Foreign policy ownership

Published: November 14, 2017

For most of the tenure of the current dispensation the government operated without a Foreign Minister, the portfolio residing with ex-PM Nawaz Sharif. The ouster of Mr Sharif and the change of set-up by the new PM, Abbasi, in August 2017 has brought Khawaja Asif into the unfilled position. He has the scent of fresh air about him. He is to a degree on familiar territory as a former Defence Minister between 2013 and 2017 and is well acquainted with the nuances and subtleties of the relationship between the military and the civilian government.

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It has long been axiomatic but never acknowledged that it was the military that wrote the foreign policy script, which was then handed to the civilians to turn the pages. With the democratic experiment now moving in the direction of a second successive general election, it is not unreasonable to expect that there be a rebalancing of the relationship between civil and military powers.

Who crafts and runs foreign policy is one of the areas within that dynamic relationship which may be open to negotiation and one way of opening the debate is to acknowledge that the foreign ministry is not entirely the master of its own destiny. A step in that direction has now been taken by the foreign minister who conceded on Wednesday 1st November that ‘his ministry was not in authoritative control of the country’s foreign policy.’

The FM said that foreign policy was being shaped by different institutions and that no single institution was in charge of foreign affairs. It is not every day that ministers make admissions such as that, and there are risks attached. It could be seen as a sign of weakness but conversely, and more likely given the evolving nature of governance, the FM is coming from a position of relative strength.

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He would have had to have felt confident of the ground beneath his feet before saying what he did. He also served notice that the foreign policy of Pakistan was not to be manipulated by external powers without naming names. The shifts may be microscopic, but there is a plate on the table that was not there a week ago.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2017.

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