PARLIAMENT AND FOREIGN POLICY, Let the legislature be the guide

Parliament and foreign policy

The making and implementation of foreign and security policies in a parliamentary democratic system is the prerogative of the executive. There is a complex process in the executive for policymaking involving institutional and organisational networks, campaigning by the advocates of different perspectives and mutual accommodation. In Pakistan, foreign and security policies are made jointly by civilian and military authorities with a strong input from the intelligence agencies, especially the ISI.

The parliament can debate and discuss foreign and security policies. It can seek information from the executive and provide guidelines on how to handle foreign policy and security issues. These guidelines are in broad and general terms. However, the parliament neither makes the foreign policy nor micromanages it.

There are three important instruments that the parliament can use to influence foreign policy making. First, as the prime minister and the cabinet are responsible to the parliament, the latter can exert pressure to change their policies. If the foreign policy is completely unacceptable, the parliament can change the prime minister and bring forward a person who will carry out their wishes and desires.

Second, the members of parliament must develop professional capacity to deal with foreign policy and security issues. Most of them make either simplified statements or follow the party line, making statements with the objective of getting space in the media or condemning whatever the government is doing. The members should make mature statements on security and foreign policy issues that reflect deep thinking and an understanding of dynamics of international politics. Each party represented in the parliament should arrange briefings by specialists and professionals for its members so that they are better prepared to deal with complex foreign policy and security issues.

Third, the committees of two houses dealing with foreign policy and security matters should be strengthened. These must have research staff to provide them basic data and short overview-papers on the relevant security and foreign policy issues. The role of the committee depends to a great extent on the seriousness of the members and their capacity to address the issues within its domain. This is not possible without professional support to their work. The committee should also invite professionals and experts for their comments and analyses of foreign policy and security issues.

The parliamentary committees on defence and security affairs are now working regularly. They have made good beginnings but their processes have to be strengthened and the members need to be helped to upgrade their knowledge and understanding of security and foreign policy affairs. Good work done by the committee will strengthen the role of the National Assembly and the Senate.

In the past, two joint sessions of the parliament got briefings on security matters from the military and senior ISI leadership. This was in addition to the briefings that the federal cabinet and top political leaders received from the top army leadership. The military officers also gave some briefings to parliamentary committees. The first parliamentary briefing was given on October 8-9, 2008 and the second detailed briefing was on May 13, 2011 on the May 2 US raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Then, on March 20, 2012, the report of the parliamentary committee on national security was presented to the joint session of the parliament.

These are significant developments in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. The top military leadership has made itself available to parliamentarians for responding to their questions. This parliament has taken up security and foreign policy issues more often than the preceding ones.

On March 20, the joint session of the current parliament began deliberations on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security against the backdrop of the US/NATO attack on Pakistani border postsenior  on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in November 2011.

A small number of members were able to address the security matters in a knowledgeable manner, reflecting an understanding of the factors that shaped Pakistan’s foreign policy and security choices in the past and why Pakistan cannot pursue foreign policy in isolation from the international community.

A good number of members treated foreign policy and security issues like any other matter that comes before the parliament and they hardly rose above their party considerations. The senior opposition leaders viewed this debate as yet another opportunity to condemn and criticise the government. They hardly offered any fresh ideas but emphasised that the foreign and security policies of the government had failed miserably and that no improvement was possible as long as this government stayed in power. One major complaint of the opposition is that the previous parliamentary resolutions have not been implemented by the government. This complaint is based on an erroneous view of parliament’s role. The parliamentary resolutions are not binding on the government. They are recommendations and advisories that the government implements to the extent it is possible. It is wrong to assume that the opposition can control the government through resolutions. Further, it is only opposition that complains but the majority of the members who are with the government support foreign policy, although they make suggestions for changes.

The opposition cannot dominate the parliament in parliamentary system. If the opposition can do this, it would move a no-confidence motion to remove the government. The dynamics of parliamentary system make it imperative for the government to dominate the parliament but they are supposed to accommodate the opposition as much as possible.

The recommendations of the parliamentary committee on national security have some generalised assertions that can be described as a wish list. Other recommendations can be viewed as guidelines.

Pakistan’s foreign policy will take shape when the government takes up bilateral issues with the US against the backdrop of the recommendations. The US has its own perspective on various aspects of its relations with Pakistan. The diplomatic interaction between the two countries on transit facilities and drone attacks will determine the contours of their relations rather than the parliamentary resolution by itself. Good foreign policy depends on identification of common and shared areas of interest rather than relying on a ‘take it or leave it’ approach.

The federal government will pursue these guidelines keeping in view domestic economic and political realities and dynamics of global and international politics. The opposition should not feel frustrated if they cannot either pull down or control the government in the name of independent foreign policy which is a code word for them to cause an open breach between Pakistan and the US.

Courtesy: Pakistan Today

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