Foreign policy - Why Nepal should change its approach

Foreign policy is the basis of establishing, maintaining, and strengthening the foreign relations of a nation-state. Nepal entered the era of open foreign relations five decades ago, although prior to that it did maintain ties with its neighbours. But its foreign policy as such was formulated relatively recently. It had evolved on an ad hoc basis. During the Panchayat era, essentially two principles guided our foreign relations — Panchsheel and Nonalignment. However, little, if any, systematic and sustained effort was made to formulate the policy at the micro level and to develop a realistic long-term plan framework that could improve and consolidate our relationship with our neighbours and other nations with which we were cultivating our relations. The number of countries with ties to Nepal, no doubt, increased, but not the quality of its foreign policy. Even our relationships with our two giant neighbours have been topsy-turvy at times. This is why Nepal has failed to develop a cordial relationship with India. This was because the basis of our relationship was not genuine goodwill based on understanding, but the need of the hour. Both the sides have lost as a result. Partly responsible was our tendency to either bash or bait India. Another reason was the poor quality of diplomatic personnel manning our diplomatic corps. Nepali Foreign Service personnel were not trained to deal diplomatically with their counterparts in other countries who were far more familiar with the nuances of foreign policy. Hence Nepal could never maintain a balanced relationship with our two neighbours. This is also the reason our ties with India have remained cold.

Had we utilised diplomatic acumen, Nepal could have gained so much more from both of our neighbours than we did. We didn’t bother to define and develop our relationship with China and India in a harmonious manner. In place of equidistance, the phrase in much vogue in the past, Nepal should have focused on equi-proximity. Though not even the latter coinage might suit the contemporary situation. The two giant neighbours are as important to us as others that have helped our developmental efforts in one way or the other. Naturally, the neighbouring countries acquire an added importance because their activities directly affect the contiguous country. India and China, by the same token, are more important to us than other states. Between them too, our ties with the former are of a special kind — considering the geographical proximity, close historical relations, ancient traditions and socio-cultural similarities. This means our relations with India demand a unique approach, as also advised by a Chinese political observer.

Thus the goal of our foreign policy will not be served by keeping it vague or by basing it on old principles of Panchsheel and Nonalignment. The number of nations with which we have diplomatic relations does matter, but not much. What does matter is the quality of our relationship. Thus it is important to define the country’s objectives and strategies before establishing ties with any country. In the modern context, our foreign policy needs to be detailed and elaborate. For such detailed elaboration, we need to recognise and address the aspirations of the people for whom foreign policy is being designed. This implies that we categorise the various states according to our national interest and try to define our goals accordingly. Only such an approach can serve the country’s interests and bring Nepal more advantages vis-à-vis other states.

This is one way we could put our foreign relations on an even keel with the neighbours, both large and small. Lack of diplomatic wisdom not only belittles our position in the international arena, but also damages the prospect of reaping diplomatic benefits. One fresh example of lack of our diplomatic acumen came recently when the nation suffered a miserable defeat during its bid for a seat in the Security Council. It showed how weak Nepal’s diplomatic efforts had been.

Diplomats are sent abroad not just to enjoy the perks and privilege of the profession but to carry out the mission of the state they represent. Had common sense, an essential quality in a diplomat, been used in the past, we would probably not have suffered such a humiliation. Everyone, of course, cannot become a diplomat, but that precisely is why the people manning that service need to be selected as per their diplomatic potential. Such professionalism cannot be acquired only by serving in the foreign ministry for a long time.

If a diplomat has the capacity to strengthen interpersonal relationship, if he can use common sense as needed, has a keen sense of wit, understands issues and their implications, possesses the ability to convince and persuade, as well as to make common cause with his peers, he cannot fail in his mission. Such a person not only becomes a popular individual, but also boosts the image of the country he is representing.

Poudyal was press adviser to PM during CPN-UML’s government