Foreign policy dilemmaFor the last 70 years or so, every sphere of national life in Nepal has been characterised by ad hocism, and diplomacy is no exception. Successive regimes have tried to develop an independent and pragmatic policy framework governing the country’s external relations that would help it maintain its long cherished identity as a sovereign country
For the last 70 years or so, every sphere of national life in Nepal has been characterised by ad hocism, and diplomacy is no exception. Successive regimes have tried to develop an independent and pragmatic policy framework governing the country’s external relations that would help it maintain its long cherished identity as a sovereign country. Notwithstanding what foreign service mandarins maintain for popular consumption, Nepal has conspicuously failed to define its precise national interest and the policy planks it would employ to promote and protect them.
Ever since Nepal emerged as a participatory democratic state following the collapse of the Panchayat system some 30 years ago, its leading political actors found it more propitious to use foreign policy approaches and initiatives absolutely for their political survival, a reminder of the detestable legacy of the Rana oligarchy.
Throughout the political transition, India became obviously the central axis of Nepal’s foreign relations and enjoyed unrivalled obeisance from its political stakeholders across the board. Owing to political instability and frequent government changes, Nepal missed an opportunity to devise a long-term foreign policy. It was not prioritised by any political leadership whose single fixation was, unfortunately, clinging to the seat of power. New Delhi and Beijing remained their political Mecca to seek blessings and advice.
It is a universal practice that foreign policy is conducted through an efficient institutional mechanism that is detached from political predispositions and biases. However, in Nepal, it is not national interests that dictate foreign policy, it is the political interests of the party in power. Crafting a dynamic policy framework to reposition Nepal’s ties with the developed countries and expand their cooperation to other areas of mutual interest remains wishful thinking. Nor has any political leadership unequivocally spelled out how it would dispel the spurious security paranoia that India and China have been harbouring over the years. Our relations with these contiguous neighbours have so far been guided more by emotional considerations and political expediencies than by objective reality. It is indeed a serious deficiency in our bilateral relations.
To put it simplistically, foreign policy is an activity whereby state actors act, react and interact in their bilateral and multilateral dealings with external actors. Its architects straddle two separate environments—internal or domestic environment and external or global environment. Internal political dynamics forms the background context against which a policy is crafted. Factors such as the state’s resource base, its geographical position in relation to others, the level of development of its economy, its demographic structure and the political ideology it pursues form the domestic milieu. The international environment is where a nation’s foreign policy is actually implemented. Regional perspectives, too, play an equally vital role in approaching the international environment because geopolitics sets the parameters in all aspects of foreign policy. Therefore, for the evolution of a balanced and proactive foreign policy, the regional dimension becomes crucially important.
Every sovereign state follows a set of ground rules in its dealings with other independent political entities. Owing to the progressive growth of regional and sub-regional alliances with economic or strategic undercurrents, the impending diplomatic terrain that Nepal is bracing for could be fraught with unforeseen perils. Political regimes may change at regular intervals, but a country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be compromised at any cost. Nepal needs to maintain a judicious balance in its foreign policy posture vis-à-vis the neighbours and donor countries who practically wield a vital key to Nepal’s economic reconstruction and infrastructural development.
Despite being a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which is a regional organization, Nepal has joined the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which is a sub-regional alliance purportedly created to isolate Pakistan, another founding member of the, now quadriplegic, regional outfit. Nepal is a party to the China-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative and is uncomfortably standing on the threshold of the US-sponsored concept of the Indo-Pacific Strategy which, in all probability, is an ingenuously crafted stratagem to restrict the growing economic and political clout of China over the region.
Thus, Nepal today faces a peculiar diplomatic dilemma: It can neither antagonise China, a superpower in the making, by ignoring its economic and security interests nor can it afford to annoy the sole superpower, the US, who extended tangible political support and economic assistance to Nepal in its struggle to establish itself as a sovereign country during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The days ahead will show to what extent Nepal demonstrates its diplomatic prescience, dexterity and acumen in finding a safe and dignified exit from this predicament. Nepal’s political establishment has been nurturing a misperception that high-level visits are a mark of success of its foreign policy and a crowning accomplishment of an envoy’s tour of duty. The success of a country’s foreign policy lies in minimising mutual mistrust and maximizing economic cooperation for mutual benefit. Sadly, Nepal lags far behind on both counts.
- Khanal is a retired chief of protocol of Nepal.