Basic lessons in diplomacy for Pakistan
A former president of Ghana defined diplomacy as the art of agreeing on the feasible to advance the desirable. In other words, diplomacy is a process, not an event. Achieving foreign policy objectives is an incremental, complex process strewn with uncertainties and vexed internal and external linkages. The challenge for any state, big or small, is to first fully comprehend its interests and then strategize to realize them to the maximum possible. In diplomacy, things hardly proceed linearly but a misstep can cost dearly.
Looking at its over two-year record, it seems the PTI government has not been up to the task. Not only does it give the impression of lacking in understanding Pakistan’s interests, but also how to attain them in an increasingly complex world. Pakistan diplomacy has never been so careless, to put it mildly.
The lack of strategic thinking and planning is hugely impacting the country’s ability to adjust and readjust itself on the tactical level. Resultantly, there is the deafening din of hoary statements by all and sundry in the government boasting about foreign policy achievements but showing little in substance.
This government, if nothing else, should disabuse itself of the notion that foreign policy objectives can be achieved only by making high-voltage statements and issuing press releases. One would wish diplomacy for a country like Pakistan, facing a myriad of challenges, was so easy and had the luxury of being run episodically.
India’s illegal decision to strip Kashmir of its special status in August 2019, should have served as an inflection point. That was the time Pakistan needed to regather itself. But it stumbled. Instead of reaching out to the world with the view to exposing India and building international pressure, the government appeared to have been caught unawares and failed to put up a coherent and effective strategic response.
So much so, that Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi could not even visit the P-5 countries barring China. He resigned to get in touch with his counterparts on the telephone. Pakistan failed to get a special session of the UNSC. Nor could it get a press or presidential statement on the informal consultations held on August 16, 2019.
Subsequently, Pakistan could not even secure informal consultations exclusively on Kashmir and had to content with pithy discussion on the subject under agenda item “Any Other Business” on 15 January and 5 August 2020.
Instead of building more pressure on India by working for a special session of the Security Council, we readily conceded and thus ourselves contributed towards downgrading the issue. It would have been far better to have stuck to our guns rather than settling for the crumbs for domestic consumption.
That was also the time to double down efforts towards rallying the Muslim world behind the Kashmir cause. True, the OIC Contact Group on Kashmir did issue statements condemning and rejecting the Indian move, but the government failed to build on the initial OIC response.
Au contraire, the Prime Minister by hastily agreeing to attend the Kuala Lumpur summit in November 2019, put Pakistan in a cleft stick. That was the time to avoid and discourage any move that was bound to be divisive.
There were also un-called for statements that scuttled any possibility of a special OIC conclave on Kashmir.
Our diplomatic failures on Kashmir, from the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council to the OIC should at least prompt us to rethink the way we conduct our diplomacy.
Making vociferous statements at multilateral forums is the easiest thing to do. Building bilateral relations on solid foundations is the onerous part of diplomacy.
To begin with, there are two points which must be underlined. First, frustration is anathema to constructive diplomacy, and more so when it finds its expression in the public domain. Diplomacy especially during challenging times is better conducted off-stage with public statements to the minimum.
Second, inter-governmental multilateral forums, such as the UN and OIC, do not work in a vacuum.
Decisions are not taken in New York, Geneva or Jeddah but in Washington DC, Paris, London, Moscow, Beijing and Riyadh. It is by only strengthening bilateral relations that Pakistan can expect to get favorable decisions at multilateral organizations.
Making vociferous statements at multilateral forums is the easiest thing to do. Building bilateral relations on solid foundations is the onerous part of diplomacy. And, it must also be emphasized, that it takes years and decades to build dependable and resilient bilateral relations. However, it takes very little to make them hostage to unbridgeable chasms.
It also goes without saying that a country that is mired in numerous domestic political and economic difficulties cannot be expected to achieve wonders on the diplomatic front. Diplomatic space shrinks or expands in proportion to a state’s regional and global clout. Indeed, Pakistan needs to put its house in order. Nevertheless, this cannot be an alibi for diplomatic slumber and making successive blunders.
The PTI government must comprehend the essence of diplomacy, that is, the feasible must advance the desirable. And that will not happen without crafting a well-calibrated strategy that also provides for tactical flexibility.
- Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan's ambassador to Germany and Pakistan's High Commissioner to India.