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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Can Pakistan afford Imran Khan’s independent foreign policy?

A close examination of Khan's foreign policy initiatives, which he claimed reflected national aspirations, reveals that he was not pursuing an independent foreign policy - opines Asif Abbas, in an interesting piece.

In an inefficient democracy like Pakistan, where millions live below the national poverty line, conventional wisdom dictates that political parties’ highest priorities should be domestic issues such as devising a sustainable poverty reduction strategy, combating inflation, raising people’s living standards, and defusing the country’s population bomb. However, this has not been the case, as former prime minister Imran Khan has made independence in foreign policy the centerpiece of his populist movement against what he calls an “imported regime”.

Since his ouster, Khan has maintained that his administration was overthrown due to a “foreign conspiracy” because of his pursuit of an “independent foreign policy”. According to him, Pakistan was forging its own path, blazing new trails in uncharted territory. We had endeavored to place Pakistan in a sweet spot vis-à-vis all other nations till his removal overturned all the gains.

But what does independence in foreign policy really mean?

To be explicit, an independent foreign policy implies that the government must take stances on international matters based entirely on national interests, without regard for how other countries may react or what actions they may take if they are dissatisfied.

Read more: Analyzing Pakistan’s foreign policy

Using the above definition as a compass, it can be argued that in international relations, countries may not always be able to achieve what they want because they are economically, militarily, and diplomatically interdependent. As with individuals, nations rarely behave solely out of principle or self-interest. Also, national interests cannot be so precisely defined. States keep their foreign policies pragmatic and adaptable in order to respond to shifting global and domestic circumstances.

Former President Donald Trump, for example, spent much of his presidency denigrating the United States’ European allies. He urged, among other things, that the Europeans spend more money on defence. He tried to put pressure on them to share the financial load of the continent’s security, but in the process, he alienated the United States’ closest and most steadfast allies.

Pakistan cannot pursue an independent foreign policy

Pakistan’s governing class continues to display the country’s military and political might domestically through the employment of excessive rhetoric pertaining to an independent foreign policy.

Pakistan’s economy is notoriously fragile. Currently, it is undergoing a wave of economic collapse brought on by financial mismanagement and a surge in international commodity prices, which has resulted in a currency devaluation and severe inflation. Pakistan’s economy is supported by foreign loans from bilateral and multilateral lenders. Due to this dependency syndrome, the state has not been sufficiently fortified to survive an acute financial crisis without external assistance.

A nation whose economy is wobbling under the weight of debt cannot display its strength in the international community. Moreover, its economic reliance on foreign loans prevents it from making entirely national-interest-based foreign policy judgments.

In addition, Pakistan’s foreign policy is held captive by the opposing interests of Pakistan’s political and military establishments, who are always at odds over who can make effective choices about Pakistan’s foreign policy. In an increasingly multipolar world, Pakistan’s ability to elevate its diplomatic game and secure its foreign policy objectives is hampered by this institutional division over critical strategic choices.

Read more: Pakistan Military dominates foreign & security policies: US Congress report

Furthermore, the extensive power of the clergy in national politics is a significant impediment to Pakistan making rational foreign policy decisions. A sensible foreign policy, for example, requires Pakistan to create solid diplomatic ties with Israel in order to boost the economy or strengthen our defence needs. However, the threat of retaliation from radical Islamic groups makes reasonable foreign policy decisions difficult for the country.

Pakistan’s efforts to frame policies influenced by the clergy have frequently led it astray from pursuing policies that have the potential. In today’s world, the only practical way to establish ourselves as a force to be reckoned with is to improve and expand our economy. This can give us an image that is both admirable and worthy of our pride as a nation.

Imran Khan’s policy initiatives

A close examination of Khan’s foreign policy initiatives, which he claimed reflected national aspirations, reveals that he was not pursuing such an independent foreign policy.

His refusal to acknowledge China’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims, even though he was an outspoken critic of Islamophobia; and his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia for carpet-bombing Yemen, which created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN, are just a few examples of his not-so-independent foreign policy decisions.

Read more: UN rights chief to visit China to discuss Xinjiang’s human rights abuse

Similarly, Khan, bowing to Chinese pressure, refused to attend the US-led democracy summit to which he had been invited.

Under his premiership, certain foreign policy decisions were made without deliberation, consultation, or evaluation of their repercussions and compatibility with previously stated positions. In a well-known instance, the government retracted its announcement that Imran Khan would attend a conference co-hosted by Malaysia and Turkey in response to strong Saudi and UAE concerns.

Similarly, his reference to the murdered Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a “martyr” later termed a “lip-slip” by his media minister Fawad Chaudhry to spare Pakistan diplomatic embarrassment demonstrated Khan’s arbitrary decision-making style. Nevertheless, these events had a significant impact on foreign policy, as was widely acknowledged.

Against this backdrop, Khan’s assertion that he pursued an independent foreign policy appears to be political chest-thumping and empty rhetoric intended to bolster his conservative, anti-American and reactionary domestic support base.

Solution for Pakistan

In the wake of a profound shift in South Asian geopolitical reality and a shift in global order precipitated by Russia’s intrusion into Ukraine, Pakistan must de-hyphenate its worldview. There are no permanent allies or foes in international politics, only permanent interests. Promoting our national interests necessitates a “pragmatic foreign policy” that prioritizes friendly relations and cooperation not only with the dragon and bear but also with the eagle.

In an era of great power game, where Russia and China are challenging the norms that have supported the US-led liberal international order and seeking a system in which the power balance is not lopsidedly in favor of the United States; camp politics is not the wisest approach for Pakistan to deal with diplomatic issues. Pakistan should not succumb to the temptation to affiliate itself too strongly with any of these parties as the global divide widens.

Read more: Prospects of China-Russia strategic cooperation in light of US-China competition

While the United States’ influence on the international stage has diminished, it is still a political force to be reckoned with in international affairs. Pakistan cannot exist in isolation in an increasingly globalized world. Therefore, our policy-makers must avoid using rhetoric about a war of civilizations to evaluate its relations with the West.

Pakistan’s economy relies on bailouts from international financial organizations that the United States dominates. Therefore, our policy-makers should not ballyhoo Russia and China excessively as they did for the Taliban after taking control of Afghanistan. Instead, our primary focus should be on economic progress, which should never be too closely linked to any single country or bloc.

This in no way implies that Pakistan should not develop relations with Moscow or recalibrate its intimate ties with Beijing to the satisfaction of the United States. The crux of the discussion, however, is that it should not do so at the expense of its relations with Washington. The neutrality stance is also consistent with the region’s geopolitical and geo-economic realities. In addition, despite the fact that the United States is Pakistan’s primary economic partner, the country’s faltering economy necessitates a wider investment net, which China and Russia may provide.

Read more: Pakistan on-track to become 23rd biggest economy, US intelligence

To be referred to as a rising power with a respectable standing in the galaxy of nations, Pakistan must strengthen its economy, build institutional agreement on strategic issues, and enhance the living standards of its citizens.

To conclude, Pakistan must demonstrate that it respects the complexity of the globe, which is a place of difficult decisions and unpleasant trade-offs. The recently released National Security Policy, which declares unequivocally that Pakistan does not subscribe to camp politics, is a step in the right direction. However, until Pakistan follows through on its commitment, our words will ring hollow rhetoric.

Asif Abbas has worked in various capacities including teaching public sector college and being a content writer. He has done M.Phil in English Literature. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.