External affairs, domestic battlesOur governance and policy-making are routinely held hostage to political squabbling.
Parliament is again in turmoil over what our politicos think they understand rather than what seems to be the case. The media cacophony over the United States government’s State Partnership Programme (SPP) fuelled the discourse inside and outside Parliament, and looks eerily similar to the uproar over the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement. And once again, there is a real danger mainstream journalism may be losing the agenda to the social media click bait.
The US government website explains that SPP is a multi-faceted military exchange where partner countries can benefit from combat and non-combat technical capabilities, including disaster preparedness, response, technology transfer, logistical support, intelligence sharing and issues of common concerns like cyber-crime and terrorism. Going by the published documents in the media and the current Nepal Army chief’s statement, Nepal had expressed interest in the partnership as early as 2015. For a country routinely hit by disasters, the Nepali side was understandably convinced that it would benefit from some of these non-combat technical skills, technology and resources. Lack of capacity in our state in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake that caused widespread destruction and panic has already established a strong rationale for better disaster preparedness and response.
Counting the costs
Our concern must be whether or not past governments have complied with the institutional processes while engaging with something as sensitive as a military exchange programme. This would ideally include the Nepal Army’s top brass and the Ministry of Defence holding in-depth consultations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. They would seek advice from the relevant stakeholders, including the parliamentary committee and external experts. Once this exercise is done, the prime minister and the defence minister should feel confident to make a decision, assuming there is also a strong case for parliamentary backing. Therefore, the cross-party parliamentary committee is a crucial legislative cushion, which the executive should always feel empowered to use. If those in power bypass institutions and processes, it will only weaken their legal and moral capacity to defend their decisions. But if the procedures haven’t been followed, the Nepal Army and government leaders of today must own it, and the opposition should not politicise it simply because they stand on the other side of the aisle.
Having witnessed the MCC saga, it isn’t convincing if the question regarding the SPP is whether or not the institutions or the processes have been bypassed. I understand that public distrust stems more from a collective lack of confidence in our institutions and processes. And for that, every senior leader at the helm and in government decision-making positions must take their share of the blame. They have all presided over undermining the system and eroding public trust in the institutions and the processes. As a result, our governance and policy-making are routinely held hostage to domestic political squabbling. It is gradually chipping away at public confidence in the system, not to mention that Nepal’s international credibility has also taken a hit.
Nepal is undoubtedly presented with some hard foreign policy choices given our geopolitical location. And how we manage the contending interests of powerful countries while fulfilling domestic needs and maintaining our strategic values is a constant challenge that will get trickier in the coming years. But however we choose to grapple with it, for a country like Nepal, the unknown costs of disengaging with a superpower will present far more significant risks than those that come with an informed and calculated engagement. This is the mantra our foreign policy experts and diplomats in the Foreign Ministry would be well aware of. This would also be true of the Nepal Army, primarily responsible for external security and safeguarding our strategic interests. But what about the social media pundits and self-proclaimed experts who seem to be feeding the political squabbling over the SPP?
Fortunately, they don’t make the decisions for us. And those who do must first choose to trust the institutions and the processes that have been laid down. There is sufficient expertise within the Nepal Army, Defence Ministry and Foreign Ministry, and they are all at the disposal of Prime Minister Deuba and the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs. They can also reach out to domestic experts on foreign policy and strategic affairs if needed. But the government and the opposition must treat matters of external affairs with the sensitivity it deserves, and not use them to score domestic political brownies. Enough damage has already been done to Nepal’s international stature by the immature and uninformed MCC discourse.
Given the upcoming federal and provincial elections, the ruling coalition will want the SPP debate settled soon, which is evident in Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka’s recent statement. But if there is any takeaway from it all, it is this: We urgently need a broader national consensus on Nepal’s foreign policy and our top-line priorities that all parties are committed to. Also, a periodic orientation to parliamentarians on international relations and Nepal’s evolving strategic interests and geopolitical choices will ensure they can ask the right questions instead of than getting carried away by the noise on social media. That will go a long way in restoring public faith in the system.