Monday, February 25, 2019

Rethinking international diplomacy

Andleeb Abbas,

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Pakistan is facing an economic crunch. Many analysts used the world ICU to describe the state of economy when the new government took over. A patient in an intensive care unit normally requires emergency life-saving treatment. Sometimes patients have to be put on ventilators to keep on breathing. With daily debt payment piling at the rate of Rs 6 billion a day the economy was strangulated with the dreaded 3 Ds - deficits, debt and defaults. The only way out was more borrowing and the normal borrowing channel is friends of Pakistan and the IMF. The friends of Pakistan included China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE. Then resort to the not-so-friendly IMF.

The pattern may look the same for decades but the strategy looks different. There is a clear reluctance to go the IMF way in a hurry. Two countries, who had admittedly cooled off in the last few years towards Pakistan were chosen to seek support - Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These countries had reservations on the foreign policy of Pakistan and very little had been done to address their reservations. The last government did not have a foreign minister for the better part of its term and foreign policy at best was reactive and piecemeal. With this situation, and a history of minimal financial support, these visits were termed by analysts as more of reconnecting than reinvesting - and after the first visit of the Prime Minister this analysis was further strengthened.

Foreign policy however is more than just a game of political relations and financial donations. It is more about building a hierarchy of relationships through more subtle and soft ways than mere simple ministerial communication. Take the recent Middle East warming towards Pakistan. When a relationship has been left on its own for a long time it takes time to make it receptive from cool and then cordial from receptive. The Prime Minister was invited to attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Saudi Arabia and he gave a good speech to investors about the future of Pakistan. This opened up the path for reciprocity in visits and support. Balance of Payment relief of $ 3 billion and an equal amount of deferred oil payments were agreed upon. A similar pattern was adopted with the UAE where the initial visit was followed by participation in the World Government Summit key-note speech of the Prime Minister in the UAE. Financial support of $3 billion was also forthcoming due to this intellectual-cum-political diplomacy. Soft diplomacy has a range of penetrative avenues that create more durable international relationships:

1. Economic Diplomacy: No better way of interdependency than become economic partners. The European Union is an example of economic diplomacy. Countries like the UK, France, Germany who were at war in the World War II integrated themselves in a single market and over a period of almost fifty years from a free trade area they became a common market where borders disappeared, currency changed to Euro and there is a European parliament where each year a country heads the Union. This had not only eased the inter-country movement on trade and tourism but presented European market of 350 million consumers that became a big attraction for companies to enter. Investment and joint ventures became easy and job creation improved.

Not having economic diplomacy for example Brexit is and will be having a detrimental impact on the UK as they will be deprived of economic opportunities. Already companies and countries are trying to re-plan their relationship with the UK as dealing with one country is less cost effective than dealing with 27 countries.

2. Cultural Diplomacy: Cultural diplomacy means exchange of art, culture, music, sports, movies, etc. India is an example of how they have used Bollywood to export and brand their culture. Tourism diplomacy is a big binding factor. Within tourism, religious tourism can be a huge attraction for countries to get together. Saudi Arabia and Italy are two major examples in this regard.

The recent opening of the Kartarpur Corridor by Pakistan has really created goodwill in the Sikh community and forced India to let this happen. It is always people to people contact that develops bonds and breaks ice.

3. Personal Diplomacy: Leader-to-leader relationship matters. The personal bonding can overcome grave political challenges. The Bill Clinton-Nelson Mandela personal bond is an ideal example. Both had a formal and informal connect. Frequent telephones to each other were a feature of their relationship. Something that could take years would happen in a few calls. In helping America with the Lockerbie bombing negotiations, it was Mandela that gained Qadhafi's support. Not only were the Americans' grateful on those responsible for bombing been put on trial but Libya was grateful that Mandela had helped end Tripoli's diplomatic isolation.

Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan's personal bonding by driving and chatting informally with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman helped him get 2107 Pakistani prisoners free from the Saudi jails.

4. Public Diplomacy [JB emphasis]: This includes all official efforts to convince targeted sectors of foreign opinion makers to support or tolerate a government's strategic objectives. The real game is to identify the main foreign publics and then develop lobbying strategies to make them speak your stance or policy. This includes influencing the foreign influencers. We always wonder why India despite being a country that has many flaws especially their Kashmir policy has always got their stance approval from the US and the EU. The reason is that they do heavy lobbying in the circles that matter. They are masters at intellectual diplomacy. The main think tanks like Woodrow Wilson and Brookings have heavy Indian presence in their panels of experts. American Universities have a significant numbers of Indian professors in their academia. Thought infiltration at the highest level is much easier for India than in the case of Pakistan.

International media is another major public that can make or break opinions. The dominance of BBC and CNN as global channels is an example. These channels are influenced by many lobbies. Often you see them giving a biased picture of the events. Recently in a HardTalk interview, the Finance Minister of Pakistan talked about Kulbhushan Jadhav, the Indian spy. BBC cut that part and it was only a strong protest by Pakistan which brought it back in the recorded show.

Diplomacy is a multifaceted, multi-strategy and multi-skilled game. It is also a sensitive and intricate area. However in today's complex political environment the traditional strategy of hard diplomacy does not have a lasting impact. It is the soft power of understanding the foreign audiences and then employing subtle and diplomatically diverse strategies that can make you win over the most resistant of opponents.

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