Foreign Policy in a Changing World

In the arena of international relations, there is no such thing as equality. The perception of state’s power and national interests set the stage of how states interact with each other. Coincidently, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the United States coincided with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United Kingdom. The difference of reception of both leaders by their host countries is a classic example how states perceive other states and treat them accordingly.

On one hand, China is the biggest pillar of the global economy and with its growing firepower (which as per military numbers is third only to the United States and Russia) is set to rise soon on the global scene as the next super power. On the other hand, there is Pakistan which albeit its immense potential, and impressive military only lags too far behind and has largely existed since independence as a mere client state to the United States (Mazhar and Goraya 2013). Although, I do not completely agree with the two respectable scholars from the University of the Punjab, there can be little argument that Pakistan’s behaviour has largely been dependent on the policies of the United States.

A country’s foreign policy, as well as its international image, cannot be separated from its internal political stability, the strength of its civilian institutions, its national security as well as its overall economic outlook. In the post 9/11 world, counter-terrorism has become an integral part of foreign policies of many countries including Pakistan. Dan Byman of Brookings Institution argues how focusing only on counter-terrorism has limited the American ability to pursue larger interests in the Middle East. He further argues that it is essential to differentiate between ‘terrorist’ groups as groups which rely only on ‘terrorist tactics’ such as Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), its Yemeni affiliate, and groups who engage in roles that go well beyond traditional ‘terrorist tactics’ and act as pseudo-states running schools, hospitals, charity organizations, social welfare as well as employing conventional military activities such as Hamas, ISIS, Hezbollah and Afghan Taliban.

Counter-terrorism has become a corner stone of foreign policy for many countries

The JTJ in their beheading videos displayed a jihadist black flag with a white or yellow circle below the shahada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I categorically differ with Dan Byman’s comparative analysis and description of these militant outfits, however, he provides useful hints for Pakistani policymakers as well, I will elaborate on such points later here.

Changing Strategic Balance

In a time of global strategic re-alignment and growing proxy wars, it is high time that Pakistan re-evaluates not only its foreign policy and alignment but its internal policies as well. Ideally, if the world somehow or the other, miraculously, agree on a common ground and outreach to contain and hopefully end the regional wars, there is little reason for Pakistan to worry. However, this is highly unlikely given the scepticism and anguish found in various state and non-state actors involved in the Middle East, Central Asia and beyond. Syria is just one, extremely brutal, part of the larger problem, there are Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine as well as the Yemen questions which hang the whole region in the balance. There are so many conflicting interests of the various warring parties that it is at this point hard to imagine how this may be pacified. The reverberations of unrest in the Middle East is felt across the Islamic crescent.

With Russia now active in Syria, and American attempts to contain China in the South China sea, there are already growing concerns of ‘accidents’, ‘miscalculations’, and a ‘new cold war’. With all likelihood, the 3 most militarily powerful countries of the world are on a head-on collision course unless sanity prevails somewhere. It is not improbable that the Chinese and the Russians synergise their diplomatic and military efforts to challenge the global hegemon. There may be little argument in the fact that global strategic balance is changing, now there is open opposition to American dominance, and Uncle Sam is not only losing credibility but influence in the sensitive regions of Eurasia.

Maximum Non-Alignment: A Policy Option

Pakistan has longstanding relations with many of the key players in the region. The future of Afghanistan and its relations with India top the so many foreign policy and security challenges for the country. Many of the Islamic, as well as Western, countries, look up to Pakistan’s role in helping solve these many regional crises. However, Western countries, in particular, are unsure about Pakistan’s intentions as well as capabilities. The country has its own religiously and ethnically diverse population which is directly affected by the Middle East crisis. What adds to the complexity is its many domestic problems which decapitate its ability to handle foreign policy challenges effectively.

In times like these, it is only pragmatic to stay largely neutral. Pakistan’s unnecessary leaning to any side of the conflicts in Central Asia and the Middle East will jeopardise it internally as well as compromise its interests internationally.

Owing largely to its diverse population, Pakistan should not be directly or indirectly involved with conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq while staying committed to the integrity and protection of the two holy sites of Makkah and Medina. The country should not become a party to the Iran-Saudi tussle. The GCC countries are being drained by their Yemeni adventure, and Pakistan should remain cautious and on guard as increasing instability and war among the Arabs will directly affect our local population. The country’s leadership should counsel Arab counterparts to pay more attention to conflict resolution instead of getting deeper in the mess.

Now that the conflict is knocking at Turkish doors, and major powers are involved in the conflict, Pakistan has to tread a careful and delicate path. The country should avoid foreign conflict at all costs while helping friendly nations wherever it can through expertise, intelligence sharing, cooperation in development as well as moral and diplomatic support. These policies of cooperation should be governed by pragmatic national needs and interests, and not on political rhetoric or emotional whims. It should not overly sympathise and support any actor in the region to antagonise another with which we share a strong need for bilateral relations and cooperation.

On Afghanistan, Pakistan needs to defend its current position. The West should not be allowed to embrace India in Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan’s territorial integrity and interests. It should bolster its efforts to continue to expose India’s anti-Pakistan activities on Afghan soil taking all international forums and friendly nations on board on the matter. Pakistan should also impress upon the United States that it should not expect Pakistan to do more while they neglect and ignore their own commitments and our sensitivities. Pakistan should keep supporting the policy of peaceful and inclusive Afghanistan, however, Pakistan must not be made a scapegoat for American failures in Afghanistan.

The country also needs to impress upon the Americans the reality of their twisted logic of bringing Afghan Taliban on negotiation table all the while they call them terrorists and bomb them. Building on the thesis of Dan Byman of Brookings, this cannot and will not happen unless the America ceases its double standards and sees the Afghan Taliban beyond the ‘counter-terrorism’ narrative. In any case, Pakistan should not be made to suffer for a confused American strategy. Also, it may not be a bad idea to fence up our western border with Afghanistan.

For India, Pakistan should stop its attempts to appease India to resume talks and largely ignore the racist regime in India, all the while maintaining the minimum deterrence policy to keep the fascists in New Delhi at bay. The country should step up its diplomatic efforts and moral support for Kashmir, and keep exposing India’s brutal regime in the disputed territory.

Domestic Strength – the Key to Effective Foreign Policy

Internally, Pakistan has to go all-out after crime and corruption. It has to make a substantial effort on improving its governance record especially with respect to participatory politics, the rule of law, equity and consensus-based decision-making. The country’s law enforcing agencies need to ensure that law is enforced impartially and swiftly. The policies, regulations and laws both at the federal and provincial levels have to be made to guarantee fairness and inclusiveness without discrimination and victimization of any particular community, sect or segment of the society.

Drawing on the argument in my paper on Social Justice and Motivated Violence earlier this year, it is imperative to research and discover the root causes of non-state militarist mindset instead of blind following policies worked up by Pentagon associated think tanks. If the war is against the non-state militarist mindset and not against a religion or way of life; a ruling to bar a Hafiz-e-Quran from becoming a member of the higher judiciary of the country (Recorder 2013) is the kind of policy that brews motivated violence on religious or sectarian lines and proves the narrative that our ruling elite is no more than western stooges.

The same goes out for the matters of Madrassah reform, amplifier ban and policy on the religious congregation of any kind, the government should pursue decision-making through consensus without sidelining any particular school of thought. There is also a dire need of aggressive and holistic administrative, judicial and legal reforms in the country and to transfer power and authority appropriately to the grassroots levels strengthening local governance and due political process. The state institutions need not only be strengthened but also made more responsive and proactive than reactive.

The politicians should realise now after 70 years of experience that matters of national security cannot be separated from foreign and domestic policy. The military cannot remain insouciant to these delicate issues in which it is a key stakeholder. While the military ideally should not be in the driving seat on civilian matters, the responsibility lies on the civilian leadership to keep the military on board on matters of strategic importance and that military sensitivities are given due importance. It is vital for Pakistan to grow as a viable state and that its civilian and military leaderships develop a mutually acceptable and respectable formula for governance and policy decision-making.

We need to be very clear that strong foreign policy is the product of internal strength. One cannot overemphasize the importance of putting our own house in order.

On Economic Outlook

A positive and promising economic outlook is a key ingredient in effective foreign policy. Pakistan’s economy is still dependent on foreign intervention, and this cannot continue if we wish to have more assertive foreign policy and prestige in the international arena. Our economic policy mostly relies on economic cooperation from a handful of major powers and international financial institutions. While the prospect of billions of dollars of investment from China and Russia is nice and dandy, but to put all the eggs in their basket is as futile as to rely only on the United States. We should diversify our economic cooperation venues. Pakistan should aggressively look for more market access, and economic cooperation, especially with ASEAN countries, EU and Latin America.

Pakistan needs to place swiftly bringing the endemic energy crisis to an end as its top economic priority to help boost domestic economic activities. Large scale infrastructure projects may be good for overall economic stimulation, however, they need to be prioritized to address chronic economic deficiencies of the country not just for political number scoring or to benefit certain large businesses. The country needs to simplify taxation and tax return filing process. The attempts to broaden tax net should not be used to further squeeze already struggling middle class and small to medium-sized business owners rather they should be focused more on rounding up large tax evaders.

On Security and Counter-Terrorism

Dan Byman’s paper at least clarifies one thing – that there is an essential need to classify ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist groups’, and hence be dealt with accordingly. However, I have to state my difference of opinion, Byman’s effort to classify these groups solely on the basis of their modus operandi fairly limits the scope of differentiation and narrows our vision and understanding of these non-state and pseudo-state actors. It simplifies their difference only on the basis of methods of combatant engagement and overlooks the vital local, cultural, historical, and sociopolitical aspects of their development, which are vital to understanding them and to have a meaningful effective policy of dealing with them.

Extreme measures in response to extreme measures only brew more hatred and violence and perpetuates bloody conflicts. The continued policy of using brute force mindlessly will only keep aggravating the situation, and these groups will be replaced one after another with no guarantees to what modus operandi the newcomers will choose. The last 14 years of this policy only validates my hypothesis, as the world is increasingly unsafe and dangerous. As Vladimir Putin said in his September 28 address to the UN that he could not stand this state of affairs of the world any longer, a global change of policy is the need of the hour.

Many local and international experts, time and again, have highlighted the fact that American aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq was pre-planned and had nothing to do with the “counter-terrorism” narrative that America used to justify its illegal wars. Vladimir Putin is also laying bare the fact that American usage of the term is more a matter of convenience and depends solely on American interests and objectives in a given territory. Pakistan has suffered much more than the United States in this marriage of convenience. However, now is the right time that Pakistan takes off the glasses gifted by Pentagon and the CIA and puts on its own spectacles based on its own interests.

It has to be understood that these groups which Dan Byman classifies as not mere ‘terrorist’ groups but as pseudo-states have to be re-examined in light of ground realities. These pseudo-states exist because they are a ground reality, they have born out of a vacuum and filled a void which even if eliminated somehow will be replaced probably by something more radical. They have deep roots in the local population which has enabled them to control not just large swathes of territory but also possess stately means to deliver what is expected of them by the local population.

These pseudo-states, such as Hamas, ISIS or Afghan Taliban, need to be re-evaluated in light of local ground realities, cultural, sociopolitical and historical contexts. They must not only be seen through the post-9/11 prism of American dictation. Any pragmatic and realistic effort to contain them or bring them to the mainstream may not come from military means but from engaging them through non-military means. As I have hinted above, the Afghan peace process may not realistically continue as long as Afghan Taliban are classified as terrorists and continued to be bombed. It will only keep escalating and growing the power of the insurgency, as it is evident from the past 14 years of the conflict. Military means may not bring any possible peaceful solution to the Afghan problem.

Speaking from a Pakistani perspective, the country’s leadership needs to develop its own definition of ‘terrorism’, and adopt a line independent of Washington. It should avoid engaging militarily with these pseudo-states as long as they do not directly pose a threat. The world believes that Pakistan secretly supports the Afghan Taliban movement, we should not try to prove them wrong militarily unless our own territorial integrity is at stake. We should avoid external conflicts at all costs.


In the end, we should learn the lesson from Henry Kissinger that there are no permanent friends or enemies in international politics, it all boils down to how we perceive and define our national interests.

We have to understand that our international respect cannot rise unless we are strong internally. The world is at a dangerous crossroads, and even if all the apocalyptic predictions go wrong we need to walk an extremely careful path. We need to stop overly relying on one or two major powers, and adopt a more diversified approach while building bilateral relations. We need to refrain from becoming party to conflicts abroad while at the same time ensuring that our vital national interests are not endangered. And if the predictions of more dangerous and larger conflicts do come true someday, Pakistan needs respite and stability now to weather the coming storms.

The people and leaders of Pakistan need to stay united and focused as they jointly develop and share the future course and vision for our country. In all likelihood, the world is all set for an extremely bumpy ride.


1. Mazhar, M. S. and N. S. Goraya (2013). “Foreign Policy of Pakistan: Internal Challenges.” Journal of Political Studies 20(2): 91.

2. Recorder, B. (2013). “Comments sought from govt on petition of judge’s appointment.” Retrieved January 2, 2014, from


2 thoughts on “Foreign Policy in a Changing World

  1. liked uncle sams analysis…good one…i wish to analyse how far we are from where we stand now…we definitely need to be precise in setting our foreign policy goals and then how to go about them managing ouselves internally and outwardly..good job bilal

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