Much has been made not entirely unfairly of the fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been spending a lot of time abroad.
At times, it seems, at the cost of pressing need of his presence at home. For example, right when the presidential elections were due. Or, this last week, when ugly sectarian hatred became outright unbearable after the Rawalpindi carnage on Ashura. The number of stopovers in London has also come under scrutiny. As has the fact that taking two separate trips to the United States in two months does not make good optics.
Since assuming office as the prime minister for the third time, Mr Nawaz Sharif has spent, on average, one in every five days abroad. Given all the excitement at home, this does seem a bit much; even if one accounts for the fact that Mr Sharif is prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister, all wrapped into one.
While I do share some of these concerns, I do so only partially and rather lukewarmly. Barring a few, most of these visits have been well-executed, some were necessary, others useful. More importantly, because of all the problems we have at home – and especially because of the type of problems we have at home – Pakistan needs more diplomacy, not less.
We also need broader diplomacy. Engaging more countries; but also engaging them across more issues.
Yes. Our principal and most immediate lens can only be terrorism and security. If only because that is what the world thinks of when they think of us. And these days they think of us a lot.
But we also need to look beyond terrorism and security, since we will necessarily be defensive when discussing these. Renewing a focus on economic diplomacy is good; but not good enough. Even better would be broadening even further to the great global and developmental challenges of our times.
There was a time when Pakistan was known as a country that engaged fully and engaged vigorously in the international. We punched above our weight in international affairs, and we participated fully in all its aspects. We did so particularly, but not only, at the United Nations and in global fora. We spoke with conviction and with representative authority for a whole host of other developing countries. And we did so on a wide variety of issues. Not just our most immediate security concerns, but also on broader global concerns. On population. On food and agriculture. On human development. On sustainable development. And much more.
The voice of Pakistan in international fora was of intellectual giants. Patras Bokhari was Pakistan’s first permanent representative at the United Nations. Abdus Salam represented Pakistan at Unesco. Nafis Sadik headed the UN Population Fund. Mahbub-ul-Haq reshaped development thinking at the UNDP. Indeed, Sartaj Aziz – the prime minister’s national security and foreign affairs adviser – came from the same generation making a mark, in particular, on the global food security debate.
That time is no more. Not because we do not have the people. Indeed, many Pakistanis are doing excellent work all over the international system, and very successfully so. Others within our official apparatus are capable of so much more, but are stifled and starved for space or encouragement to engage more broadly.
Over the years the official interest in engaging the international system broadly has diminished. Our concerns have become increasingly narrower. Ever more immediate. What has been lost in the process is the focus on broader international engagement. We talk about less and less issues, with less and less countries.
This may be understandable, but it is also sad. One might argue that our immediate, narrow concerns – especially those which are security related – are so existential that they must overwhelm all other interests. But it is also true that our credibility on security concerns is so low that we need other issues to engage with.
Right at the time when we need friends more than ever before, we seem to have begun talking less and less about the things that might get us friends – even allies – and more and more about the things that the world trusts us least on. We have to be seen to have more to contribute to the world than just insecurity and terror.
In many parts of the world an argument is sometimes made that foreign affairs are a luxury because they distract from the domestic. The reality of Pakistan is that so many of our domestic challenges are intrinsically tied to foreign policy. Indeed, our inherent sense of indenturedness – our feeling that we are not entirely sovereign – comes partly from this reality. Terrorism and drones. Loadshedding and pipelines. Energy and carbon management. Development and foreign assistance. Social change and remittances. Economy and globalisation. Water and river treaties. Floods and global climate change. Inter-provincial relations and Nato trucks.
It is good, then, that the prime minister seems to be trying to push the envelope; even if only so slightly. One would want him to be bolder as well as broader in his choice of issues as well as partners. But, at least, he is trying to take economics and development more seriously, and he is attempting to engage countries others than those who are already most distrustful of us.
And herein lies the challenge for our much-travelled – over-travelled – prime minister. No prime minister, and certainly not of a country as riddled with the unrelenting constancy of domestic anguish as us, can carry all the needs of an engaged, broad, and sustained diplomatic strategy on his own. There are just not enough days in his tenure for Mr Nawaz Sharif to do – and be seen to be doing – all the diplomacy that needs to be done.
To put the point bluntly: Mr Prime Minister, Sir, you need a full foreign affairs team. You need it fast. And you need to delegate and empower this team.
The bad news can be summed up simply by updating the number I had mentioned last week. Pakistan has now been without a full time foreign minister for 253 consecutive days. This factoid is important simply because it is symptomatic of so much more. This is but one position among many that remains in limbo.
There is also good news. Pakistan has historically had, and still maintains, an extremely talented, very professional and highly competent foreign service. One that is respected by their professional peers internationally. In addition, we also have a cadre of experts and advisors outside of the foreign service, and within Mr Nawaz Sharif’s circle of advisors, with an impressive array of experience and skills.
Foreign affairs may be amongst the very few areas of policy where this prime minister actually has the human resources needed to build a quality team. The unending delay in assembling and empowering such a team is, therefore, not just inexplicable; it is rather tragic.
The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS. Twitter: @adilnajam
Courtesy The NEWS