Consensus foreign policy: Desirable, but can parties have it?A task force of the ruling alliance has called for a foreign policy based on consensus. It is possible if national interest is kept above petty party interests, experts say.
Seeking national consensus on Nepal’s foreign policy is one of the suggestions of a task force formed by the current ruling alliance, which was assigned to prepare the common minimum programme of the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government.
The recommendation once again brings to the fore a crucial point—how Nepal’s foreign policy is shaped and why every new government makes an attempt to showcase a foreign policy of its own?
Experts and analysts say the country’s foreign policy should be guided by strategies to safeguard national interest. A foreign policy should be of the state, not of any particular party in power, and it should consist of the approaches that the government should deploy strategically in its relations with other countries, according to them.
“Any idea built on consensus is good. A foreign policy based on national consensus can be very helpful in our context,” says Sridhar Khatri, a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University.
“But our wish list is often too long. Managing the items on the list needs coherence and a focused approach. Implementation of the ideas aimed at what we want to achieve is the key.”
There is no clarity yet on what kind of national consensus the ruling alliance is seeking when it comes to foreign policy.
Narayan Kaji Shrestha, a leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), said seeking a consensus-based foreign policy does not necessarily mean a new policy document as such.
“What we mean is our goal should be having a foreign policy for the state, which is not based on any particular political ideology,” Shrestha, a former foreign minister, told the Post. “National interest should be the top priority.”
Stating that the country did not have a “dedicated” foreign policy, the erstwhile KP Sharma Oli government had unveiled what it called “an integrated foreign policy document” in December last year.
While making the new foreign policy public, then foreign minister Gyawali said that “its fundamental objective is to protect and promote the country’s national interest”.
“We need such a policy that can define our country’s role in the changed geopolitical, regional and global contexts,” said Pradeep Gyawali.
Though he claimed that it was a “consensus” document, it had drawn flak from experts and politicians.
The then main opposition Nepali Congress and some other parties were not consulted, while a section of Gyawali’s own party had expressed reservations.
The foreign policy unveiled by Gyawali had also met with criticism for failing to have a proper orientation, as well as for not identifying implementing mechanisms and not identifying the real issues Nepal has been facing when it comes to its foreign policy conduct and relations with other countries.
Asked what would be the status of the foreign policy document unveiled by the erstwhile government, a Nepali Congress leader made an oblique remark: “Our party was not consulted and taken into confidence when the foreign policy was prepared.”
He would not say if the current ruling alliance is going to dump the document brought by the erstwhile government.
The task force’s proposal that the country should have a consensus-based foreign policy is likely to ignite a debate among parties and experts if the idea really gets traction.
The proposal has been made in the common minimum programme prepared by the seven-member task force led by Nepali Congress leader Purna Bahadur Khadka. The Khadka-led committee recommended that the ruling alliance seek a national consensus on foreign policy issues. It also called for building a national consensus while implementing the policy.
Experts and observers say building a national consensus on foreign policy is not something that is unachievable but questions remain whether implementation is possible in a country where there are parties with diverse political ideologies.
When Gyawali unveiled the foreign policy last year, some Maoist Centre leaders, who were part of the government, were not happy. At that time the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which was formed after a merger between CPN-UML and the Maoist Centre, was the ruling party. The Supreme Court, however, on March 7 invalidated the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and revived the UML and the Maoist Centre.
The Maoist Centre is currently the key coalition partner in the Deuba-led government. Deuba also has the backing of the Janata Samajbadi Party. As many as 22 lawmakers from the UML, including 14 from the Madhav Nepal faction, also had voted for Deuba on July 16 when he went for a floor test.
“It is not possible to have consensus on each and every issue, but in a broader sense, we should have one single policy and orientation when it comes to our relations with other countries,” said Shrestha, the former foreign minister who is also the spokesperson for the Maoist Centre.
“Our location is geopolitically sensitive so we have to build a national consensus when it comes to our foreign policy conduct.”
After returning to power, for the fifth time, Deuba now faces a stiff challenge with regards to relations with countries like China and India, the immediate neighbours, and the United States.
The task force’s proposal that consensus should be built appears to stem from the fact that there are some crucial issues directly related to these countries, and the ruling alliance needs to maintain a fine balance, as they will be a significant part of foreign policy behaviour.
“When it comes to India, there is this issue of the new Nepal map, regarding China, there is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and in the case of the United States, there is Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC),” said another ruling party leader. “In such issues, we need to build a national consensus so as to steer clear of any controversy. But how we can materialise this idea of broader consensus is the big question.”
Nepal’s bilateral relations with India have hit a roadblock ever since the Oli government unveiled the new map of Nepal by including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within the Nepali territory, according to the leader.
“There are divergent views on ratifying the MCC from Parliament,” the leader told the Post. “Not even a single project has been selected under the BRI even four years after it was signed.”
Now with the Deuba-Dahal alliance in power in Kathmandu, the government is set to face a tough time playing a balancing act, and the task force’s proposal of consensus-based foreign policy appears to revolve around that.
“The MCC, the BRI and geopolitical rivalries are some of the challenges the new government will come face to face with,” said Geja Sharma Wagle, who writes extensively on foreign policy and geopolitical affairs. “Major political parties must build a national consensus on national security and foreign policy issues.”
While foreign policy conduct should be Deuba’s major and immediate priority, he has been struggling to give his government a full shape even more than three weeks after assuming office.
Deuba is yet to appoint a foreign minister, largely due to a lack of consensus among the coalition partners. Experts say when consensus looks so difficult among government partners to make ministerial appointments, a broader consensus on foreign policy looks good just on the drawing board.
“It’s not that national consensus is not possible. We saw such consensus among parties while unveiling the new Nepal map,” said Khatri, the professor at Tribhuvan University. “We need to first identify the issues and then we should build a modality for implementation mechanisms.”
According to Khatri, in Nepal, political parties often “wish to do this or that”, but they barely give a thought to how they are going to implement them.
“The foreign policy is not meant for a particular government; it should be of the state,” said Khatri, who led a foreign policy task force in 2017 when Deuba was the prime minister.
“Every government needs to pay attention to how the state should conduct its foreign policy and what tradition and legacy it is going to leave for the successors.”