Damage control: Why Imran Khan needs to put foreign diplomacy before domestic issues

Published: September 5, 2018

Imran Khan’s telephonic conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came across as an embarrassment to the nation.

In the globalised world of today, the foreign policy of any state is the most vital component to its progress. This is how states interact with each other and negotiate their interests, as you have to figure out how to fulfil your national interest while also giving other states a way to fulfil theirs.

In Pakistan, it has been the control over foreign policy that has been the cause behind major rifts between civilian governments and officials of other institutions. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were all elected leaders thrown out of power due to their efforts to take an upper hand over foreign policy decision-making. Keeping in mind the sensitivity of Pakistan’s international relations and its history of elected leaders being undermined when it came to matters of foreign policy, newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan is expected to deal with this issue very carefully. However, until now, Imran has only shown signs of immaturity and complete ignorance when it comes to diplomatic protocols and displaying an understanding of how diplomatic relations are undertaken.

First of all, Imran’s telephonic conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came across as an embarrassment to the nation, revealing the inability of the new government to understand how diplomacy works. The statement released by the US revealed that Pompeo congratulated Imran, but also asked him to take stronger action against alleged terrorist organisations on Pakistan’s soil. This was the usual pressure tactic from the US, asking Pakistan to “do more” in order to get more out of the country upon Pompeo’s visit.

However, in a bid to appease his supporters, Imran’s government issued its own version of the conversation with Pompeo, in which only congratulations were in order and no matters of terrorism were discussed. In response, the US State Department released a transcript of the conversation, ending the matter of what was discussed and humiliating Pakistan in the process. This not only showed the incapability of the current government to handle sensitive diplomatic issues, but also created an image that the new prime minister is willing to lie to the nation for the sake of rhetoric.

Then, if this was not enough, news emerged that Imran refused to take a scheduled call from French President Emmanuel Macron, since he was busy meeting some TV anchors and journalists. One wonders, how can an elected leader lead responsibly if he not only behaves unprofessionally by missing a scheduled call (since all important calls between state officials are scheduled and do not take place at random), but also deliberately leaks it to the media in order to give the impression that he does not care about foreign countries or our diplomatic relations with them? Perhaps it makes Imran’s supporters feel good for a few moments to see their leader decline a scheduled call from the leader of France, but in the long run, it can result in the world not taking Imran seriously, given that this was the second gaffe on the diplomatic front in a matter of days.

Furthermore, Imran has refused to go to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) annual session, with his statement suggesting he is also not interested in going to any foreign country since he wants to fix internal matters of the country first. The intention is good – he wants to solve the looming currency crisis and other challenges threatening to derail the already struggling economy of Pakistan – but in the era of globalisation, a developing country cannot ignore the opportunity to meet global players. Being more active on the global platform would be a good opportunity for Imran to not only put Pakistan’s case in front of the world, but also its newly elected government. Knowing Imran’s charm and skill in social settings, he could easily be successful in striking cordial diplomatic relations with other heads of states, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has successfully achieved.

Dealing with other countries does not imply we are putting our own state last; on the contrary, it is for the benefit of Pakistan and its struggling economy that we need to put in an effort to build stronger ties with the world, instead of experiencing further isolation. After all, there is a reason President John F Kennedy rated foreign policy and relations to be of higher priority than internal policies, as he said,

“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”

Imran and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government must realise that it is the foreign front where we need to take immediate steps and negotiate with global players in order to improve our global standing. He needs to learn the dynamics and protocols of foreign policy to learn the art of getting things done in Pakistan’s favour. Shah Mehmood Qureshi is an experienced campaigner, but we also need our head of state to step up and be as active and renowned as Modi, Donald Trump and Xi Xinping are.

Imran needs to understand that elections are now over, the war has been won, and there is no longer any space for mere rhetoric and sloganeering. He cannot win the confidence of the world by twisting the facts of a telephonic conversation or by rejecting phone calls from other heads of state. There is no room for emotions and drama in the shrewd world of diplomacy – there is only room for playing the game and serving the interest of your own state while seeming more open to engagement and improvement.

With Pompeo having just arrived in Pakistan, this is a golden opportunity for Imran to make a fresh start early on and reset the tone, controlling the damage done after his telephonic conversation and lobbying for Pakistan’s relationship with the US – which seems to be at a historic low. The importance of this meeting cannot be stressed enough, especially in light of the US cancelling $300 million further in “aid” for our lack of action against terrorism.

It’s time for Imran to get rid of the hangover from his electoral victory and learn the art of public relations on a global platform, where leaders smile and shake hands in order to have smoother and friendlier relations with the world. In Pakistan, elected governments already have a small space to formulate or shape its foreign policy narrative, while all failures are automatically put on their shoulders. Imran may be one of the only leaders to have the support of the military as well as the nation; now would definitely be the time to use it.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar

The writer is a columnist and writes for various English and Urdu publications. He tweets at @rjimad (twitter.com/rjimad)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Feroz

    Issues well laid out and frank advice given. The million dollar question is whether IK can change the foreign and security policies of Pakistan, which have led to its isolation. Saying we are going to put Pakistan’s interests above all else is mere rhetoric, because it was policies of the past over which the elected governments had no control that have contributed to the multiple problems the country is facing. The room for flexibility may not rest with IK.Recommend

  • Paul Wolf

    Nawaz sharif wasn’t thrown out of power by the military, but by the court due to all the money he stole. That is the essential flaw in the author’s reasoning.Recommend

  • Saad

    What has all the smiling and handshaking of past governments accomplished for Pakistan in the global arena? Is it important to be courteous in diplomacy or overtly friendly? The measure of true stupidity is when you continue to employ the same approach hoping for a different outcome as we have seen the past governments doing.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    You keep saying that Pakistan was insulted. No. Imran Khan was insulted because of his foreign blunders. Don’t drag the whole nation into it.

