Saturday May 18, 2024

The art of diplomacy

By Mohammad Zubair
January 21, 2020

Among Muslim countries, Turkey and Malaysia have achieved the kind of economic success that would be the envy of all others. They have set standards and benchmarks for all other Muslim countries.

Economic success was achieved by the two countries without compromising any national interest and while pursuing a very independent foreign policy. When it came to their national interests and those of the Muslim world, they were able to show courage and were never hesitant to take on even superpower US and other countries (Israel included).

Muslims around the world have looked up to Mahathir Mohamad and Tayyip Erdogan for proudly representing the Muslim cause. Indeed, our own prime minister has looked up to the two leaders as his role models. And its not just the PM; every Pakistani has admired these two leaders for transforming their countries from the economic and foreign policy standpoints.

So when India took the unilateral decision to scrap articles 370 and 35A from its constitution last August, Pakistan desperately needed to counter the Indian decision. For that, Pakistan needed the support of the international community especially the Islamic bloc. However, despite the strong case that Pakistan had, we were unable to garner any support from the international community. Of more concern was the total lack of support from the Muslim countries, in particular some of our very close friends. Even on the blatant human rights violations in Kashmir, Pakistan was unable to secure any support including that of the Muslim countries.

In this depressing situation, Turkey and Malaysia were among the very few countries which not only supported our position on Kashmir but also strongly condemned India at all international forums including the UN. Without Turkey and Malaysia, we would have been completely isolated.

Yet when it came to returning the favour, our prime minister backed out from attending a summit in Malaysia. This refusal from our government came almost at the last minute, after we had confirmed our participation. In, fact our PM was present at the meeting along with Mr Erdogan and Mr Mahathir where the decision to hold such a summit was taken.

We not only backed out at the last moment; what was worse was the manner with which we handled the entire affair. Contrary to Imran Khan’s rhetoric before the elections, the government gave in without making any efforts on the diplomatic front. Fearing Saudi backlash in terms of economic aid and the interests of Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia, the government simply buckled.

In the past, Pakistan has faced worse diplomatic situations with graver consequences. And in most cases, the pressure came from superpowers. A few instances from our history follow.

In the early 1960s, Pakistan was part of the US-led military alliances Cento and Seato. Being part of these US-led military alliances meant that Pakistan was part of the anti-communist camp, primarily against the Soviet Union and China. Despite serious concern and pressure from the US, Pakistan went ahead and built up relations with China. This was a strategic decision which was to pay huge dividends for Pakistan over the next several decades – both in terms of foreign policy and economy.

The decision to build the close relationship was undertaken knowing full well that the United States was our number one trading partner and we were almost entirely dependent on their support for military equipment. The US was extremely unhappy with Pakistan moving so close in its relations with China; yet our leadership at the time, especially the then foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, managed those risks with skilful diplomacy.

In 1974, then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto decided to hold Islamic Conference in Lahore. Holding the Islamic Summit Conference had been necessitated following the 1973 Arab Israeli war, the situation in Palestine and Kashmir and the oil crises. Most Muslim countries at the time were under the influence of the Soviet Union and their gathering under the umbrella of Islamic bloc was simply unacceptable to the United States and other Western countries.

The US did it’s best to force Pakistan not to hold such a conference. Extreme pressure was exerted including threats. In spite of these threats and pressures, the government went ahead to hold the Islamic Summit Conference which remains a proud moment for Pakistan till this date. (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was to pay dearly for this and subsequent acts but that is another subject).

Another example when Pakistan faced a serious diplomatic challenge was in the aftermath of India’s decision to go nuclear in first week of May, 1998. Pakistan had no choice but to respond in a similar manner but faced enormous diplomatic pressure, including threats from America and other Western countries.

When the threats did not work, Pakistan was promised significant economic aid in case we dropped the idea ($5 billion in economic aid was promised by then president Bill Clinton). For Pakistan it meant safeguarding our national sovereignty above everything else. Pakistan went ahead with detonation on May 28, 1998 but not without ensuring that our relations with the US and other Western countries remained cordial. That was made possible by a series of diplomatic initiatives at various levels which basically included explaining our point of view in a skilful and diplomatic manner.

We came out winners, having achieved a long-standing national objective and without affecting our relations with major powers. The easy way out would have been to buckle under pressure but that would have meant comprising our national sovereignty and weakening our defence in the short to long run.

Lastly, the crises in Yemen in 2016. Our very best friend Saudi Arabia wanted us to send troops to safeguard Saudi interests. Again a very difficult situation but managed brilliantly through diplomatic efforts whereby we were able to convince our Saudi friends that not involving ourselves in Yemen was in the best interest of Saudi Arabia. Of course, we assured our Saudi brothers that Pakistan is committed to safeguarding Muslims’ holy places as well as ensuring Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity.

We could have managed the Malaysian summit in a much better way than we eventually did. We found the easy way out and in the process compromised relations with our close friends. How much damage it has done is too early to predict but let’s not underestimate the medium-to-long-term negative implications. There is a lot for this government to learn from this but that is only possible once you recognise that this was a serious foreign policy fiasco.

The writer is former governor Sindh and former minister for privatisation.