Refocusing on foreign policy orientation is normal when something goes wrong, allies, partners and friends don’t come true to expectations or when some fundamental changes in the regional or global structure of relations occur. Pakistan has reviewed, revisited and rethought its foreign policy several times. But foreign policies are never — revolutionary, transformatively or fundamentally — changed. Fundamentals are primary interests of the state, depending on how governing elites determine what they are, which priorities they assign to them and what resources they mobilise to realise them.
A review of Pakistan’s foreign policy that was long overdue since the departure of Pervez Musharraf is finally underway. The fact that our foreign policy is going through this process at a critical juncture –– endgame in Afghanistan and problems in US-Pakistan ties –– is something to welcome. Additionally, the current review is apparently more inclusive than it was at any other point in our history. The military and its subsidiary institutions –– the Foreign Office, and more importantly, parliament, including opposition groups –– are involved in debating one critical aspect of our foreign policy, which is the nature of cooperation and overall relationship with the United States. Irrespective of the outcome, the process is very democratic, and being so we should expect better results than what would have been the case if one man, one group or one institution determined the path of our foreign policy.
There is one significant critique of Pakistan’s foreign policy which one cannot miss and this is that we have relied too heavily on the United States and Europe. We grew closer to distant countries to balance out our security relations with India or gain a leverage through foreign powers to confront the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. We cannot deny that the climate of hostility with India has been a constant factor. The perceptions of threat — real or imagined — from across the two borders have largely determined our foreign policy options. But history does not move in endless circles.
Today, we need to rethink old threat perceptions and the new opportunities that a friendlier and more cooperative relationship with India and Afghanistan may offer us. Shifting focus on the region and reordering foreign policy options regarding these two neighbours does not mean ending our relationship with the rest of the world. I am merely raising the question of reorientation.
Let me define what this means and how it can be a substantive aspect of our foreign policy. It simply means restructuring our entire range of relationship with India, with or without a resolution for the Kashmir dispute. On our part, we must bury the past. I am sure that we will also find similar sentiment across the border. The shift from the past to a new common future in the region, geared in the direction of Afghanistan and Central Asia must be the number one foreign policy goal of Pakistan.
The time for this change is now; we have wasted too much time and energy and too many resources on hostility. Let us try friendship. For this to happen, we need political courage, a vision, new orientation and, of course, new social discourse on reconnecting with India, a country with whom we have thousands of bonds.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2012.