Who runs our foreign policy?

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Shamshad Ahmad[1]

Who runs our foreign policy? Today, despite being a critically important country in many ways, Pakistan does not even have a foreign minister. Why is it so? Surely it is not for any lack of importance for foreign affairs in the present government’s priorities. It is just the opposite. The fact that the prime minster has kept the foreign affairs portfolio with himself shows the exceptional importance he attaches to it. But why he attaches so much importance to foreign affairs is another thing. It has nothing to do with foreign policy.

With NRO history fresh in memories, Nawaz Sharif could not be oblivious of the overbearing foreign role in our domestic politics. It is abundantly visible even in the present Musharraf trial scenario. Every ruler in Pakistan today knows that to remain in power he must maintain close relations with the powers that be. This he can do only by remaining in charge of this portfolio. Nawaz Sharif must have learnt from Zardari’s experience that smarter foreign ministers can sometime overshadow you.

Nawaz Sharif perhaps has been cautious enough not to take the risk of having a foreign minister who, in dealing with Washington and London and perhaps also Saudi Arabia, might not be a trustworthy interlocutor on matters of personal importance to him. Even otherwise, he is traditionally known to prefer lesser beings as incumbents of important offices in his governments including the presidency. But the foreign policy syndrome is not confined to Nawaz Sharif alone. It has afflicted every successive ruler in the past. We have a history of personally-driven foreign policy decisions with some leading the country into debacles.

The problem is not who runs our foreign policy. The problem is who makes our foreign policy? In every country, foreign policy decisions are normally made by the executive branch of government. But formulation of foreign policy being a complex matter cannot be left to any one individual or authority. Besides the ministry of foreign affairs as the officially designated foreign policy arm of the government, it invariably also involves other relevant agencies of the government including national security and defence, trade and economy etc. Foreign policy is most commonly implemented by the ministry of foreign affairs.

For much of its history, Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda has been shaped by a “civil- military complex of power” reflecting the preferences and interests of our ruling elite and special interest groups. The balance of power between the civil and military bureaucracy kept changing but it was they who invariably controlled our policies on crucial relations with India, China, US, the Gulf States and the nuclear issue. One must admit that on vital security-related issues in a perilously-located country as ours, the pivotal role of the so-called ‘establishment’ under the overall supervision of an elected government (as anywhere else in the civilised world is indispensable).

We in Pakistan often misunderstand the realities of foreign policy, and tend to overplay the role of military or the so-called ‘establishment’ in its formulation and execution. Foreign policy of every country is inextricably linked to its national security, and no foreign policy is complete without the involvement of its national security agencies’ input. Given Pakistan’s peculiar geo-political environment and its volatile neighbourhood, most of the foreign policy issues involving vital national security interests have to be addressed through a larger consultative process with the involvement of all relevant governmental agencies and stakeholders including the military and intelligence agencies.

There is nothing unusual in this process which is followed in every state confronted with national security challenges. No foreign office is equipped with intelligence gathering and analyzing capabilities and cannot function in a vacuum of intelligence and security information relevant to the foreign policy goals that it is supposed to be pursuing. No wonder, in our case, on issues of national security, our GHQ and intelligence agencies have an indispensable role. Likewise, trade with India, and transit trade with Afghanistan having direct bearing on the country’s security cannot be dealt with in isolation from the country’s concerned agencies.

I can say with my experience that on all issues with relevance to national security, the Foreign Office cannot operate without military and intelligence inputs in its normal functioning. This is the case with every country. Even in the United States, their State Department cannot and does not operate without the support of their intelligence network. For that matter, America too has a so-called ‘establishment’ represented by the Pentagon and CIA which are playing a dominant role in their foreign policy issues involving America’s ‘national security’ interests in the context of its regional and global power outreach.

The Foreign Office on its part has been making its own professional contribution as an input in policy-formulation. It has also been providing the requisite professional expertise and diplomatic skills in its execution. In my view, 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. Like the rest of the civil bureaucracy, the Foreign office too was sucked into the policy vacuum.

In our case, if there are instances of military dominance in foreign policy issues, it is only because our civilian set-ups are invariably devoid of any strategic vision or talent in their political cadres. Therefore the problem is not the military role; the problem is the strategic bankruptcy of our political cadres which invariably are dominated by the same old class of elitist oligarchs, who in fact are now quite used to ruling the country in collusion with, if not with total dependence, on civil and military bureaucracy.

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. The main players always withdrew into the background, and remained beyond the purview of criticism. 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 as it is today in the conceptualization of foreign policy.

In the ultimate analysis, one thing is clear. All these external problems that we continue to suffer have nothing to do with our foreign policy. Our problems are rooted in our domestic failures. No country has ever succeeded externally if it is weak and crippled domestically. Even a super power, the former Soviet Union could not survive as a super power only because it was domestically weak in political and economic terms.

The author is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.