A New Era in Pakistan’s Foreign Policy?

By Aisha Saeed*

“Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations…. entangling ties with none.” 

– Thomas Jefferson

Pakistan’s foreign policy, ever since Independence, has remained a roller-coaster ride that could never really boast of anything sound or stable. The country, with successive governments, has long placed all its egg in one basket, depriving itself of a well thought out foreign policy.

Hence, a constructive review is in order.

Let us start with Liaquat Ali Khan; he made a deliberate decision not visit the Soviet Union, from whom he had received a formal invitation. Instead he chose to visit USA and swayed Pakistan towards the American camp, thus initiating a slide which led – by stages – to friendship, partnership of convenience, dependence, obedience, beggary and servitude. We never broke free from American clutches, with Washington making a real mess of our bilateral relations with other countries. This mess negatively affected our ties with immediate neighbours and natural allies, and suited the US geo-strategic objectives in the region.

Glimpses of exceptional foreign policy based on more than goodwill, however, are still found in our history. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto led a strong bloc from among the members of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).  If this coalition had lasted a bit longer and thrived, it had enormous potential and benefits for all the stakeholders involved. Unfortunately the initiative, and bond, did not last long enough to broaden Pakistan’s horizon in the region and beyond.

The years following Bhutto had no major events worth mentioning in terms of foreign policy.

However, the increase in terrorism across the globe in late 1990’s and early 2000’s did put our foreign policy to test. Pakistan, once again, chose to take the bitter side by joining the War on Terror in 2001.  However, this alliance with the US also turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Pakistan ultimately drifted away from United States.

Pakistan has been slipping into a precipitous position as there have been times that the country did not have a committed a full time Foreign Minister. This was particularly witnessed during the previous Nawaz Sharif led PML N government. Before the PML N, the PPP government also did not fare any better nor was it able to set the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order.

Due to wrong priorities, the performance of our foreign missions abroad and selection of ambassadors and diplomatic staff has left a lot to be desired. One often hears of gross incompetence in handling affairs of overseas Pakistanis, which has always remained a neglected policy area for successive Pakistani governments.

The election success of Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf (PTI) and Imran Khan becoming the Prime Minister is a good omen for the country. This is because PM Khan has long focused on, and prioritised, the issues and potential of overseas Pakistan, along with giving a serious consideration to foreign affairs and setting the Foreign Office in order.

Imran Khan’s appointment of Shah Mahmood Qureshi as the country’s new Foreign Minister looks like a step in the right direction. Qureshi is an experienced hand at this portfolio as he has already held this position during the PPP government (2008-2013).  Qureshi’s inaugural press talk exhibited the new government’s approach towards foreign affairs. His Reiteration of ‘keeping Pakistan’s interests first and foremost’ has given a signal of no more ‘Do Mores’. Hitting all the right cords, his policy outline will be put to test with the expectant visit of Mike Pompeo in the first week of September. After a layover in Pakistan, Pompeo will head to India, which is another challenge for Qureshi. India views the new government and PM Khan as an adversary. Pompeo’s visit appears to be a customary one, however, Pakistan must not expect the United States to be lenient in its demands.

One of downside of Qureshi’s press talk was lack of mention of our improving relationship with Russia; Pakistan’s new strategic partner in the region. Qureshi’s speech was perhaps a chance to commend Russian President Putin’s initiative of burying the hatchet with Pakistan, as the cooperation between the two is on the rise. Shattering the notion that Pakistan’s foreign policy is not under the Ministry’s jurisdiction, Qureshi reaffirmed his stance that only the Foreign Office will formulate the country’s foreign policy, however, also reassuring of taking policy input from key security institutions when required.

It will be a challenge for Qureshi to balance the foreign policy with the country’s security concerns. His desire to visit Kabul and pursue prior bilateral cooperation agreements will be an intricate task.

Pakistan now needs to incorporate elements of soft power, civil and military diplomacy into its mainstream foreign policy approach to create more space for itself. Proactive engagement will be required from the officers posted at the ministry as well as those on overseas missions, who could warn Islamabad of incoming storms and steer towards any potential opportunities.

As of yet, one can look with a sense of optimism on Qureshi’s appointment as the Foreign Minister and expect improvement in the performance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Only time, and performance, will tell if Pakistan witnesses a new era in its foreign policy.




*Aisha Saeed is an independent media and foreign policy analyst based in Lahore. She tweets @MsAishaK 

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