy, which is actually conducted by its diplomats. Parliament does not make foreign policy but can periodically discuss it. If it disapproves the foreign policy, a vote of no confidence in the government can be passed. But the responsibility for conducting foreign policy always remains in the hands of the executive. For example, President Trump did not take approval of Congress before the recent Riyadh Summit. President Putin did not consult his Diet before the recent SCO Summit. Prime Minister Modi did not seek approval of Lok Sabha prior to his visit to Saudi Arabia. Hardly any Pakistani government since 1947 has gone to parliament for its prior approval e.g. before joining military pacts in 1955 or conducting nuclear explosions in 1998.
More recently, some of our parliamentarians have been demanding that government must explain its foreign policy objectives in parliament and obtain its approval before implementing such objectives. The more specific case is opposition of some circles to Pakistan’s membership of the Saudi-led 35-member Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) to counter terrorism of IS (Daesh) and similar deviationist Islamist groups. The appointment of General Raheel Sharif as IMA commander has not been liked by some pro-Iran circles. Last year, parliament adopted a Resolution insisting on neutrality in the Yemen crisis, where Saudi Arabia had asked for Pakistani help. That Resolution created misgivings in Saudi Arabia and UAE. The immediate beneficiary at that time was India whose Prime Minister found a long-denied opening in Riyadh. But this time, things could get far worse if Pakistan were to opt out of IMA or if General Raheel Sharif were to leave his present appointment. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia has long been based on trust, which is typical of Bedouin societies. Once trust is damaged, the entire relationship could be adversely affected.
Pakistan believes in the Ummah brotherhood concept and we want to promote close relations with all Muslim countries. We do not like sectarian divides. Pakistan is a Sunni majority country but has had Shia heads of states and army chiefs. It cannot be accused of having any sectarian bias. We have joined IMA because its focus is on combating Islamist terrorism. The terms of reference of this alliance are yet to be worked out. Not only Pakistan, but many other Muslim countries are part of this alliance, including Malaysia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt and Nigeria. None of them has any anti-Iran policy. So why should Pakistan’s membership of IMA create problems with Iran or increase sectarian divide?
Iran is an important neighbour of Pakistan and we wish to maintain good relations with it, as with other Muslim countries. But hard-headed realism leaves no doubt that Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia are much more important. We have long enjoyed a special, strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. It covers political, military, economic and cultural cooperation. There are 25 lakh Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia whose remittances top the list among all countries. It is our largest trading partner in Middle East. Saudi Arabia has given Pakistan more aid than any other Muslim country. (Iran has not given any economic aid to Pakistan since 1976). When US sanctions were imposed on Pakistan in 1998 after nuclear explosions, Saudi Arabia gave us oil free of cost for several years. Saudi Arabia has supported us in war as well as in peacetime vis-à-vis India. It is among the few Muslim countries that openly support us on the Kashmir issue. Saudi military collaboration with Pakistan is unprecedented. Pakistani armed forces have been stationed in Saudi Arabia at times to protect it against aggression. This is the supreme mark of friendship between any two countries. It is in Pakistan’s national interest not to allow a diminution in ties with Saudi Arabia.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.

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