Foreign Policy in Crisis: Can Pakistan Overcome?

As Pakistan’s foreign policy apparatus comes under fire for failure to perform on multiple fronts, Islamabad’s institutional paralysis is damaging the country’s international standing. With the Foreign Office mandated to do little more than issue reactive statements to geopolitical changes, the absence of a dedicated Foreign Minister is having a pronounced effect on how Islamabad is able to message its concerns, needs and regional objectives to a global audience. A steady downward spiral in Pak-US relations after a unilateral US drone strike in Balochistan killed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour; Pakistan’s failure to secure an F-16 deal following Congressional censure; stalled dialogue with India and a fresh round of border skirmishes with Afghanistan have all complicated efforts to shore up Pakistan’s engagement and flex geopolitical capacity. In light of recent events Jinnah Institute turned to a select panel of policy experts to solicit their thoughts on the present crisis in Pakistani foreign policymaking, and brainstorm ways forward.


Senator Sherry Rehman, President Jinnah Institute and former Ambassador to the United States, took the view that Pakistan is currently in the midst of a foreign policy crisis, and one that has exposed the country’s institutional fragility as well as an alarming inability to tell truth to global power. Caught in the crosshairs of a perfect storm from Kabul, New Delhi and Washington, the absence of a foreign policy steward visibly in charge of foreign affairs has forced Islamabad to fall back on posturing instead of policy. In the face of this complete strategic drift and policy vacuum, Pakistan has recently been caught completely unaware on more than one occasion. Its attempted bid for political reconciliation in Afghanistan was ineffective and lacked heft. Not only was the process too unwieldy, and Kabul too frail and disunited, but the timing for the Taliban was off as they would only obviously agree to any terms of reasonable engagement with Kabul if they felt they had enough incentive to consolidate regular, recent battlefield gains. As such, Pakistan did not anticipate either Washington’s reaction or President Ghani’s fraying temper in light of his many challenges. On its western frontier, Pakistan lost the plot with Iran by sending ill-timed public signals to their visiting president in Islamabad. Challenges with India and Prime Minister Modi’s post-NSG-shambles posturing notwithstanding, there seems to be no diplomatic strategy that Islamabad has in place other than routine condemnation of the brutal military containment of generational misery in Indian-held Kashmir, having not even requested a meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee so far.

Senator Rehman further maintained that the current state of affairs is untenable. It forces Pakistan’s foreign policy to operate on the misguided assumption that other countries will act rationally or even morally. That the powerful military has taken the opportunity to fill the leadership vacuum at the heart of the foreign policy crisis, does not inspire confidence considering the country’s experience with democracy. As such, Pakistan must reboot its foreign policy in a way that allows it to face the growing trend of borderless terrorism, globally viable digital extremism, and focus on ridding itself of violent extremism. All this cannot be done with an absent Foreign Minister and a strategically negligent Prime Minister, and it certainly cannot be done with the military leadership steering policy alone.

The disconnect with domestic policy that confronts violent extremism as a first order challenge, with daily intelligence coordination, is the biggest drag on making and signalling change both at home and abroad. The absence of a National Security Committee in parliament, still not constituted three years into office by this government speaks volumes of the narrow political base that government operates from, running regularly into roadblocks instead of opportunities to maintain crucial policy consensus and momentum on the National Action Plan. Without strong institutional links that hinge foreign policy on domestic structural change, grounded in national consent, there will be little ballast to the posturing the government is increasingly reliant on as policy.

Najmuddin Shaikh, former Foreign Secretary, was of the opinion that Pakistan’s foreign policy must be the handmaiden of its domestic

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policy, beyond preserving territorial integrity. In Pakistan, domestic policy needs to focus on internal security and internal cohesion while devoting resources towards economic development. This needs good governance, a competent and impartial bureaucracy, an independent judiciary and an honest, dedicated leadership. Only this can move the country towards Jinnah’s vision of a Pakistan in which the Muslims of South Asia can, in a moderate and tolerant polity, realise their full economic potential. Pakistan needs to recognise and exploit its geo-economic location as a bridge between South Asia and Central Asia and South Asia and West Asia, and use foreign policy to develop amicable relations with its neighbours so that it can realise the full economic advantages of its function as a bridge. To attract the aforementioned investment, Pakistan must develop its natural resources and generate the employment opportunities that its population bulge makes imperative. The government will also have to project a picture of internal cohesion and stability and equitable inter-provincial relations, while creating confidence among its own investors that stable policies will be followed even when governments change. In the brief periods of Pakistan’s chequered history when such policies have been followed, the country did indeed move forward, with foreign policy being used to promote domestic goals.

