Single issue foreign policy

Published: December 18, 2011

The writer was foreign secretary from 1989-90 and is a former chairman of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad

Pakistan has often been described as a state with a single- issue foreign policy. In less charitable opinions, that single issue was often determined by a foreign power enlisting Pakistan to advance its own regional or global agenda. Admittedly, Pakistan signed on in the secret hope that it would also facilitate the pursuit of its interests such as narrowing financing gaps, developing nuclear deterrence and maintaining an increasingly improbable balance of power with India. In retrospect, it achieved only limited success in doing so and ended up, rather predictably, paying a heavy price for unequal, overpowering relationships. With the United States, it has not even been a robust and continuous linkage, as periods of collaboration have alternated with those of severe sanctions that distorted the economy, fragmented national politics and polarised the society.

When the US precipitately disengaged from Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviet retreat, the initial reaction was a benumbing shock. But gradually the alternating prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, grasped the need for diversifying Pakistan’s international relations. Despite a huge loss of national energy caused by their perpetual rivalry, there was progress in expanding the ambit of foreign policy. Sadly, the process was cut short when Musharraf made his Faustian bargain with Washington. Managed by civil servants on coveted extensions, the Foreign Office quickly lapsed into the glib grammar of the so-called global war on terror (GWOT) and the self-intoxication of Pakistan being a frontline state. Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri had a broader vision but was greatly hobbled by the straitjacket of Musharraf’s emphasis on the military aspect of the GWOT. Nothing illustrated this better than the failure of his administration, as indeed that of the successor political government, to achieve market access in the United States. Relations remained transactional and terms of engagement repeatedly failed to accommodate Pakistan’s real needs. More recently, it was not just the denial of these needs despite the Kerry Luger legislation but a sustained pressure to force the Pakistan Army into a mercenary role, non-compliance with which presumably climaxed into the fateful attack on the Salala post.

Salala’s destruction has deprived the government of the option of masterly inaction after opportunistically using parliament as an ineffectual debating chamber. There is also the imperative to demonstrate that the foreign and security policy review is not driven by the armed forces. Step aside these political compulsions and you see that the review that Pakistan needs and can afford is not difficult to design. It should have been designed once Washington de-hyphenated India and Pakistan and declared that the two countries merited different approaches because of their different histories. Instead, Pakistan went into anodyne statements about an unprecedented strategic relationship that did not exist and cannot exist in the current realities. In a recent article, helpfully entitled “The Pakistanis Have a Point”, Bill Keller, a former long-time executive editor of The New York Times, addressed the issue of draining “some of the acrimony and paranoia from the US-Pakistan rhetoric”. If Washington is serious about managing what Keller calls “a highly problematic, ultimately critical relationship”, it will have to reassess Pakistan’s undiminished relevance to regional stability and stop running the Pakistan policy on colonial lines.

While readjusting this critical relationship to a new and probably lower order of mutual engagement, Pakistan has to break out of the constraints imposed unilaterally on it by the United States. It is not for Hillary Clinton to tell Pakistan that it would not be good for it to proceed with the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Pakistan has done little to add substance to economic ties with the ASEAN states. It has to go a long way to establish optimum political and economic relations with a transformed Turkey. Historic ties with the GG states are withering. China has yet to be persuaded to make the investment it can in Pakistan’s energy and manufacturing sector. Above all, Pakistan has to remould relations with India despite the known cussedness of the Indian establishment. These objectives are as valid today as they were in 1990s.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • bangash
    Dec 19, 2011 - 12:18AM

    FO is merely a civilian spokesman for GHQ.

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  • faraz
    Dec 19, 2011 - 12:34AM

    Pak US security based alliance of 50s laid the foundations of military industrial complex that indoctrinated the masses with vicious interpretation of two nation theory, laid the foundations of security state which started the 1965 war and alienated Bengalis. Later Pak US security based relations dragged us into the Afghan jihad which brought extremists to the mainstream. The present day terrorism is the outcome of private militant groups that originated and thrived during Afghan jihad.

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  • Arindom
    Dec 19, 2011 - 12:54AM

    None of the steps listed by the author can see the light of day as long as the Establishment’s “Crush India” policy exists. In effect India today has a Veto on Pakistan’s progress – all thanks to a peculiar situation of it’s own making that Pakistan has got entangled in!

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  • Noor Nabi
    Dec 19, 2011 - 1:11AM

    Pakistan, unfortunately, has never had a foreign policy. The now collapsed relationship between it and the United States was nothing more than a marriage of convenience between the CIA and Pentagon on one side and the GHQ on the other. The US used Pakistan to its advantage for as long as it could and the latter provided services for which the benefits accrued – largely under the table – to its establishment. The Pakistan Foreign Office, whatever role it played, was used only as a post office.

