In his maiden address to the nation, Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke at length on a number of issues ranging from fighting corruption to reforming education and health sectors and from austerity drive to restoring the dignity of the common man. However, in his 70-minute speech, the prime minister did not talk much about foreign policy. The only reference he made was about his government’s vision to seek peaceful ties with Pakistan’s neighbours. There were two explanations behind his move to overlook the foreign policy issue. (a) In his first address to the nation as prime minister, Khan wanted to stick to domestic issues concerning the common man. (b) Since he knew he would have little say on foreign policy, he did not feel appropriate to speak on it. Whatever might be the reason, the fact remains that foreign policy is a subject that Prime Minister Imran Khan cannot overlook by any means. This was the reason that within days of taking charge, the prime minister visited the Foreign Office to get the briefing on Pakistan’s external challenges.
Khan told the Foreign Office that Pakistan’s national interests must be kept supreme in dealing with other countries. Elaborating further, in his maiden press conference Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said, “I want to convey a message to the people of Pakistan that the foreign policy will begin and end with the national interests of Pakistan. My priority will be to have a national consensus on our foreign policy, by adopting a bipartisan approach.”
In developed democracies, political parties may have differences on certain domestic issues but they always maintain bipartisan consensus on foreign policy issues. In Pakistan’s case, this principle is even more important for the simple reason that we are facing multiple challenges on the external front. Also, no political party or any leader would disagree with Qureshi’s statement that the overarching goal of the country’s foreign policy should be “Pakistan first”. The problem, however, is that who would define what is in Pakistan’s interest and what isn’t? In the past, elected governments were sent home on this tricky issue of national interest. Similarly, there were a number of decisions Pakistan took in the past in the name of national interest that eventually turned out to be disastrous for the country. Two such follies include supporting the so-called “Afghan Jihad” at the behest of the West in 1979 and then switching sides and becoming part of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Both those major policy decisions were taken by the military dictators. At the time they might have justified those decisions but history tells us that Pakistan has paid and in fact and has still been paying the price of those blunders.
Given this baggage, it would be a great step forward if the PTI government led by Khan is able to determine Pakistan’s national interests. For this purpose, some hard questions need to be asked. For example, is it in Pakistan’s interest to move away from the security-centric state? Is it in Pakistan’s interest to follow a set of policies that help the country get rid of this notorious tag of supporting certain militant groups as proxies? Is it in Pakistan’s interest to have friendly or at least manageable relationship with its neighbours, including India? Is it in Pakistan’s interest to further enhance strategic partnership with China and deepen ties with Russia while at the same time not to follow a confrontational path with the US? Is it in Pakistan’s interest to maintain a delicate balance in our ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia? If the answer to all those questions is yes, then the new government led by Prime Minister Khan shouldn’t have any difficulty in formulating a “Pakistan first” foreign policy.