Who Runs Our Foreign Policy

Foreign policy of a nation is always predicated on where you want to go as a sovereign and independent state. This is the basic determinant of a country’s foreign policy. In our case, at the time of our independence, like Alice in Wonderland, we did not know which way to go and this turned out to be the first dilemma of our foreign policy.

Who runs our foreign policy? Today, despite being a critically important country in many ways, Pakistan does not even have a foreign minister. Why is it so? Surely, it is not for any lack of importance for foreign affairs in the present government’s priorities. It is just the opposite. The fact that the prime minster has kept the foreign affairs portfolio with himself shows the exceptional importance he attaches to it. But why does he attach so much importance to foreign affairs is another thing. It has nothing to do with foreign policy.

With NRO history fresh in memories, one could not be oblivious of the overbearing foreign role in our domestic politics. Every ruler in Pakistan today knows that to remain in power he must maintain close relations with the powers that be. This he can do only by remaining in charge of this portfolio. No political mogul in Pakistan would take the risk of having a foreign minister who in dealing with Washington, London and perhaps also Saudi Arabia might not be a ‘trustworthy’ interlocutor on matters of personal importance to him. There is also a lesson from Zardari’s experience that sometime smarter foreign ministers can overshadow you.

One would, therefore, be always better off with lesser beings around as incumbents of important offices in government including the presidency. This complex-ridden syndrome is not confined to the present political setup alone. It has afflicted every successive ruler in the past. The problem, therefore, is not who runs our foreign policy. As anywhere else, it is our Foreign Office that most commonly runs our foreign policy decisions. The problem is who makes our foreign policy. Indeed, we have a history of personally-driven and at times ill-conceived foreign policy decisions with some leading the country into embarrassing moments and even debacles.

In every country, foreign policy decisions are made by the executive branch of government. In our case too, the responsibility to make foreign policy lies with the government. But formulation of foreign policy being a complex matter is never left to the whims of any one individual or authority. Besides ministry of foreign affairs as officially designated foreign policy arm of the government, it invariably involves other relevant ministries and agencies of the government including those dealing with national security and defence.

There are many misconceptions about foreign policy making in Pakistan. We often misunderstand the realities of foreign policy, and tend to overplay the role of military or so-called ‘establishment’ in its formulation and execution. Foreign policy of every country is inextricably linked to its national security, and no foreign policy is complete without the involvement of its national security agencies’ input. Given Pakistan’s peculiar geopolitical environment and its volatile neighbourhood, most of the foreign policy issues involving vital national security interests have to be addressed through a larger consultative process with the involvement of all relevant governmental agencies and stakeholders including military and intelligence agencies.

There is nothing unusual in this process which is followed in every state confronted with national security challenges. No foreign office is equipped with intelligence gathering and analyzing capabilities and cannot function in a vacuum of intelligence and security information relevant to the foreign policy goals that it is supposed to be pursuing. No wonder, in our case, on issues of national security, our GHQ and intelligence agencies especially the ISI have an indispensable role. Likewise, trade with India, and transit trade with Afghanistan having direct bearing on the country’s security cannot be dealt with in isolation from the country’s concerned agencies.

I can say with my experience that on all issues with relevance to national security, the Foreign Office cannot operate without military and intelligence inputs in its normal functioning. This is the case with every country. Even in the United States, their State Department cannot and does not operate without the support of their intelligence network. For that matter, America too has a so-called ‘establishment’ represented by Pentagon and CIA which play a dominant role in their foreign policy issues involving America’s ‘national security’ interests in the context of its regional and global power outreach.

On issues of national security, our GHQ and intelligence agencies especially the ISI have an indispensable role.

For much of its history, Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda has been shaped by a ‘civil- military complex of power’ reflecting the preferences and interests of our ruling elite and special interest groups. The balance of power between the civil and military bureaucracy kept changing but it was they who invariably controlled our policies on crucial relations with India, China, US, the Gulf States and the nuclear issue. One must admit that on vital security-related issues in a perilously-located country as ours, the pivotal role of so-called ‘establishment’ under the overall supervision of an elected government as anywhere else in the civilised world is indispensable.

In our case, if there are instances of military dominance in foreign policy issues, it is only because our civilian set-ups are invariably devoid of any strategic vision or talent in their political cadres. Therefore the problem is not the military role; the problem is the strategic bankruptcy of our political cadres which invariably are dominated by the same old class of elitist oligarchs, who in fact are now quite used to ruling the country in collusion with, if not with total dependence on, civil and military bureaucracy. Lately, even for ‘dialogue’ with Taliban, they had to fall back on bureaucratic professionalism.

Traditionally, our conventional diplomacy functioned well in the stable international environment and a period of relative internal calm and economic certainty but the world has changed and so have we. Like the rest of the civil bureaucracy, the Foreign office too was sucked into the policy vacuum. As the country’s principal focal point in the conduct of our foreign policy, it does provide the requisite professional expertise both in policy-formulation and its execution.
But in public perception, it is only the Foreign Office which appears to be running the foreign policy and is held solely responsible for its failures. The main players always withdraw into the background, and remain beyond the purview of criticism, much less to scrutiny or accountability. The government also finds a convenient scapegoat in the Foreign Office which often did not help its own cause by its passivity. It gradually became less and less influential as it is today in conceptualization of our foreign policy.

But irrespective of who makes our foreign policy, one thing is clear. All these external problems that we continue to suffer have nothing to do with our foreign policy. They are only extension of our domestic failures. No country has ever succeeded externally if it is weak and crippled domestically. Even a superpower, the former Soviet Union could not survive as a superpower only because it was domestically weak in political and economic terms.

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