The foreign policy enterpriseAcharya’s two-volume book on foreign policy and diplomacy is the first of its kind on Nepal.
A country’s foreign policy can be broadly examined by these criterias: physical setting, relevance, flexibility, coherence and execution. The location of a country is one of the determinants of foreign policy and any country, whether big or small, has to negotiate with this reality. Nestled between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans the United States, physical setting has secured its position to a great extent, despite multidimensional vulnerabilities faced by it in recent times. Events such as 9/11 show that even a favourable geographical position does not equate to complete security.
For a landlocked country like Nepal, the sources and sites of insecurity might be different, and needs to be treated accordingly. Historically, Nepali rulers often tried to create more space for realising imperial ambitions until their defeat in 1815. Later, the succeeding rulers were reconciled to the boundary determined by the Treaty of Sugauli (1815-16). Since then, Nepal has secured a territorial boundary between the two neighbours, India and China.
Relevance implies context, time and pragmatism; flexibility gives manoeuvrability to the extent possible, and coherence demands unity in action and the articulation of principles and action, along with the capability to execute policies. In the context of Nepal, or even in the larger context of small states in general, foreign policy supported by reliable diplomacy becomes the best guarantee to national security and development. How this country has been able to retain its distinct civilisational identity, territorial integrity and now burgeoning popular aspirations is the subject of much interest.
Madhu Raman Acharya, a former foreign secretary and ambassador, has produced two volumes on Nepal’s foreign policy and diplomacy (Nepal Worldview, Adroit, Delhi, 2019). The first volume deals with foreign policy starting with discussions on the evolution of Nepal’s international identity in which the syncretic Hindu-Buddha worldview has added to Nepal’s soft power. Stretching it further, the author’s worldview includes a variety of areas such as the vanishing of Nepal’s Shangri-La image, regional variations, ethnic diversities, political conflicts and their resolution at home. Instead of prioritising the location of the country between the two giant neighbours, the author has dealt with many other variables, usually perceived to be less prominent, for determining national identity.
The second chapter alludes to the emergence of China and India as ‘new powers.’ Although, for Nepal, these two countries have remained as permanent powers—having tremendous impact on the country. Nepal and India inherit close links in almost all aspects of national life that cannot be compared with any other country of the world. The author has mentioned these two powers as the elephant and the dragon, with the former (India) always being in the room, and the latter lately showing its active presence for ‘competitive rivalry’.
Portraying India as a ‘colonial power’ that is overbearing for Nepal, the author could have made a distinction between colonial ego and a power aspiring to maintain its ‘sphere of influence’in its so called backyard. Nonetheless, India continues to remain our closest neighbour despite the changing geo-political realities and the international situation. In the section ‘Immediate Neighbours First’, the author tries to relate the regional dynamics to other areas of activities complaining that ‘Nepal’s regional policy is often filled with slogans without commensurate diplomacy, in-depth studies and programmatic action.’
The succeeding portions of the book are a good narrative of Nepal’s indulgences in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and how this regional endeavour has come under shadow due to the inimical relations between the two SAARC members, India and Pakistan. It seems that the implementation of SAARC as a regional organisation was the product of whims and caprices of some South Asian rulers, especially the president of Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman who,without understanding the divisive region, wanted to emulate other regional organisations such as European Union [then community] and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Now India seems to be engaged in Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC) where Pakistan is not a member. From a political point of view, it is more homogeneous and less conflict-prone—and likely to undermine SAARC.
The other chapters show Nepal’s relations with other world powers like the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The author highlights the symbolic, rather than substantive, ties Nepal now has with the UK. For the United States, Nepal was not an area of much significance until developments in Tibet prompted the US to remain engaged—given the geographical closeness of Nepal with China. In the 1960s, ‘the United States was also allegedly involved in the covert support to the guerrilla campaign of the Khampas against China’ but subsequently, on Chinese ‘request and support’, the Nepal army crushed the Khampas following the normalisation of relations between China and the US in 1972. Yet, to its credit, the US was the first country to provide economic aid to Nepal and continues to do so even today.
Bilateral relations apart, Nepal’s multilateral involvement in and commitments to various instruments are mentioned in order to give credence to Nepal’s overall foreign policy initiatives. There were high days in Nepal’s foreign policy initiative, when heads of states and governments visited Nepal and invited the Nepali rulers to visit their countries. Nevertheless, American presidents and British Prime Ministers were, and still are, conspicuous in their inability to visit Nepal.
The second volume deals with diplomacy as an instrument of foreign policy. In pointing out various types of diplomacy, the tome reads like a text book, though many are not necessarily relevant to the thematic content of Nepal’s diplomacy. Nevertheless, the theories narrated in the book are significant for understanding the basics and dynamics of diplomacy. Acharya’s frank admission of low quality performances of diplomatic missions along with the weak appointments of ambassadors is indeed revealing as the very rationale of missions has been ignored. Petty political interests and tendency to continue patronage distribution system as has had been handed down from the past is one of the serious flaws of Nepal’s diplomatic service.
In conclusion, it must be admitted that this enterprise is the first of its kind in the diplomatic history of Nepal, and deserves to be congratulated for conjoining foreign policy and diplomacy.Some methodological and structural flaws are noticeable, and the usage of notes and references are not uniform.
Baral is a professor of political science and former ambassador of Nepal to India