National honour and foreign policy

States that follow nationalism and ideology have elements of fixity in foreign policy.

Khaled Ahmed March 31, 2012

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Our foreign policy is now being handled by our parliament after the elected government couldn’t wrest its control from the army. The parliament is dying to agree with the army but has no clue about how foreign policy should be shaped and is being led by the nose by the GHQ.

We live under representative democracy, so we are saved from ‘direct democracy’ where passions compel citizens to commit blunders. But parliament is still close to popular passions routinely considered anathema to foreign policy.

The direct democracy of Athens was dismissed by Aristotle as the worst kind of government because it was ruled by passions and controlled by moneylenders. (Aristotle’s abomination of moneylending predates Islam’s own). It was the directly participating public of Athens that killed Socrates and made democracy a cuss word. Aristotle also dismisses timocracy.

Timocracy (from Greek ‘time’ pronounced ‘teemay’ meaning ‘honour’) is rule by the military. Timocracy comes about when people, instead of concerning themselves with virtue, get obsessed with the seeking of honour. The primary means of attaining honour is on the battlefield.

In their internal behaviour, states have governance in accordance with laws, judicial institutions and enforcement mechanisms. In international affairs there is no governance. States, therefore, formulate ‘policy’ to engage outside their borders. Governance and policy are the two differentiating markers.

Because there is no fixed law and no enforcement mechanism, international affairs remain amoral. It is an arena where states pursue their self-interest and refuse to be challenged on the basis of morality. Treaty law which could be seen as a parallel of national statutes cannot be enforced except through ‘realpolitik’.

‘Governance’ is inflexible by reason of its fixation in the legal codes; ‘policy’ is flexible because of its operation in an essentially ‘lawless’ environment. The best foreign policy — in absolute terms — is endlessly flexible and manoeuvrable. But elements of inflexibility are introduced into it by nationalism and ideology. For this reason, there is always a gap between what the people want and what the state needs to do in the realm of international affairs.

People seek moral answers and want the state to behave with honour; the state would prefer to seek its self-interest without reference to morality and honour. The people want a static policy; the state wants to keep it flexible to the point of ‘unprincipledness’.

States that follow nationalism and ideology have elements of fixity in foreign policy. If foreign policy is allowed to become completely subservient to inflexible principles of nationalism, it begins to incline to isolationism. Nationalism is ‘delusional’ because it is created out of a rewriting of history in order to invoke a collective sense of honour and dignity.

Nationalism is highly emotive and cannot bear analysis. In moments of high collective emotion, states deprive themselves of flexibility of response in foreign policy.

After 2001, Pakistan’s pursuit of wisdom rather than honour can be called a ‘save-your-ass’ policy. It has not found favour with the people but its consequences were positive in economic terms. Based on opportunism rather than honour, the economy threw up indicators that couldn’t be matched in the past.

The elected governments in Pakistan have favoured a ‘flexible’ foreign policy. The army has judged acts of ‘pragmatism’ of the elected governments on the criterion of nationalism and ideology and punished them. Now when the army seeks to change the honour-based paradigm to a wisdom-based one — in respect of the Nato supply route — the public opinion leans on nationalism and opposes it by siding with non-state actors.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2012.


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Harry Stone | 9 years ago | Reply


The nations that make up the so called developed world are all democracies. There is a reason for that but that is a different topic. They also have the rule of law. Those laws do in fact protect the minority point of view as well as minorities. This is the significant difference between the devloped nations and the second teir devloping nations.

anonymus | 9 years ago | Reply

@A S: so you want gunman rule

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