Nepal’s view of the worldThe new foreign policy document, albeit a good start, lacks imagination.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday brought out a Foreign Policy document that outlines the country’s position on various bilateral and multilateral issues. By itself, this is a welcome step. A foreign policy doctrine that sets out Nepali foreign policy’s foundational ideas and prepares a roadmap for the future is much needed in the time of a global power contest. As has been the contemporary trend in elected democracies, the current administration has taken the credit for bringing out the document. Oli’s electoral promise of ‘Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepali’ has been imprinted in the preamble itself, with the slogan highlighted as a national aspiration.
While this column will not focus on all the principles outlined in the document, there are a few policies I find particularly interesting. The first is the emphasis on the Nepali diaspora, and to mobilise the non-residential Nepali’s ‘knowledge, skills, capital and communication network towards the nation’s development’ (translations mine). Another is the focus on soft power diplomacy and aligning it with national goals via public diplomacy. The emphasis on climate action is much required as well. The goal of non-alignment has been a long constant, even if modern Nepal’s geopolitical stance has mostly revolved around the question of whether the Kathmandu establishment veers towards Delhi or Beijing, with Washington as another power centre.
Beijing’s semiotics make an appearance with a focus on a ‘multidimensional connectivity network’ with the two neighbours, while the 2015 ‘unofficial’ Indian blockade also seems to have been on the policymakers’ minds with the emphasis on assuring freedom of transit and transportation that is due to a landlocked country. The document also suggests bilateral treaties will be revised, which may point towards India at first glance, but one must remember even China has been asking for a revision of the 1960 treaty since 2009 (and a former Nepali ambassador also said the same in an article).
Despite the repetitive focus on foreign policy working towards the ‘national interest’, one must be wary, for national interest is a vague term that is interpreted differently by different governments and leaders according to what a situation demands.
Further, under the section on refugees, the government seems to commit itself to the right of refugees to return home safely and peacefully. But as the Kantipur editorial correctly noted, the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees abroad already points to an acknowledgement of defeat on the question. More importantly, how will this policy translate with respect to Tibetan refugees?
The document has already been critiqued on the grounds that it is vague, that the government did not discuss its contents with other parties and stakeholders, that it promises much but doesn’t focus on specifics, and that much of it is old wine in a new bottle. All of these points are valid; however, foreign policy by its nature cannot be set in stone. One can have a generalised idea about a nation’s goals, but as circumstances change, so must policymaking (including foreign policy). A static foreign policy is far worse, for it implies a non-evolution of the thought process. Here, one can argue that non-alignment itself is a static goal that will increasingly be challenged in a time of global flux. Further, as critics have already said, Nepal needs to get rid of the ‘small country’ mentality that dominates our view of the world.
To me, the primary critique of the document must centre on its implementation. This is not just because policy implementation is the most difficult part in our part of the world—there are far too many examples of good policies disappearing into the unknown because of the lack of implementation—but also because of the tendency to regard a document as a stone tablet, which results in a lack of imagination about the means and methods one can use towards achieving policy goals. Here, the ‘Brain Gain Centre’ as envisioned by the government to tap into the Nepali diaspora’s skills and knowledge is a great example. Although the platform was launched in 2019, only about a thousand NRNs have reportedly registered on it. Further, there has been little clarity on how and when NRN skills will be put to use.
The lack of imagination is also most visible in how Nepal has perceived what soft power means today. The policy says Nepal will emphasise its unique national identity markers such as ‘its independent status, natural and cultural diversity, its indigenous peace process, and the Nepali speciality to become friends and cooperate with everyone’ as soft power to raise the country’s status among other nations. The rest of the verbose stratagem focuses on the usuals like ‘highlight Nepal’s inclusive people’s democracy and human rights commitments’, popularise Nepal’s ‘cultures, languages, arts, literature, festivals, customs, and dresses’, and Nepali society’s specialities like ‘peace-loving nature, tolerance, helpful nature and welcoming guests’ to take Nepali soft power abroad.
There is little to be said here, except that such obsolete generalisations belong to the past. Soft power diplomacy is not just about re-emphasising what the country has been known for, but also about what the country can offer to the world in the contemporary arena. For example, can Nepal’s natural and cultural heritage be tapped into making the country more attractive to foreign filmmakers, as New Zealand has done? Can Nepali products—like the khukuri, the lokta paper, or even the pashmina wool—be marketed in the world as products unique to it? And can there be a synergy between new-age arts and crafts makers and the powers that be to allow Nepal to regain its space as a regional (and perhaps even global) hub for artisanship as it was in the past? Soft power is equally about building a new brand—a new image for Nepal—as much as it is about tapping into cultural and natural heritage.
The greatest danger to the document, however, comes from the nature of our foreign engagements itself. If anything, one of the key markers of post-monarchy Nepal’s foreign policy has been its partisanship, and how different state institutions, parties and leaders have pursued their own goals during the last decade. If such partisanship continues into the future, the document will surely join the dusty ranks of several others in the government archives.