Resetting the policy clock
In the democratic world generally and under autocratic regimes specifically, a leader’s statement on any policy matter is read and taken seriously before interpreting it to know a country’s policy standpoint thereon. Any such statement made by an official portfolio holder could hardly be ignored by terming it as ‘a mere political statement’ or a statement made in an attempt to ‘win’ the ongoing or upcoming elections or for that matter just to gain public support for any political objectives. Reactions start developing the moment such a policy statement is aired and the involved process does not necessarily wait for an explanation to the contrary or a corrigendum. It is also true that ethics and human sentiments have no role to play when it comes to decision-making particularly on critical matters of national interest. On the other hand, history has witnessed the fate of egotistic decision-making based on emotional intelligence. It simply falls flat on its face. However, even if one does not take such an awkward policy statement seriously at home, the people and political standing of any country suffer the ramifications and consequences abroad, sometimes for decades.
Hence, wisdom questions the timing of annoying Europe and that too in such unequivocal terms. Wouldn’t it be better to convey Islamabad’s reservations and resentments discreetly through available diplomatic channels, if at all it was thought appropriate to risk denting relations with the number one export destination for Pakistan and the review of GSP+ status this year? Moreover, does Islamabad feel it has achieved the ‘desired results’ by overtly challenging the West’s ‘double-standards’?
On the other hand, issuing a policy statement and not substantiating it by follow-up actions create credibility issues. For instance, Islamabad has repeatedly made it clear to the world of its intentions to stay neutral and not be a part of any world bloc may it be the Sino-US imbalanced equation, the Russia-US tug of war or the nerve shattering devastating war in Ukraine with all the ingredients to flare up and go in any undesirable direction.
Here, at least four aspects need proper reflection and consideration.
Firstly, who is asking Pakistan to take sides or what has necessitated declaring neutrality in such general terms? What if tomorrow China needs Pakistan to speak up in the UN General Assembly to take the floor and issue some annoying statement on the US? The Foreign Office would hasten to add that ‘China would never demand such a thing’ from Pakistan. How could you possibly use the word ‘never’ in the fast changing geo-political environment? In such a predicament, you will have only two options: openly support and follow China’s official line or dump the only ‘true’ friend in the international arena. At that most unfortunate moment, would the policy of ‘staying neutral’ be changed overnight?
Secondly, what steps has Islamabad taken to stay neutral in world politics particularly in an international environment where the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) is virtually dead and has practically lost its mojo a long time ago? Staying non-aligned is one of the diciest questions the emerging multi-polar world is facing right now. Why wouldn’t Islamabad wait to cross the bridge when it gets there? Furthermore, how would Islamabad substantiate its non-aligned position in the face of saying ‘absolutely not’ to an American request or declining to attend the Summit of Democracies hosted by the US or participating in a mega sporting event in Beijing that had been diplomatically boycotted by the West or staying under the same roof with President Putin when the latter directed its forces to launch a full-scale military attack on a prospective candidate of NATO and the European Union? In the finer analysis, such strong gestures might betray Islamabad’s stated policy of staying neutral in the international arena.
Thirdly, in a democratic system, an important policy decision such as joining or not joining an international bloc needs a consensus in Parliament or at least a constructive debate followed by using the Government’s prerogative through Cabinet. Such important decision-making is not advisable if it is conducted through a summary to the Prime Minister by the Foreign Office. Unlike an out-of-the-way posting of an envoy to any country, the decision on not joining any bloc needed to be reached at after much deliberations at all important forums and consulting all stakeholders.
Lastly, has anyone ascertained the affordability aspect of such a strong stance? Pakistan is a small developing country that needs to come out of IMF clutches before following its geo-economics agenda. As it is neither China nor Russia, Pakistan may keep in view its politico-economic prowess in the eyes of the world and calculate the risk-factors before pondering over its limited role in world politics. Islamabad may also look at itself from the world powers’ viewpoint, particularly the US which is the single largest destination of its exports and a superpower that demands cooperation from it only in the realm of counter-terrorism. Agreed, the US has not appreciated Pakistan’s contributions in the War on Terror and instead has blamed the latter for all the wrongs committed in Afghanistan. Agreed, the US supports India. But should Washington be provoked further; have US-sanctions imposed on Islamabad, and as proposed by Congressman Scott Perry and others in a recent bill, be equated with North Korea, Cuba, Syria & Iran? Even if a policy decision is taken to not expecting ‘anything’ from the US anymore and look for viable alternatives, direct diplomatic confrontation must be avoided. Diplomacy, like discretion, remains the better part of valour.
In the face of serious regional security challenges, a clash of titans in the shape of a menacing war in Europe, global surge in oil prices, declining domestic economic indicators, alarming inflation, nose diving rupee, dark-grey lists, internal political uncertain environment, low public morale and the floating conspiracy theories about a regime change by the powers that be, Pakistan can ill-afford to earn fresh detractors. If not anything else, at least one could resist the temptation of issuing ‘populist’ statements that might have far reaching effects for the country.