Illustration by Anosha Zia
Illustration by Anosha Zia

Since independence, Pakistan has been an externally dependent economy, polity and security entity. It has sought “external equalisers” vis-à-vis its much larger and unfriendly neighbour: India. These have ranged from military alliances with the United States and special relations with China to Salafi Islamisation à la Saudi Arabia and “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Even our nuclear deterrent has had its external dimension since Pakistan does not have an indigenous and diversified enough manufacturing base to develop a sustainable full-cycle capability. The Abdul Qadeer Khan saga testifies to this. Accordingly, external policy has weighed large in the national policy framework.

Among the prime ministers of Pakistan, the only true “foreign policy prime minister” has been Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The only other candidate was Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. Amongst the military dictators, only Ayub Khan (for a while) achieved a certain external stature largely because he gave considerable policy space to his senior bureaucrats, including diplomats. The other military rulers privileged fellow generals as their closest foreign policy advisers, simplified the complexities of foreign policy challenges to the point of absurdity, and followed institutional agendas that inflicted untold losses upon the country. These include a lasting imbalance in civil-military relations which guarantees short-sighted and unsuccessful external policies to this day.

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As a result, Pakistan remains a deeply challenged state. It has unsatisfactory relations with three of its four immediate neighbours. It has a strategically loser relationship with the US. It is in danger of becoming a strategic burden for China. It is under international pressure on a range of issues including its India and Afghanistan policies, its policies with regard to terrorism and extremism, nuclear and human rights issues. Its internal governance and degree of corruption in its leadership are seen as criminally irresponsible by both external observers and the people of Pakistan. In these circumstances, the absence of a full-time political heavy weight as a foreign minister may be regarded as the least of the challenges facing Pakistan today. Nevertheless, it involves a gratuitous cost.

Our current foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz, is said to be a “de facto” foreign minister. But without the automatic protocol attached to a foreign minister, his status and reception abroad have to be negotiated. Moreover, neither he nor the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Tariq Fatemi are members of parliament which takes away from their political weight at home. The prime minister – who is absolutely no “foreign policy” prime minister – holds the portfolio. No credible explanation is offered. It is merely reported that he “is in no mood” to make anyone a full time foreign minister!

Incidentally, Aziz was twice promised the presidency and twice let down. He has been divested of his responsibilities for even the external aspects of national security which has further undermined his authority and effectiveness. That he is an internationally respected eminence seems to have counted against him. His predicament is just one reflection of our general state of affairs.

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The above indicates a general lack of purpose among the political leadership which has willingly or reluctantly handed over substantive direction of foreign policy to the military and intelligence establishments. Their performance is a matter of historical record and can today be gauged by the national and international media headlines every day. They are simply not designed and therefore not qualified for the job. India-centricism has become a substitute for the arduous and complex job of formulating and implementing a foreign policy appropriate to the challenges of the 21st century - in which the price of failure can be existential. The Chinese are expected to bail us out forever even though as an emerging global power it has its own global interests and priorities that will not always comport with the institutional priorities of the security establishment of Pakistan. A day could arrive when China may not feel compelled to keep India out of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group or even a reformed United Nations Security Council. Do we have any effective policy planning to deal with or avert the costs of such a scenario? Can the China Pakistan Economic Corridor be a magic wand for us? Can a soft state ever develop soft power? To all three questions the answer is a flat “no!”

This was originally published in the Herald's July 2016 issue under the headline "It's foreign to us". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.