To get our foreign policy right, we must first get our own house in order. Let me explain. When we talk of foreign policy, we normally apply the theory know as “Occam’s Razor.” This theory provides that, all else being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct. Or in other words, complicated conspiracy theories are likely to be rubbish.
Occam’s Razor is a useful guideline. It helps us structure the analysis in terms of selecting facts and placing them in an order. Most social sciences analyses use this principle. What needs to be factored in, however, is a realisation of what this approach implies: domain restriction.
In other words, what is being left out might be as important as what is being put forward.
Take, for instance, the question of whether we can, or should, talk about foreign policy without reference to other factors like what we do internally or what is the state of our treasury et cetera. Typically, we see analyses that look at internal developments or the state of the economy in their own right — just like foreign policy.
To an extent, as mentioned above, this approach is valid. But to believe that developments in these areas can always be, or should always be, treated in silos can be problematic, especially when we can find obvious linkages between or among them.
On Wednesday, while discussing the visit of Dr Abdullah Abdullah on my television programme, a former American official sceptical of the current peace process, took the position that while both sides (Pakistan and Afghanistan) were making the right noises, he wasn’t particularly optimistic about the follow-through. While we were debating that, he also said that Dr Abdullah hadn’t met the Pakistan Army chief, adding that that is where such matters are decided and went on to quote former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s phrase that “army is a state above the state [in Pakistan]”.
His reference problematised not only the conduct of foreign policy — at least how people, internally and externally, perceive it — but also created a linkage between what happens internally and how those developments can impact Pakistan’s case without.
One can say that this should be obvious, but actually it often is not. For the most part, we analyse foreign and security policies without reference to internal developments and how they play to the disadvantage of Pakistan’s narrative.
Let me put it another way.
Pakistani officials often complain that Pakistan can’t sell its narrative. This phrasing assumes that our problem resides in our lack of capacity to market our story. In other words, there is a story, but we (a) don’t know how to tell it and (b) don’t have the means to tell and sell it.
While the problem of means is important, it is vital, nonetheless, to question the basic premise — i.e., to ask whether we even have a story.
Since at least the mid-nineties, but more vigorously since the mid-noughties, international relations scholarship has taken what a policy paper calls the “narrative turn”. Great powers are said to use narratives strategically to “articulate their interests, values and aspirations for the international system in ways that offer the opportunity for power transitions that avoid violent struggle between status quo and challenger states.”
For the middling states, one assumes, the idea of presenting a narrative is challenging because it is a contested sphere — regional rivals presenting their own stories to get the attention and support of bigger powers: e.g., Pakistan’s narrative versus India’s narrative.
This is, of course, the problem with respect to getting the ear of the external state actors. But an equally bigger challenge is selling the story within. For any serious analysis of how to build and disseminate the national security narrative, governments in Pakistan require a dispassionate analysis of both challenges: external and internal marketing. A word of caution here is in order for internal marketing: a story sold through coercive means is a story that is bound to die. Additionally, today’s digital eco-system has resulted in what some scholars call a “complex media ecology which makes the process of projecting strategic narratives an increasingly difficult one.”
Let me break it down: any story, in order to be sold, needs to be plausible; to be plausible, it must be credible; its credibility depends on its ability to get and retain a high market share; internally, such a story presupposes a system that is politically stable, economically robust and grounded in social justice.
Put differently, a high percentage of people should have a high level of satisfaction with the story (the product in this case).
Political stability presupposes a system grounded in democratic and constitutional norms where actors, despite their other differences, accept certain fundamental rules of the game. In other words, political contest takes place within the rules of the game.
Economic robustness deals with structures that are geared towards creation of wealth and consistent growth.
Social justice demands an equitable share for everyone in the national wealth.
Essentially, that the system is not rigged.
In such a state, given the high level of satisfaction, the national security narrative is easier to sell because a high percentage of the population would come to accept, broadly, the determinants of national security.
That, unfortunately, is not the case with Pakistan. When you have a former prime minister accusing the army of acting as an entity that operates above the state, no amount of sophistication can help with the market share. Please note that it is not enough to dismiss his views as the ravings of a discredited politician. Even if he were discredited, which, frankly, is far from the case, the world is not going to take lightly the words of someone who was elected three times to be the prime minister. In other words, we have a massive problem here.
I can cite many other examples of internal developments that adversely affect the foreign policy narrative, but I think this is enough to make the point about how important such linkages are.
Corollary: if we want to sell a narrative to the external world, we have to first get our own house in order. That may not be a sufficient condition; but it is certainly an absolutely necessary condition.
The write is a former News Editor of The Friday Times and reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider