Looking outwardsOnly a non-partisan and consistent domestic policy will allow Nepal to escape external influence
Has Nepal’s foreign policy really shrunk, confining the country to its immediate neighbours China and India? Or is it the reflection of the changed context of world politics that makes both big and small powers uncertain and unpredictable on a global scale. Both are possible, as the end of the Cold War radically transformed the world political scenario, throwing nation-states into confusion. Much hyped movements (non-alignment etc.) and regional organisations are now irrelevant and no new formations have taken their place. Now, regionalism is imperilled by the inward-looking policies of member states due to mounting internal pressure that prevents states from opening their borders too wide. The issues of terrorism, migration, refugees, increasing economic crises and failure of states to cope with newer challenges and threats, plus vanishing ideologies in the world have not helped in the evolution of regional organisations. Even Europe has faltered in this mission, reflecting the end of the Cold War bonhomie that bound European nations together to meet common threats and challenges, either perceived or real. Lamenting on the present state of the European Union, President Emmanuel Macron of France said recently that the EU idea “is more fragile than ever” adding that it is “too inefficient and too slow”.
No teeth, no policy
Thus, this trend of in-ward looking policies is world-wide despite a gradual increase in the membership numbers of regional organisations. The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc), which was initially taken as a collective guarantee to small countries’ security and development is drifting further from its common goal, not least because of its moribund condition as a result of two antagonistic neighbours, India and Pakistan. India seems to be more interested in promoting the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), including all members of Saarc except Afghanistan and Pakistan and with the addition of Myanmar and Thailand. This design also fits into India’s Look East Policy (East Act Policy) that may, over the course of time, involve other countries of the Asia-Pacific Region.
Meanwhile, the rise of China and India as more assertive regional and global players has reduced the manoeuvrability of small countries vis-à-vis these two neighbours whose cooperative endeavours sometimes turn into adversarial relations as has been shown by the recent border incident in the Doklam area. Moreover, the arrogance of power is also evident in their behaviour, which has considerable repercussions on the conduct of the foreign policies of smaller states like Nepal.
Nepal’s location has made it much more concerned than ever before about the emerging active geo-politics or geo-strategic manoeuvres of its neighbours. Two reasons seem to be responsible for making Nepal more circumscribed in its foreign policy initiatives. First, since foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, the latter needs to be less divisive in articulating foreign policy objectives and strategies. Nepal’s political elites are perennially bogged down by internal politics which are invariably used to enhance their prospects of power rather than to devise a common foreign policy agenda that is more or less acceptable to most parties. Although it is a difficult task to forge such common agendas because of the fractious politics and self-centred leaders, these agendas are significant for the preservation of national independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Smart diplomacy is the only thing that can guarantee national security. Unless domestic politics does not take shape through stability, legitimacy and governmental efficiency, the foreign policy agenda will continue to be controversial, prompting political elites to polarise into opposite camps. Such a polarised environment is harmful to the country, as the rival powers will always try to drive a wedge between opposing camps.
The rise of China as a world power and the nervousness shown by those who want to contain it may present additional problems for Nepal. Nepal’s geo-political situation, the indifferent approach of Nepali politicians to domestic politics and foreign policy that allows domestic politics to be conflict-prone, and the temptation of extra-regional powers to form informal alliances in order to promote a containment policy are likely to be the greater challenges our state has to deal with. The divisive South Asian region is hardly expected to fulfil the avowed goal of regional cooperation. Instead, the region has member countries that are more inward looking with a purpose of safeguarding their vital national interests or alternatively who have to resort to the traditional strategy of playing one neighbour off against the other. But this is a risky game and may not always pay dividends. Its alternative would be to reformulate a specific policy for each neighbour without trying to make a comparison between them. India is closer to Nepal than China in many respects and hence Nepal-India relations cannot be equated with China, though Nepal’s relation with China, a next door neighbour, is no less significant. The policy of equidistance from both, which Nepali politicians have often highlighted, is therefore a misnomer with no practical relevance.
Weak structure leads to divisions
Since “foreign policy starts at home”, it is imperative that smart foreign policy is based on a number of factors, such as the understanding of the subject by leaders in both government and opposition who frame both short and long-run policies on the basis of formal and informal input coming from the supporting institutions and individual experts. Unfortunately, Nepal seems to have undermined the efforts of its institutions such as university research centres and non-governmental organisations that should be engaged in carrying out studies on different aspects of internal and foreign policies. Nor do the political leaders ever think of preparing and utilising trained manpower, as they are usually surrounded by sycophants. Internally, Nepal’s politics are still fragile and uncertain, as if the country is paradoxically stuck in a state of permanent transition. Groups and individuals with money, power and connections with parties and leaders have made inroads into the system, political organisations and service sectors. Corruption is rampant; political elites are either helpless or in collusion with unscrupulous elements who have great influence over the conduct of state affairs. Even procedural democratic practices are distorted as parties’ leaders use Parliament as an authorising rubber stamp that can be used at their beck and call; elections are highly influenced by money and other resources; partisan spirit has invaded all branches of government; and performance is almost nil in every sector.
So, foreign policy challenges do not arise as a result of external threats as much as they do from domestic problems. These domestic problems also provide an opportunity for external actors who are eager to manage Nepal’s internal problems to become involved. Challenges also occur when “xenophobic nationalism” rather than good governance supported by sound foreign policy is used to resist external influence. The Madhes controversy, for instance, that has dominated Nepal’s domestic political scene and in all probability will continue to do so in the future could have been well settled already if the principal political parties’ leaders could have realised the long-term implications of the problem. I still feel that the Madhes has now become a permanent flash point for Nepal’s political crisis and will remain as such if politicians continue to take it for granted and always consider it to be externally manipulated and conspired by a foreign power, India.
- Baral is a professor and former Nepali ambassador to India