“Foreign policy cannot be reactional, incidental or occasional; clearly defined goals have to be followed with consistency to achieve tangible results.”

Over the past few weeks, Pakistan has once again been at the receiving end of controversial statements – from President Trump’s new South Asia and Afghanistan policy to most recently the BRICS declaration. Each new event has been met with increasing furor and an aggressive, retaliatory response from every segment of the Pakistani society. Each event has also reinforced the perception of our increasing international isolation and the shrinking space for the Pakistani perspective in the international arena.

Much has been said, and much more is being written and debated in this context within policy and expert circles. More worryingly however, it seems that with each new problem, our responses are becoming increasingly repetitive and slightly tone-deaf. In the context of the newly announced American policy, for example, most responses have been adrenaline-fuelled and aggressively defensive, arguing that the Pakistani perspective is ‘totally ignored’ – which then must be countered by sending envoys and delegations to ‘convey’ our perception of the situation. At which point, naturally, all will return to its natural order as the offending parties will come to ‘understand’ how things really stand. Or, and this is the other popular response, a defiant thumping of the chest, standing in the shadow of our ‘big brother’, China.  There is no doubt about the sincerity of China and Pakistan’s time-tested, all-weather friendship, but neither nation can unduly burden the other for the protection and promulgation of its own national interests – strong relationships require ‘balance’.

This is not to say that Trump’s speech was not as obtuse and ignorant as it was inconsistent. Pakistan is well within its rights to put forward a strong, unified response to the dangerous and inaccurate representation of the country.

But a complex problem requires a nuanced response, and therein lies the art of diplomacy. Much of what was stated by Trump has already been in practice by the US government for a while now; the mantra to ‘do more’, and a ‘conditional’ relationship, highlighted by the CSF repayments fiasco. Our government, which up until very recently was without even a Foreign Minister, appears to have been operating in a constant state of ‘denial’. What is perhaps more disturbing then is that our typical ‘fire-fighting’ response is falling on increasingly deaf ears, highlighting just how little space the country now has diplomatically to be unable to prevent such deliberately incendiary remarks, at the very least, if not actual influence on US policy in the region on legitimate concerns – such as the call for an enhanced Indian role in Afghanistan – despite our very important role in it.

The BRICS declaration was a similar example of this receding space, but an overhasty response has only added fuel to the fire. The inclusion of terrorist organisations operating in Pakistan is a blow, but given that those organisations are already proscribed within the country – indicating our own concerns on their operations and efforts to counter them – and the fact that BRICS is neither a platform for counter-terrorism nor maintaining international peace and stability, but primarily a mechanism to increase cooperation amongst its member states (which Pakistan is not), the ‘rejection’ of their declaration by Pakistan’s  defense minister seems well out of place. Contrarily, the response of the Foreign Office was significantly calmer, but lost in the clamour, once again rendering the impact of Pakistan’s overall response confusing, inconsistent and unproductive.

It is sometimes said that a sign of ‘insanity’ is repeating an action over and over again, and expecting different results. Consequently, despite numerous ‘dossiers’ presented by Pakistan at various forums, with few follow-up efforts as part of a larger strategy, international perceptions have not been swayed in any significant manner. With the United States, chaos has become the defining feature of a relationship that has one character in our government’s state to state relations, and another entirely in the public eye. This duality, amongst other factors, has been responsible for the difference in public and state reactions, and widening the trust deficit between the two countries.

During a discussion at the White House in 2016, a Senior White House Aide rightly pointed out to me that Pakistan has maintained a relationship with the US administration. However, policy in the US is formulated by the Congress and legislative bodies, in which we have little to no ingress, which is exacerbating our problems today. There is no doubt that Pakistan is an indispensable nation for the long-term peace and stability of the region. But the fact that the US is choosing to take a more provocative position towards the country (if only to test the waters) while it seeks to re-entrench itself in Afghanistan is telling in itself; it is a shortcoming, if not failure, of our diplomacy.

Pakistan’s larger foreign responses and policy goals cannot be outlined or defined in a reactionary manner, on the basis of a single speech by a foreign President or some statement by a body that has little to no tangible impact on us directly. A country’s foreign policy must always reflect the national aspirations of its people; its formulation must incorporate clearly defined goals and directions, for a significant period of time, that won’t be changed willy-nilly. Only on the basis of these can national strategies be developed to achieve them. This cannot be done with a sword hanging over our heads, and without some – any – vision for the future. It is vastly important, now more than ever, not to give into reactionary instincts only to ride a wave of domestic populism.

As with any problem, the repetition and failures must first be identified. The Foreign Office must take charge, as well as responsibility for long-term engagement strategies, and monitor their effectiveness. Diplomatic missions abroad must be revitalized to actually perform their primary role, make consistent efforts towards clearly identified goals, and held accountable for failures. A target and task-oriented approach should be taken, with mechanisms for transparency and accountability for all sectors involved in the management of the relations.

Engagements with foreign parliaments and policy making bodies must be regular and continuous. Ideally, all international obligations, treaties and agreements should be brought before the Parliament for ratification, as is widely practiced globally. But until then, at the very least, law-makers should be thoroughly briefed about Pakistan’s current agreements and responsibilities, so that they are fully updated on ground realities and the country’s position on sensitive issues before engaging with their foreign counterparts or accidentally issuing tone-deaf statements in the media. Similarly, strengthening Parliamentary relations with foreign legislators, at large, and the US Congress and Senate in particular, is a crucial need of time, but one that must extend beyond the current crisis. Parliamentary exchanges can help in enhancing understanding and bridging trust gaps better than any other long-term strategy. Pakistan must also reconnect with its diaspora, engaging with them via permanent mechanisms to strengthen our lobbying abilities.

In the face of recent crises, we must take a proactive approach if Pakistan is to revive its international standing and prestige. A strong but mature response will resonate well, in Washington as well as the world, better than an angry outburst reflecting in short-sighted short-term policies which will cause more harm than benefit in the long run. Every country must put its own interests first, and the onus lies upon Pakistan to retake the charge of its destiny back into its own hands, and finally achieve the potential we have always known we hold, not just for today but for the nation’s tomorrow.


The writer is the President of Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (CPGS) and Member Senate Standing Committees on Defence, Defence Production, Human Rights & Federal Education and Professional Trainings.