Does Nepal need innovation in foreign policy?Our leaders should have the political wisdom to optimise soft power and attract investment.
The classical concept of foreign policy saw it as the policy pursued by a state in its dealings with other states with the aim of achieving national interests. But many non-state, non-governmental and inter-governmental actors too pursue policies on multi-track levels with implications on foreign policy. This denotes that a careerist, status quoist and regime-oriented foreign policy cannot be a viable option to achieve national stability. Since foreign policy issues are high profile subjects, their governance requires multi-track engagements, professionalism and competence backed by strong policy inputs. Nepal, wedged between two Asian power giants, India and China, occupies a strategic pivot vital for them and other great powers. Its diversified ties with them help secure a balancing act, scope for sovereignty, international creditworthiness and an ability to adapt to shifting geopolitics.
Certain facts about its foreign policy are worthy of note to underscore what the government’s new 'integrated foreign policy' unveils. First, the critical role of foreign policy is to promote national interests based on realpolitik, the objective circumstances of geopolitics. Second, it is premised on learning the historical choices for the nation so that assertion, accommodation, neutrality or certain strategic distancing and strategic proximity with neighbours and compatibility with the outside powers can be aptly articulated. Third, it is rooted in certain normative constitutional frames based on abstract ideals. Fourth, it is defined by the nation's self-image, geographic and institutional capabilities and aspirations of the leaders to play a proactive role in the community of nations favouring 'rule-based, not deal based system'. And finally, its efficiency is based on the robustness of national consensus, dexterity of its diplomats and international acceptability of its initiatives.
The policy of diversification has provided it a measure of a safety valve and a semblance of deterrence to security threats, and enabled it to maintain its own way of life. From the time of the Mallas, Ranas and Shahs to the present, Nepal has sought a balance of power approach, tilting sometimes to one or the other power if an opportunity arose, but not entirely relying on any one power. The mantra of diversification had been practised by Jung Bahadur Rana, BP Koirala and king Mahendra as they, like statespersons, knew the utility of foreign policy for national identity, and did not reduce it to class, market, ideology, partisan or personal interests.
It is unclear whether the changing global geopolitics of Asia now offers Nepal an opportunity to reset or innovate foreign policy options or remain in continuity with certain modifications in styles Nepal needs to probe into the relative advantage of the United States' Indo-Pacific Strategy, India's Look South and China's Belt and Road Initiatives against a backdrop of its constitutional values, tradition of statecraft and insight into diplomatic history. Covid-19, Nepali migrants' plight, economic and ecological decline and political wrangling indicate Nepal's vulnerability, requiring innovation in its hitherto regime-driven foreign policy. The lessons learned by three statespersons—Prithvi Narayan Shah, Jung Bahadur Rana and BP Koirala—are significant as to how they navigated the nation in difficult situations and ensured autonomy in policy matters. Statespersons learn from history. They do not transcend its patterns and, therefore, do not repeat the mistakes.
Given Nepal's internal disadvantage owing to a lack of institutionalisation of polity, it should maintain principles of accommodation of regional interests and play constructive roles in the forums of the United Nations, least developed countries and landlocked and small states. Solidarity with the forums of small states can increase its voice for justice, minimise the risks of foreign intervention in its internal affairs and optimise foreign policy manoeuvrability. Acting in concert with like-minded nations as a pressure group can enhance an equal relationship with the evolving powers in the context of a geo-strategic shift.
Nepal’s web of ties beyond the neighbours, such as with the US, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea, France and the Gulf countries, and international regimes such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Non-Aligned Movement would bind it into alternative forums for international communication. Nepal is a middle nation in the global ranking of nations, but small relative to the demographic, geographic, military, economic and technological prowess of its neighbours. A nation may be small, but it does not mean it is deprived of intellectual innovation, diplomatic skill and creativity.
Nepal's constitution articulates the general principles of Nepali foreign policy. Tapping into the 'institutional memory' of enlightened diplomats, politicians and national think tanks is a vital aspect of adapting, shaping and innovating foreign policy effectiveness. The self-image of Nepal as a small, landlocked and least developed nation does not mean that it has less human and natural resource potentials to promote sustainable progress. Nepal's cultural, natural and social capital, if harnessed properly, can contribute to its development profile.
What is required of Nepali leaders is the political wisdom to optimise soft power, national interests and attract investment in priority areas so that the connecting forces of society can contribute to nation-building. The economy is the lifeblood of diplomacy. Nepal's economic diplomacy, too, aims to promote brain gain, aid, trade-investment, technology transfer and remittance. They are the factors of the global integration process and escape from core-periphery ties or unequal exchange.
A shift in Nepali politics from a zone of confrontation to a zone of what BP Koirala called national reconciliation is a vital narrative to evade external subversion, intervention and use of proxies for eternal regime changes to influence its domestic and foreign policy. Koirala knew the moral voice of small nations, conceptualised and strategised the focus of diplomacy, diversified Nepal’s diplomatic relations with 16 countries, and internationalised its sovereignty. Foreign policy becomes realistic if Nepali leaders truly realise the domestic goals enshrined in the constitution without being divorced from many international obligations. Nepali leaders need to keep prudent rationality in pursuing the nation's foreign policy, promote national interests in cooperative terms, and avoid the trap of the great powers’ ill manoeuvres.
Chaudhary is a senior leader of the Nepali Congress and a former minister.