Pakistan should get good marks for its foreign policy performance in the last 75 years if the sole yardstick is support from other actors in the international system. A foreign policy reliant on favourable geopolitics, unequal alliances, and excessive dependence has paid off.
The country has consistently punched above its weight on the global stage compared to the economic, social, and military power it actually possesses. Pakistan is deemed too big to fail, with multiple benefactors of different hues and colours. The US, China, Saudi Arabia, and the EU have come to its aid. A source of envy for other struggling medium-sized countries!
Yet the delicate balancing of superpower relationships has not been enough. It has failed to paper over deep-rooted national insecurities. And an elite-driven foreign policy does not enjoy the firm support of the people. Hence, the persistent clamour for an independent foreign policy.
In the wise words of controversial foreign policy guru, Henry Kissinger, “No foreign policy — no matter how ingenious — has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.”
Financial aid has helped build critical infrastructure and institutional capacity so vital to a developing country. But, aid-based development has fostered a culture of dependency and negated self-reliance. To expect respect and honour while holding a begging bowl is impossible.
A critical part of public disillusionment is that domestic policies have failed to deliver. Internal cohesion, political stability, and economic prosperity are lacking. It has made the survival of the state and its development reliant on external help. Unfortunately, the trade-off is a compromise of sovereignty and independence. And foreign policy, inseparably linked to domestic policy, shares the blame.
In addition, the following factors have limited foreign policy options. First, religious extremism, conflict with India, and the festering Kashmir dispute have sapped national power. Second, institutional interference, chaotic governance, political instability, an anaemic economy, and poor social indicators render the country weak and vulnerable. Third, as terrorism, militancy, and military diplomacy have taken centre stage, a lucid investment programme, effective trade strategy, and soft power projections are missing.
Alliances with the United States and China have brought sizeable economic and military help. Financial aid has helped build critical infrastructure and institutional capacity so vital to a developing country. But, aid-based development has fostered a culture of dependency and negated self-reliance. To expect respect and honour while holding a begging bowl is impossible.
Significantly, the misuse of military aid has caused incalculable harm to national interests and foreign policy objectives. Military assistance has instilled false confidence and hubris. It has resulted in poor choices, wars, and adventurism. Arguably, the historic rivalry and confrontation with India have caused severe damage to Pakistan’s economy, social fabric, and international image. Instead of enhancing security and ensuring territorial integrity, it has had the opposite effect.
In the tricky security environment of the 21st century, foreign policy is too important a subject to be left to histrionics and emotions.
Nonetheless, it is the right of citizens in a democratic society to ask questions about the effectiveness of the foreign policy. The basic building blocks of a successful foreign policy are: minimizing risks and maximizing benefits; alignment with the power and interests of the nation; avoiding a clash of interests; and a framework to understand and monitor emerging challenges in a continuously changing international environment.
While political and academic debates on independence versus dependence are healthy, Pakistan’s policy-makers must craft a consistent foreign policy. In the tricky security environment of the 21st century, foreign policy is too important a subject to be left to histrionics and emotions. Instead of falling prey to populist rhetoric, political expediency, and citizen whims, ensuring optimal returns for national interests has to remain the key objective of foreign policy.
To that end, Pakistan needs to enhance its national power. It must improve economic and social conditions to govern effectively within its borders. In this regard, engagement can yield better dividends compared to military means. It is in the national interest to address the triple challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Domestic stability will help to secure win-win bargains for global public goods. It can make Pakistan a safer bet as an international partner and facilitate its foreign policy.