Who Runs our Foreign Policy?
If there are instances of military dominance in foreign policy issues, it is mainly because our civilian setups are devoid of any strategic vision or talent in their political cadres.
Despite being a critically important country in many ways, Pakistan does not 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 himself kept the foreign affairs portfolio shows that he attaches exceptional importance to it. But why he gives so much importance to foreign affairs has nothing to do with foreign policy.
With the memory of the NRO still fresh in his mind, Nawaz Sharif could not be oblivious of the overbearing foreign role in our domestic politics. It is abundantly visible even in the Musharraf trial scenario. 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. Nawaz Sharif must have learnt from Zardari’s experience that smarter foreign ministers can sometime overshadow you.
Sharif perhaps has been cautious enough not to take the risk of having a foreign minister who in dealing with Washington and London and perhaps also Saudi Arabia might not be a trustworthy interlocutor on matters of personal importance to him. Even otherwise, he is traditionally known to prefer lesser beings as incumbents of important offices in his government, including the presidency. But the foreign policy syndrome is not confined to Nawaz Sharif alone. It has afflicted every successive ruler in the past. We have a history of personally-driven foreign policy decisions with some leading the country into debacles.
The problem is not who runs our foreign policy. The problem is who makes our foreign policy. In every country, foreign policy decisions are normally made by the executive branch of government. But the formulation of foreign policy being a complex matter cannot be left to any one individual or authority. Besides the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as the officially designated foreign policy arm of the government, it invariably also involves other relevant agencies of the government, including national security and defence, trade and economy, etc.
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, the U.S., the Gulf States and the nuclear issue. One must admit that in a perilously-located country as ours, the pivotal role of the so-called ‘establishment’ on vital securityrelated issues under the overall supervision of an elected government as anywhere else in the civilized world is indispensable.
We, in Pakistan, often misunderstand the realities of foreign policy, and tend to overplay the role of the military or the so-called ‘establishment’ in its formulation and execution. The foreign policy of every country is inextricably linked to its national security, and is not complete without the involvement and input of its national security agencies. Given Pakistan’s peculiar geo-political environment and its
volatile neighborhood, most of the issues involving vital national security interests have to be addressed through a larger consultative process with the participation of all relevant governmental agencies and stakeholders, including the 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 have an indispensable role. Likewise, trade with India and transit trade with Afghanistan, having a direct bearing on the country’s security, cannot be dealt with in isolation from the agencies concerned.
I can say with my experience that on all national security-related issues, 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 the Pentagon and the CIA which plays a dominant role in their foreign policy issues involving America’s ‘national security’ interests in the context of its regional and global power outreach.
The Foreign Office for its part has been making its own professional contribution in policy-formulation. It has also been providing the requisite professional expertise and diplomatic skills in its execution. In my view, 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.
In our case, if there are instances of military dominance in foreign policy issues, it is only because our civilian setups 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 the civil and military bureaucracy. But in public perception it was only the Foreign Office which appeared to be running the policy and was held solely responsible for its failures. The main players always withdrew into the background, and remained beyond the purview of criticism, much less scrutiny or accountability. The government also found a convenient scapegoat in the Foreign Office. It gradually became less and less influential as it is today in the conceptualization of foreign policy.
In the ultimate analysis, one thing is clear. All these external problems that we continue to suffer have nothing to do with our foreign policy. Our problems are rooted in 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.