A time for realism

August 20,2018

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A negative global narrative and a trust deficit with partners and neighbours have compounded Pakistan’s foreign policy woes. Harping on about mutual benefit in international relations – as our national leaders tend to do – won’t bring the country out of the diplomatic hole it has dug for itself.

For example, even though Pakistan has jumped early on the bandwagon and made self-proclaimed ‘significant’ contributions to the global effort, questions on its anti-terrorism credentials persist, reflected in the country’s recent re-inclusion in the FATF grey list.

Allegations that the country distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists have battered Pakistan’s international credibility and image. The Kargil debacle, the Bin Laden episode, and the prominence of extremist groups haven’t helped either. Overall, liabilities exceed assets, leaving little room to manoeuvre with respect to foreign policy.

Hybrid warfare, ill-intentions, malice, and the machinations of external forces can’t just take the customary blame for poor performance on the foreign policy front. When the world isn’t buying your story, a course correction is the only option.

Imran Khan’s promises of economic revival, better governance, and the use of diplomatic means to resolve issues may improve the country’s international standing in the long term. But before that, Pakistan must take an objective look at its foreign policy, particularly in the post-9/11 era.

A successful realism-based foreign policy is one that ensures the nation’s interests in terms of security concerns and the prosperity of its people. In addition, foreign policy is sober, analytical and rooted in power capabilities. An influential foreign policy exercises restraint, minimises risks, and maximises benefits. Emotions, morality, hopes, and prayers rarely have a role to play. Moreover, military strength on its own doesn’t guarantee a successful foreign policy.

Lord Salisbury, who served as Britain’s foreign secretary, remarked in the 19th century that “the only bond of union that endures” among nations is “the absence of all clashing interests”. His salient comment is as relevant today as it was in the past. Salisbury advocated quiet diplomacy that is devoid of jingoism, avoids geopolitical controversies or upsetting the balance of interests, and maintains the balance of power. His prudence contributed immensely to the British Empire’s arguably successful foreign policy during a challenging period of history.

Pakistan foreign policy can learn from Salisbury’s wise advice. Today, Pakistan’s most important bilateral relationship, that with the US, has fallen victim to clashing interests in South Asia. Consequently, Trump has Pakistan firmly in his crosshairs under his ham-fisted “speak loudly and carry a big stick” diplomacy – a blunt yet effective variation of former US president Theodore Roosevelt’s original doctrine.

Assigning blame in the strained Pakistan-US relations is pointless. Each side can accuse the other of duplicity, but it is clear that the breakdown in relations hurts Pakistan more than it does the US. Pakistan has realised to its detriment (in light of FATF pressure, the IMF bailout pushback, and cuts in security/military training aid) that opposing the US policy in Afghanistan has negative consequences.

Pakistan’s foreign policy, which is seemingly stuck in the cold-war time warp, remains mainly focused on state security and threat containment. In this context, joining the mythical China and Russia alliance will be a regressive step. Jumping from alliance to alliance isn’t a permanent cure for state ills.

Modern diplomacy has also moved on from the cold-war era. Economic diplomacy, and building trade and investment relationships hold centre-stage. Pakistan must reshape its foreign policy accordingly to maximise its chances of success in this era of globalisation.

What’s more, a powerful military and a nuclear-weapons capability have diminished the dangers to Pakistan’s territorial integrity. Perhaps it is time to focus on the other pillars of national interest, such as guaranteeing the wellbeing of citizens by ensuring decent standards of living for its populace, maintaining internal cohesion and harmony, and preserving regional peace and stability. A foreign policy solely based on meeting external threats doesn’t serve Pakistan’s national interest.

Moreover, Pakistan should address endemic weaknesses to leverage its diplomatic potential. First, the country has to break the begging bowl by building a self-reliant economy and improving its social statistics through investment in human development. Second, the country requires strong democratic institutions to frame foreign policy without external interference. Third, a foreign policy that is outside the security prism and primarily focuses on trade and investment is important.

We must also remember that economic fragility and external dependence constrain Pakistan’s power projection. Furthermore, understanding your limitations of size and status can form the basis for a well-defined foreign policy. To that end, a smart foreign policy pursued by the new government must incorporate realism as its cornerstone. Resetting ties with partners, neighbours and adversaries on the basis of a convergence of interests can go a long way in restoring Pakistan’s international image.

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