    As for foreign relations, they will be decided by the same people who have always decided them. Imran Khan is nothing more than a puppet and everyone knows that.Recommend

  • gp65

    “However, in a bid to appease his supporters, Imran’s government issued its own version of the conversation with Pompeo, in which only congratulations were in order and no matters of terrorism were discussed. In response, the US State Department released a transcript of the conversation, ending the matter of what was discussed and humiliating Pakistan in the process.”
    It was worse. Not just did Imran skip references to terrorism while updating his domestic audience but rather had the foreign office issue a statement asking state department to correct their readout. The state department said that it stood by its readout. At that time Shah Mehmood got involved and said that despite US claiming to stand by the readout, no such issue had been discussed and that US had made a mistake. It is at that stage that US sent a transcript to Pakistani foreign office to clarify that it had not made any error in the readout.
    Incidentally the readout of the meeting of Pompeo with Pakistani stakeholders says that he reinforced to all 3 interlocutors (SMQ, Imran and Bajwa) that Pakistan needed to a better job in dealing with terrorists and militants.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Sorry gp65, are we talking about Trump’s State Dept? Trump who has been caught
    lying more than 2000 times, by the media, since the start of his presidency!
    Same Trump who is being investigated for obstruction of justice
    Same Trump who separated babies from their mothers at the southern US border.
    Same Trump who is being investigated 7 ways from Hades, for paying off women to not disclose their illicit affairs with him. With campaign finance money.
    Same Trump who is being investigated for collusion with Russians, during the last US presidential elections.
    Same Trump who is an unindicted co conspirator with his personal lawyer.
    Recently a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, came out,… showing why Trump should not be in the White House.
    Plus the devastating anti Trump co-oped in the New York Times [ that will make your hair stand up],
    Same Trump who called White Supremacists, Nazis, KKK at Charlottesville as ‘good people’ on the other side,… of the demonstrators.
    So inspite of all this,…YOU want Pakistanis to believe what the Trump’s State Dept. said?
    Notice something here, not the US State Dept. but Trump’s State Dept.
    gp65, this can go on for 10 pages. But this coming from you who is fully aware of what’s
    happening with Trump in the US…is sad, to say the least.
    You taking the side of Trump’s State Dept.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Hmm, same Patwari who believes everything Pakistani government says “for local consumption only”!Recommend

  • Patwari

    Well, Trump calls Hindus dotheads. But you all love him in
    Hindustan because he will give you all used obsolete tanks, some
    Run down navy frigates, and 5 F-16 aircrafts. Making Hinduland very very happy.
    We all believe that Hindus/Afghanis are bhai bhai. The Paks,
    would be delighted to move 4.5 million Afghanis living in
    Pakland, to say, Dilli, Poona, Utter Khand, Bengal, Calcutta,
    Madras etc. Hey even Bombay. Where they will be welcomed
    with saffron garlands by their Hindu brothers.
    No visas required. Right?
    Then you can all live in harmony. One big family living happily
    In Hindia.
    Yogi Adithyanath can even put a statue of Rama in the Afghan
    Bastis, everywhere. .
    Yall can even start building 26 more Bharati consulates along
    The Afghani/Pakland border.
    That will a total of 52 !Recommend

  • Gp65

    When Pakistan foreign office was asked about the transcript, they said it was time to move on. If there indeed had been no reference to terrorism, they could have published the transcript.
    SMQ also said he woukd bring up the issue of $300 million because it was not aid as claimed by Americans but reimursement of expenses incurred by Pakistan. Two days later he said that he had decided not to discuss that issue because Pakistan was an independent nation not dependent on aid. Does that mean he accepted that the $300 million was aid unlike his previous statement?
    Not a fan of Trump. But US state department has professionals.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Well, these State Dept. ‘professionals’ must be hiding behind
    their wives skirts. Because they are gutless wonders. Trump is
    riding roughshod over them. The head honcho of these gutless
    wonders left town some months ago. With his tail between his
    hind legs. His name was Tillerson. Nobody is sure what he did.
    Heard he use polish Trump’s 50 pairs of shoes. A clown took over,
    as new boss. He went to N Korea a few times. They fed him some noodles and laughed him out of Pyongyang.
    Come to think of it, there are mortgages to pay. Kids to put through
    schools, pensions, 401 K plans, medical Insurance, and such.
    So these ‘professionals’ keep their heads down. The career professionals. Waiting for this ill wind, called Trump, to blow away.
    And sanity to return.
    Look at this way the $ 300 millions are a drop in the bucket. And, no,
    it was not a loan, it was money due, from the Coalition Forces, for
    using Pak’s harbors, transports, security forces that keep the Coalition
    supply lines open. Even the village idiot can tell you that.
    Chaman, [Quetta] Torkham, [Khyber Pass] are these two routes.
    Then using Pak air bases, civilian fields. etc.
    Please remember, there can be no peace in Afghani Country WITHOUT
    Pakland’s help and wishes…that’s right, wishes.
    Surprised you are not a fan of Trump. He and Modi Sarkar are two two peas in a pod.Recommend

  • Gp65

    India has exactky 4 consulates in Afghanistan since 1949. Not a single consulate has been added since then. Pakistan has consulayes in the exact same cities that India does. Reference to 26 consulates is surprising.Recommend