    The author’s statement that “Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, grasped the need for diversifying Pakistan’s international relations” is a pie in the sky theory. Both had a retired military general, inherited from the Zia-ul-Haq coterie, serving as the foreign minister. The day now belonged to the Hamid Guls and Aslam Baigs who had become blood brothers with the drug barons in Afghanistan and were supported by the Salafists in pinning Pakistan into a corner. The Pakistan military, that exactly forty years ago, ingloriously signed surrender papers in Dhaka had lost all its shame and honour. Musharraf was no different; as long as the GHQ-Pentagon relationship was in place he was quite satisfied.

    The global landscape is changing rapidly and Pakistan does not have the luxury of time on its side as it figures out its way out of the woods. It should by now be clear that the country’s strategic depth does not lie in Afghanistan. A better relationship with India, one based on mutual respect and trust, should be considered very seriously. But then this option would render it necessary to question the size of the military that, like the Egyptian army, also manufactures corn flakes and runs wedding halls besides brutalizing its own citizens.

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  • Max
    Dec 19, 2011 - 1:26AM

    I hope the readers understand the Punjab’s rural culture where social arrangements place the agricultural castes on the top, the religious and others (teachers, patwaris,) in the middle and artisans at the bottom. I will refrain using the word that is commonly used in the derogatory way for the lower echelons. The possibility of upward social mobility exists for the functionaries in the middle and at the top but for the folks at the bottom of the ladder, it is a done deal and only way out is their move to urban settings and spread out. Anyway my point is that Pakistan was at the bottom if we apply the Punjab’s rural cultural metaphor to modern nation-states in the international arena (Hedley Bull calls it anarchical society) but it never made an effort to move to the urban town/s (industrialization/modernization) like others in the neighborhood. So blaming the sahibs of Foreign Office or GHQ will not help, if there is any way out, it is to move out from the status to which the author of this article has called a single issue policy. Otherwise Chaudharys, Maliks, Khans, and whoever else will keep treating you the way they treated your elders.
    Thank you for citing Bill Keller’s article. It was written very wisely by a veteran journalist. He knows the “inside the belt” more than those who go around making speeches rather selling policy prescriptions with a big if not with foul mouth (though that also happens).

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  • You Said It
    Dec 19, 2011 - 6:04AM

    All fine. But foreign policy in Pakistan is set by the military. And the military as Kayani has said is “India-centric”. So, Pakistan cannot afford an independent foreign policy — that is a luxury for states that are content with the status quo and have balanced and wholesome interests.

    Pak is not a status quo power on its eastern or western fronts. On both fronts the US holds the aces and the trumps. So Pak can neither afford a “lower order of mutual engagement” nor “to break out of the constraints imposed unilaterally” by the US.

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  • vasan
    Dec 19, 2011 - 6:09AM

    As the author suggests, the moment the army becomes obedient to the civilian govt,. the moment foreign and security policies are decided by the civilian govt and listened to by the army, what he wishes/envisages will happen. And that will be good for the region.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Dec 19, 2011 - 5:32PM

    Is China not making investments in energy and manufacturing? It is my impression that they are doing so although they did pull out of the coal sector because of security concerns. We cannot blame China for that. Their people have been kidnapped and killed. The Chinese, being a proud people, will not tolerate that.

    Otherwise, a great article, Sir.

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  • Zamalek Khan
    Dec 19, 2011 - 8:20PM

    @Meekal Ahmed:
    The Chinese are pragmatic opportunists and not too long ago they were the wizards of capitalism. It is against their grain to be supportive of a country whose existence is rooted in violent religiosity. However Pakistan is important to them so that it can be a thorn in the side of India. But beyond that, as validated by their non-action to help Pakistan save face in Dhaka forty years ago, most Chinese support to Pakistan is words and not substance.

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  • Ram The Atheist
    Dec 19, 2011 - 10:21PM

    @Zamalek Khan:
    I agree. Yesterday’s Dawn had an opinion piece by Michael Krepon (yeah, American but does have some instructive opinions). Here it is: http://www.dawn.com/2011/12/18/pakistans-patrons.html

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  • Dec 19, 2011 - 10:25PM

    A sound foreign policy is based on core interests tempered with a degree of realpolitik. While national interests remain the same, partnerships can and should be adjusted to suit the changing circumstances. The question we face is: what changes are required in our FP in the present situation? Some possible steps are: loosening the encumbering US embrace; gradual improvement of ties with India; striving for a better understanding with the non-Pushtun factions in Afghanistan. No big change is needed in our ties with China and the Islamic world. If I get the author right, he is pleading for a greater economic content in our important relationships but let’s be realistic. ROZs sound more like a romantic film than a serious way of increasing market access to the US.

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