Addressing the 3Cs of Nepal’s foreign policyNepal must address its three fundamental Cs: Clarity about its national interest, Coherence among domestic actors and the Capacity of its diplomatic missions
After plunging to historic lows with the imposition of the blockade last year, Nepal-India ties are improving, albeit gradually. The crisis of confidence seen in the bilateral relations has hopefully forced both sides to initiate a fresh look at the nature and modality of bilateral engagement between the two countries.
While the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal India Relations was agreed on in 2014, prior to the deterioration of the relations, the fact that they have convened after one of the darkest periods in the bilateral relations should push the EPG to go beyond employing a template approach to its discussions and engagements. Reviewing treaties and the whole gamut of existing relationship is one aspect of it; equally important is to explore a new modality of cooperation that both sides find mutually beneficial and agreeable.
But all the gains from processes like the EPG will amount to very little if Nepal fails to address three fundamental problems linked to its foreign policy: Clarity on its national interests, coherence among domestic actors and the capacity of its diplomatic missions.
This begins by asking the right questions: How do we pursue and secure national interests in conducting our foreign policy? What are our national interests? Do we have an internal agreement on national objectives? And do we have the diplomatic capacity to pursue the said interests?
Sometime ago, the Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS) had run a discussion on this very topic. I was, at the time, a bit surprised that a German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) was funding these interactions and publications—at the end of which, several substantial volumes were compiled offering perspective on a wide range of issues.
But as long as our national institutions do not find this kind of exercise and brainstorming worthy enterprises to invest in, as long as they fail to rise above their petty factional interests, the process of formulating our national goals will never start in earnest. If this does not start, the task of achieving an internal coherence among the actors will remain incomplete as well.
The third issue, while not dependent on the first two, is nevertheless connected: our diplomatic capacity. Do our missions abroad have a sense of direction on what their priorities are? Do we have the right kind of personnel for each mission, unique to the location and in line with our national interests? Are they adequately funded? Are diplomats well versed in the local languages of their duty stations? For instance, in China, do we have diplomatic staff at relatively senior positions who speak Mandarin?
As a least developed country, we need to secure a huge amount of development finance to build our roads, canals, railways, airports and other infrastructures. Categorising missions abroad on the basis of their potential to mobilise resources should be considered. Diplomatic capacity simply doesn’t mean opening new missions like we have done in the past several years. Some countries even do not require a mission. In a globalised and digitally connected age, a lot can be done through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly at the personal intervention of the Minister in-charge.
Foreign Ministers today are expected to be proactive in reaching out to their counterparts directly as important events unravel. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa has rapidly adapted to the role expected of foreign minister in this era of tweeplomacy. His personal effort contributed significantly to reducing the negativity in Nepal-India ties since the blockade.
Given our size and our location (landlocked between India and China), we need to pursue a pragmatic policy—finding creative ways to punch above our weight at the global stage. This requires a degree of national confidence and a sense of our place in the world stage. We are poor and small only because of our imagination. The concept of a ‘yam between two rocks’ can be seen in different ways but currently the way it is being interpreted projects our fragility, not strength. And while the concept of becoming a bridge between India and China attempts to project newfound confidence, it needs to be underpinned by internal coherence accompanied by of improved capacity to act in the global stage.