Today, however, Pakistan is seen as failing on all counts in the formulation and implementation of domestic policy as is most graphically illustrated by the low priority given to the National Action Plan to curb extremism. The prevailing national crisis is not of foreign policy but of domestic policy. Enforcing announced domestic policies and implementing national pledges to prevent the use of Pakistani territory for hostile activities against its neighbours will resolve many of the problems that have created strained relations within and outside the region. Problems with Afghanistan and India will remain, but a major source of distrust can be removed and substantive and productive dialogue will become possible. Importantly, then, and then alone, will Pakistan’s pleas for a more balanced approach to proposals for ensuring security in a nuclear-armed South Asia find resonance in international forums.

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Ejaz Haider, Editor of National Security Affairs at Capital TV, maintained that Pakistan’s foreign policy is indeed facing multiple challenges. The country is fast becoming isolated within the region and the impact of this isolation is felt far beyond the region. The reasons for this crisis in foreign relations are both endogenous and exogenous. Within, Pakistan, we face structural problems that make it difficult to situate security policy in the broader ambit of foreign policy: in other words the security calculus heavily influences foreign policy. That calculus is predominantly provided by the military and makes exercising non-military options difficult. This does not mean that security is not a dominant issue, it certainly is, but the problem relates to security strategies that narrow down foreign policy options. Two examples of this are bilateral trade with India and providing access to Afghanistan for the Indian market. There are several other areas where security concerns voiced by the military and intelligence agencies overshadow bold, new thinking.

That said, the current government has shown no real desire, beyond some initial effusive initiatives, to lead from the front. The absence of a full-time foreign minister with responsibility shared three-ways hasn’t helped either. Outside the region, relations with the United States. have steadily nosedived. Some of this has been unavoidable, especially with Washington getting closer to New Delhi. However, much of the downturn is owed to Pakistan over-playing its hand apropos of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani reached out to Islamabad. Now this policy seems to have gone into reverse gear, with President Ghani making the same allegations that his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, used to make. From a US lens, this is seen as an attempt by Pakistan to defeat Washington’s project in Afghanistan, a feeling buttressed by statements coming out of Afghanistan and Indian lobbying on the Hill. The issue is not whether these allegations are true. The problem is the cementing of a perception of Pakistan as an all-around spoiler.

Some factors are beyond Pakistan’s control, but what the government can, and must, do is to reform foreign policy structures with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs firmly in the lead. It also needs to formulate new thinking around challenges and decrease reliance on policies that discourage non-military responses to security challenges. This will mean moving away from geopolitics to geo-economics and using the latter to calibrate the former. The problem of civil-military imbalance will not go away anytime soon, but it shouldn’t stop the civilian principals from formulating and implementing policies. Currently, a major part of the problem is inertia on the civilian side. This will have to change.

Adil Najam, Dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University, was of the opinion that the problem with Pakistan’s foreign

policy is that that the country simply does not have one, despite the fact that there happen to be a number of statements, sentiments and slogans on piecemeal issues that have remained consistent with what the government thinks of as de facto foreign policy. Even on issues such as relations with India, on which there seems to be a doctrinal consensus, what one finds is tactics and not strategy. Certainly not a foreign policy – something that requires connecting the dots between different issues, covering all essential bases, and drawing up a path from here to there and that, at the very least, has a sense of where ‘there’ is.

Operating without a foreign policy has never been pleasant for Pakistan. However, the precariousness of being at sea without sails, rudders or even paddles has become ever-so evident today because Pakistan has (a) a geopolitical landscape boiling with uncertainty, (b) a multiplied list of global issues needing attention has multiplied, and (c) a foreign affairs apparatus that is at its most dysfunctional ever. The crisis in foreign policy that Pakistan faces today is, in fact, a crisis of foreign policy. Defining the country’s ‘biggest challenge’ and sticking Band-Aid over it is not going to be enough. What might help is to get all the right actors in the room to assemble a real foreign policy that is not on an issue but on all issues, and then invest in a foreign affairs apparatus that can implement this consistently and across issues, through space and time.

Zahid Hussain 2

Zahid Hussain, Senior Fellow Jinnah Institute, was of the opinion that Pakistan’s foreign policy management has long been incoherent and directionless but it has never been as chaotic as it is now. Like other matters of state, foreign policy management too suffers from multiple power centres running the show. In the absence of an overarching vision, implementation of policies has been confused and conflicting statements have added to the chaos. As such, there is no rational approach that reflects the national interest in the prevailing global reality.

Furthermore, the absence of any policy direction and vision from the civilian leadership has allowed the military to expand its role in foreign policy matters. This is yet another constraint on any effort to embark on a pragmatic foreign policy course as the military’s security-tunnel vision has added to Pakistan’s regional alienation. Foreign policy is too serious an issue to let drift. Given the significant geopolitical developments taking place around us, there is a great need for a more imaginative approach that is able to pull Pakistan back from the brink.

The views in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Jinnah Institute, its Board of Directors, Board of Advisors or management. Unless noted otherwise, all material is property of the Institute. Copyright © Jinnah Institute 2016