The old man & the sea


American writer Earnest Hemingway wrote a short story titled, “The Old Man and the Sea” in which an old fisherman tries to convince other fishermen of his proficiency at deep-sea fishing. He only succeeds after undertaking a harrowing and adventurous trip alone. Sadly, the two old men of Pakistan’s foreign policy have failed to bring any catch home. Foreign policy is not about receiving a pat on the back by a visiting dignitary. There are no contours of a policy or a will to serve people through it. The Foreign Office just does not respond to people’s needs. While the British prime minister will call the Punjab chief minister and demand an inquiry into the death of a British national, there is no one to question the British government on behalf of Pakistanis regarding an increased tendency by London to block Pakistani visas, even those of frequent travellers, or asking them for impossible documentation. Surely something more needs to be done besides the prime minister’s adviser on foreign policy warning acquaintances not to damage their case by seeking help from the Foreign Office. Since we are so fond of competing with India I remember an Indian friend visiting me while I was in the UK last year, being given a free telephone SIM card as she went to get her visa.

But Britain is not the only country withholding visas for Pakistanis. The Thai mission treats us the same. Not to forget the treatment of laid off workers in Saudi Arabia. Has anyone in Islamabad done any assessment of what may happen to expats in the Middle East due to the downturn in the economies of these states? Or is it that the Foreign Office is the first one to buy into the international counterterrorism narrative?

The establishment is concerned about the inefficiency that has beset what was once Hotel Scheherazade. There is a tendency to believe that the incompetence reflects the government’s overall ineptitude or the growing unprofessionalism of the foreign service. Let’s not forget that over the years, new officer cadres only join the department reluctantly. The new candidates taking civil service exams are from rural areas or smaller towns or from the lower middle to middle class. They are far more interested in power, which is the only thing that works in our society. Power means influence and money, which means that the bulk opts for district administration, police or the lucrative financial services, such as customs or income tax. A lot of those who are left then have to reluctantly join the foreign service and find means for extortion. An atmosphere of corruption, however, set in during the 1980s. I remember the unkempt entrance of the Pakistani mission in Paris during the early 1980s. The embassy, run by Sahabzada Yaqub, at that time had the reputation amongst expats of taking bribes for issuing passports. This was part of a larger scam of illegal immigrants going to Spain via France.

Barring a few audits, the concept of accountability and performance audits is absent. For that matter, we don’t evaluate any department against established performance perimeters. Even for those not engaged in blatant corruption, there is an element of non-seriousness about the work they do. Their behaviour is linked with the fact that foreign policy goals are not defined and missions lack well-defined job descriptions. This lack of interest could also be due to the peculiar academic background of the officers. The current university environment does not encourage critical thinking or innovation. But the fact that the Foreign Office is reduced to the status of a post office engaged primarily in troubleshooting is not just a single individual’s flaw. There are deeper structural flaws, such as there being a lack of vision. We may disagree with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s approach but it was during his rule that we were driven by the goal to push Pakistan centre-stage globally. For decades now, our foreign policy has basically come to mean establishing temporary strategic alignments, firefighting in the face of allegations after divergence sets into relationships and catering to our primary obsession of being a step ahead of India, or portraying that we are as relevant to the world as New Delhi is.

Pet analysts are like bureaucrats, not reporting criticism by foreign diplomats or other players they engage with, or only reporting what both the military and political establishment would like to hear. Just a few weeks ago, a US-based Pakistani analyst wrote about the need for geo-political liberals to raise their voice and contribute to the national security and foreign policy discourse. Notwithstanding that we badly need to put our heads together, the suggestion reflects a certain naivete on part of the analyst. How could he not know the ways in which alternative voices are blocked and maligned as foreign agents? In a culture where voices are gagged, how can a dialogue happen? It is not just about the establishment, but also its team of analysts/experts who play a major role in stalling different perspectives.

Another huge factor that results in poor foreign policymaking is regime centricity. Years of political instability has resulted in a situation where every government (both civil and military) tends to use the Foreign Office to market itself as the best partner for important foreign players, and hence, the only ones worth trusting. So diplomats are not assessed on the basis of how best they serve their nationals abroad or fulfill national goals but how well they can sell a regime abroad. Furthermore, efforts of the Foreign Office are directed mainly towards certain stations and do not demand equal performance from missions around the world. The missions in Scandinavian countries and African states, for example, get some very poor quality diplomats. To top it all is the constant civil-military tension, which is obvious at the highest level of decision-making and in missions abroad. The Foreign Office bureaucracy may complain about the absence of career planning in the service, but its malaise is more due to structural issues. To become relevant the old Hotel Scheherazade needs a soul — ideas, inspiration and a sense of ownership. Its problems will not get solved through some boot camp.