A challenge for the envoys

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AT the envoys’ conference in Islamabad last week, the president asked the ambassadors to project Pakistan as a pivotal state in South Asia. It is to be shown as being engaged in the task of shaping a tolerant society seeking peace with its neighbours and making strides in the economic sphere. Such a positive image would help Islamabad’s standing in foreign affairs and facilitate the achievement of its foreign policy goals and attracting foreign investment.

But what needs to be clearly understood by our policy makers is that foreign policy is an extension of the state of domestic affairs of a country. It cannot be built on shadows and must have its roots in substance. Hence, it is not possible to project an image which does not actually correspond to reality. If Pakistan is to be shown as a tolerant, friendly, democratic and progressive society it will have in fact to become tolerant, peace-loving, democratic and economically stable. In today’s communication age, when technology has scaled incredible heights, information can no longer be suppressed or coloured at will. No political entity can pretend to be a model state when it is really not one.

Does Pakistan fit the description given by President Musharraf? It would be naive to believe that it does and try to present ours as a tolerant and democratic society. Indeed, if there is anything that Pakistan lacks sorely, it is the capacity to accept diversity and plurality in beliefs, culture, customs and opinions. It is not the national characteristic of our people to accept the fact that everyone is not identical and that a person has the right to have his own beliefs and socio-cultural mores so long as he does not hurt the public interest thereby. Most Pakistanis tend to be self-righteous and presumptuous, though, mercifully, not everyone would go to the extent of using force to impose his views on others and try to ‘reform’ them.

But these prejudices are ingrained in the people’s psyche and are reinforced by the education system in the country, the media and the political culture cultivated by successive governments in Islamabad. As a result, some extremist forces give vent to their disapproval of diversity by maligning and harassing those who do not conform. Though such elements are in a minority, they are pretty influential high-profile. Moreover, the frequent incidents of karo kari, violence against women and attacks on mosques, imambargahs and churches indicate the power the extremists and obscurantists wield and the inability of the government to rein them in.

The presence of the militants and extremists in our midst give the country a bad name and make the job of the ambassadors posted abroad very tough. How can they project Pakistan as a paragon of tolerance when the media — both domestic and foreign — are reporting daily incidents of violence?

An equally daunting challenge would be to show Pakistan as a democratic polity. The country continues to be in limbo as the military leadership which seized power in 1999 remains in office and the parties have not reached a consensus on the LFO, which was devised to change the constitution and the political system and to enable the president to continue at the helm. Besides, how much credibility can be attached to the referendum which supposedly provides the legal underpinning for General Musharraf’s presidency and to the October elections which have given the country its present set of assemblies?

The envoys have also been instructed to project Pakistan as a state desiring friendship with its neighbours in the region. True, it is now more than evident that the people of Pakistan are tired of the state of no-war no-peace with India — often bordering on hostility — in which they have been living for the past several years. They want peace with India and whenever they have been permitted, the people have tried to create bonds of friendship with those in the neighbouring country.

But can the same be said about the policy line adopted by the government in Islamabad? True, it has always declared that it stands for peace and friendship with its neighbours. But statements and proclamations of intentions alone are not enough. They have to be followed by actions, which unfortunately have not been forthcoming in sufficient measure. Be it Afghanistan or India, Pakistan’s conflicts with them are far from resolved and one can hardly say that Islamabad has gone that extra mile which would qualify it to be regarded as a friendship-seeking neighbour.

As for projecting Pakistan as a “success story”, to use the president’s words, it would be a pretty hard job for the Foreign Office to perform. The president spoke of the macroeconomic indicators which point to the country becoming a hub of economic activity. This unfortunately is not quite visible. While economic growth has not shown a remarkable increase — it was 5.1 per cent in the last fiscal year — poverty has increased and is now nearly 33 per cent with nearly 95 million people living on an income of less than two dollars a day.

Poverty has brought crime in its wake. This has a direct bearing on investment and economic activity. The absence of security and safety proves to be the biggest deterrent to economic progress. When considered together with other factors that are key determinants of the investment climate of a country, Pakistan can hardly claim to be a success story. Low literacy and poor education make for a labour force with poor productivity. Fluctuations in the prices of fuel and power, combined with frequent changes in economic policy, do not encourage industrial growth for they create instability in the cost of production which no entrepreneur would welcome.

So the government would do well to concentrate on putting its own house in order rather than focusing on an image-polishing job. From the start, the governments in office in Pakistan have held foreign policy as their first priority. They have focused on external relations in an attempt to enhance the country’s international stature, forgetting that a country’s image can be no better than its domestic profile.

In their keenness to project Pakistan as a major power, policy makers have invariably ignored the domestic stability and economic viability of the country. Thus Pakistan entered the military pacts with the West much against popular opinion in the country. The alliance with the US brought in its wake dependence on foreign aid and the concomitant curse of a spiralling debt burden. Similarly, the involvement in the Afghan war brought the drug and heroin culture which has ravaged the country.

At the root of this mindset of our policy makers is the compulsion to seek a countervailing factor to the predominance of India in the subcontinent. Admittedly, India and Pakistan did not start off on a happy note in 1947. But subsequently we proved to be the losers as we failed to achieve national integration, political stability, economic progress with social justice and human resource development.

Our attempt to use foreign policy as a tool to outmanoeuvre India while domestic issues went by default has not really paid off. The fact is that the link between the foreign policy and a country’s domestic state is inextricable. Both interact on one another. But domestic policy comes first since it provides the basis for external relations. Post-war Germany and Japan concentrated on their political structures and economic systems to rebuild their ravaged countries. Only after they had emerged as economic giants did they venture to seek a political role for themselves.

It is time we put aside the competitive nature of our relationship with New Delhi, which creates the compulsion for us to seek a high-profile foreign policy. Pakistan needs to clean the Augean stables at home first.