The writer is a former ambassador.
The government of Nawaz Sharif, now in its third year, has come under heavy flak for failing to appoint a foreign minister. The absence of a full-fledged minister has allegedly caused a number of diplomatic embarrassments.
The media staunchly believes that a dedicated minister will be able to give a clear and assertive orientation to foreign policy and its execution. No one among the cynics believes that either Sartaj Aziz as an advisor or Tariq Fatemi as special assistant to the PM on foreign affairs is a good substitute.
However, in their critical assessment, they often tend to ignore the fact that both are very knowledgeable about issues confronting the country; Sartaj Aziz is a former foreign minister and Tariq Fatemi a career former ambassador. Though their age is their biggest weakness, their contribution is mostly under-estimated.
There are also reports about an undercurrent feud between the two and its shadow on the efficiency of the foreign ministry. In my 35 years of service I have seen much worse strife at the leadership level. Even with the replacement of the current team of advisor and special assistant with a full-time foreign minister, the current situation vis-a-vis Pakistan’s foreign relations will not get better automatically. The malaise lies somewhere else. Dealing with symptoms will not cure the disease.
In my view, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs faces a systematic crisis from unending multiple interrelated causes. It’s a pity that in recent years no serious effort has been made to remedy the situation. Instead, the baton has been conveniently passed on to the army to conduct foreign policy related parleys.
Foreign policy formulation undoubtedly has to be a combination of inputs and efforts by the relevant ministries and institutions of the government, especially those which defend the geographic and political sovereignty of the country. But the paramount coordinating role must lie with the foreign ministry. For several years now, unfortunately, this has not been the case.
The peripheral stakeholders have taken central role resulting in lack of clarity and prioritisation of our Foreign Policy goals. Despite tall claims of inclusiveness, the Foreign Office has been increasingly marginalised from the formulation and implementation of the foreign policy of the country both in the security domain and in the economic and trade areas.
Leave aside the current ineffective performance by the foreign ministry, the rot started in the late 1970s and the situation, despite several internal reviews and exercises, has progressively deteriorated. It’s a blessing that the public has a short memory. We had a string of lapses starting from mismanagement of the Kashmir dispute, the Afghanistan issue after intervention by Soviets and failure to address regional mistrust about Pakistan as an honest partner in peace and stability.
In the uncertain world of today where stances shift too rapidly and where even remote incidents require a quick response, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has failed to rise above the daily confusion created in the name of foreign policy by the security agencies and ever-ready leadership in the ministry. No wonder then that senior officials in the foreign ministry are perennially preoccupied with short-term, tactical issues. Even such issues are often determined without deep thought and clear processes.
Many blame the progressive deterioration in the quality and commitment of Foreign Office personnel at various levels. Some attribute it to low financial rewards, politicisation of promotion and posting and budgetary cuts impeding operational capabilities of our missions abroad.
In the past, some senior colleagues have toyed with fancy ideas such as calling back 10-15 well-reputed officers from abroad with regard to their seniority or hierarchical positions. Some served as an unofficial cabinet of the foreign secretary who oversaw sensitive issues. Apparently, the idea was that all policy papers, summaries, speeches, telegrams should be routed through this group to churn out a harmonious policy. This practice damaged the ministry as an institution. The unofficial cabinet felt like an elite group claiming lucrative posting and training facilities. In key embassies efforts were made to post so-called high quality staff.
The issue, which we failed to realise, was the need to re-evaluate the missions in light of global changes and shifting alliances and partnerships in the wake of the emerging multi-polar world. Till the early 1990s, China was still a tourist post for us, Brussels less important than London and Dubai. Countries including Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia could be kept empty for long intervals or staffed with average one-time ambassadors. Central Asian Republics were ignored.
Senior ambassadors felt it below their dignity to serve in these republics and young ambassadors were not professionally equipped to exploit the untapped reservoir of goodwill.
What is the way forward? The ministry must separate administration from the political setup to enforce a culture of merit in terms of promotions and postings. This used to be the case when the additional secretary of administration was entrusted with more powers to take decisions regarding postings and transfers. The issue is that under the current regime even the foreign secretary hardly has a say with regard to posting of staff in some specific countries.
Notwithstanding these oddities, the foreign ministry must seek an equal partnership role in the formulation and implementation of economic and trade policies. As long as we are unable to create a regular service to look after foreign trade just like China, Indonesia etc, we must entrust economic diplomacy to career diplomats. If they are found lacking, they must be imparted adequate professional training enabling them to man the economic wings of our embassies in key countries. National interests should determine – and not sharing of the turf principle – where a one-time diplomat is suited or not.
Today, the economy and the environment are key areas at par with traditional diplomatic issues of security and power politics if not more. Our successive governments have been emphasising the need to focus our diplomatic efforts on economic and trade. But unfortunately, not much has changed in the last 20 years except some improvement in the recruitment rules of economic counsellors/ ministers. The core problems remain. At many embassies, the representatives of the Ministry of Commerce consider even ambassadors’ priority in trade matters as an unjustified intervention.
The functional branches in the Foreign Office need to be strengthened. At the ministry there should be less focus on sterilised meetings that each officer in the functional branches should have at least least 2-3 short courses in specialised national or foreign institutions to ensure that our capabilities match those of our interlocutors.
Officers can be attached with the ISI to encourage greater understanding between the army and the foreign ministry as two main stakeholders in the foreign policy formulation. Any Foreign Office officer being posted at Geneva to deal with human rights issues must first be attached with the ministries of law, interior, human rights etc for at least two months. This is absolutory necessary to defend our track record as well as to effectively highlight the violations of human rights in Indian-held Kashmir.
Given our financial and personnel resources, specialisation is inadvisable. Nevertheless, it will be beneficial to identify a broad category of political officers with interest in specific areas and functions of the ministry. Annual assessment reports may not be made a basis for that since the ministry generally knows who is average and who is outstanding. A collective board under an additional foreign secretary can be established to discourage nepotism and subjectivity while identifying area-specific experts.
If for some reason the entry examination for foreign affairs cannot be held separately, the long combined training course at the Civil Service Academy should be cut short. Instead, Foreign Office probationers should be attached with national think tanks, media groups, parliamentary committees of foreign affairs or sent to regional think tanks. Of course, ideally they can attend training courses abroad in specialised fields. Thereafter, they can be brought back to the ministry as assistant directors.
There is no substitute for merit and training. Long-term reforms are the minimum to inject the value of being a symbol of Pakistan abroad. With the assistance of former colleagues, the ministry must produce anecdotal history of bilateral relations with major countries as guidance for our diplomats to avoid protocol mistakes.
The ministry must provide access to quality magazines to its personnel. Or at the very least its policy division can identify articles in national and foreign media on issues of security, trade, investment and image building. A dedicated site could be created for this purpose to be shared by all missions. Rhetoric must now be replaced with some action.