The making of our foreign policy

Published in Dawn Times on September 24, 2003

The making of a country's foreign policy mirrors its national agenda, priorities, social attitudes and political structure. A look into the making of Pakistan's foreign policy can therefore give us a useful insight into our external relations.

For much of our history, the foreign policy has been heavily influenced, if not dominated, by a bureaucratic (civil- military) complex of power which was beyond challenge. It reflected the assumptions of our ruling elite and special interest groups, specially feudal aristocracy, big business and the military establishment that ruled through the bureaucracy in the name of politics or otherwise.

The balance of power between the civil and military bureaucracy kept changing but it was they who shaped the foreign policy agenda as well as provided a leadership in its implementation. Our conventional diplomacy functioned well in the stable international environment and a period of relative internal calm and economic certainty but the world has changed and so have we.

The subject of Pakistan's foreign policy is neither susceptible to nor worthy of a quick or facile analysis. For the sake of coherence, unity of theme and purpose, and relevance to current issues, it might be helpful to focus on the post-cold war period, specially the decade of the 1990s. This has been a very confused and turbulent period in our nation's diplomacy where we struggled to battle on many fronts.

I have left Musharraf years unjudged as they are a watershed between our troubled years and a future whose shape is unclear yet though it promises some good. It is difficult to evaluate history in evolution, because the perspective is too close for objectivity.

Let me begin by stating the obvious. Pakistan's geo-political importance has significantly diminished following the end of the cold war. Some of this loss was new and dramatic, resulting from the global changes, while much was a pre-existing reality conceded by Pakistan only belatedly under pressure of contrary evidence. Behind the "adversity" of our troubled times lay not only the magnitude of challenges we faced but also policies that were less than adequate, specially when these historical changes first made a claim on Pakistan's attention.

If we go back in history, it is obvious that we have lived with colossal concerns about our security that have absorbed most of our energies and resources. Internally, we have been virtually dissipated by a struggle to gain political and economic stability. We have thus been combating on two fronts that have been at the heart of our struggle for nation-building. In the '90s, however, we either began losing this fight or were in retreat as our economy was suddenly left in the lurch with the withdrawal of western aid, while our leadership did not quite measure up to the challenge.

Earlier, for decades we had profited from the politics of global dimensions and our alliance with the West that supported our economy as well as security, but these ties became very thin with the global changes at the beginning of '90s that hit us in more ways than one. The effect was devastating for a country where through much of its history foreign and domestic policies had merged indistinguishably. All this happened against the background of long-term consequences that were just beginning to emerge from the years of Afghan jihad that undermined our society in ways that are now all too painfully familiar to us and to the world at large.

Our internal stability was strained and, in many cases, undermined by religious extremism, ethnic conflicts and poor governance. In such a fragile national environment, it was not easy to pursue a forward foreign policy, specially on Kashmir and Afghanistan, that ignored this reality and tried to transcend the resulting gap between our objectives and capability.

The dying moments of the cold war also coincided with the revival of democracy in Pakistan and confronted us with another set of problems. The country's foreign policy suddenly came to be influenced by domestic politics, held hostage to narrow political interests, domestic power play and personal agenda outweighing long-term strategic and economic interests. Perfunctory posturings and public relations manoeuvres replaced informed policy recommendations, if ever there were any. Consensus of the civil-military bureaucracy broke down.

Growing internal weaknesses and potential for domestic as well as regional instability affected Pakistan's international standing. Had Pakistan lost all its geopolitical importance? Yes and No. The global politics was no doubt changing and casting a shadow over Pakistan's value. But even with the vestigial value Pakistan had it could not cash in on it because of its growing internal weaknesses and potential for domestic and regional instability.

An abandoned or dejected Pakistan was left by the West to fend for itself, and it did so in a manner it thought best - with a headstrong unreasoning self-determination. This attitude was engendered by a confluence of mutually supportive factors-the armed forces' self-confidence and assertiveness, empty posturing of weak and vulnerable political leadership, and excitable public opinion susceptible to emotions of the moment.

The Foreign Office made its own contribution. Like the rest of the civil bureaucracy it too was sucked into the policy vacuum. It was a pity because it did have, and continues to have, outstanding professionals. The Foreign Office became a faint voice in a political landscape crowded by personalities running autonomous and maverick foreign policy establishments sanctioned or unrestrained by politically weak governments. Fractured institutions and strong personalities continued to scamper around and speak directly to the leadership in different voices. This led to no or confused policy.

In these disordered times, in which the civilian bureaucracy suffered particularly, the only institutions that remained immune from erosion were those of the armed forces. And they took full advantage of this policy and power vacuum. At least they presented themselves to the public as respectful of the country's security concerns and ideological sensibilities. How much real influence the military establishment exerted on the formulation of the foreign policy, specially on issues of core national interests, is hard to say. Long years of Ziaul Haq's rule did raise armed forces' political role which they continued to play in varying degrees in proportion to the need and the opportunity of the moment.

But in public perception it was only the Foreign Office which appeared to be running the policy and was held solely responsible for its failures. Other players withdrew into the background, and remained beyond the purview of criticism, to much less of scrutiny or accountability. The government also found a convenient scapegoat in the Foreign Office which did not help its own cause by its passivity. It became gradually less and less influential in the conceptualization of foreign policy.

The Foreign Office faced another problem. The expectations generated by the government in its keenness to highlight its commitment to an issue of national importance, such as Kashmir, sharpened the contrast between promise and performance, and the public felt let down.

The Foreign Office then ended up clutching at minor gains to magnify them disproportionately, a device which continued to feed myths about our invincibility and to undermine public understanding of the realities of international politics. We, therefore, unwittingly painted ourselves in a corner where a faint touch of failure made us look defeated. This gave the public another cause for criticism of the Foreign Office that came under assault from leaders of public opinion.

The so-called committees on Kashmir helped stoke the fire. They were in the hands of ambitious or moribund politicians, who used the issue as a ladder to power or a source of new lease in political life. A hard line on Kashmir, responding to uninformed public sentiments whipped up by years of rhetoric by the leadership and propaganda by the Foreign Office became an end to strengthen their domestic political stature. The Foreign Office also fell into this trap as we chased shadow resolutions as icons of success to be worshipped for their own sake. The committees and the Foreign Office became confederates in rigidifying our position on Kashmir.

Our foreign policy is still trapped in old assumptions and in some ways we are still trying to preserve the fiction of the old world even in the present phase of re-engagement with the United States. We still remain addicted to old alliances. We should learn from the past and submit our foreign policy to democratization. What we need is openness, public debate and consensus-building leading to a clear-eyed perception of our national priorities, limitations, and capabilities. The signs seem hopeful.