PTI’s vague and static foreign policy will only worsen Pakistan’s standing in the world

Published: February 5, 2019

The current PTI government lacks the competence to understand the dynamics of the diplomatic and foreign policy domains.

Historically, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been a domain in which elected governments have been allowed very little space and scope to work in. Our founding father envisaged a foreign policy based on peaceful relations with our neighbours – including India – and one that would value our sovereignty. Contrary to his vision, Pakistan has not been able to devise a balanced policy that can be termed entirely beneficial for its own national interest.

The current government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) also finds itself in a position where Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi is symbolically heading foreign affairs while the actual decisions are perhaps made somewhere else. Since the era of Liaquat Ali Khan when our political leadership held the reins, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been heavily influenced by our dependence on US aid. Now however, our tendency to depend upon the oil-rich Middle Eastern states is clear, especially as our historic ties with the US worsened under the administration of President Donald Trump.

Over the decades the civilian government has lost its hold over foreign policy matters, and the most we have seen a leader deviate from it has been during the tenure of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Nawaz tried to assert control and was partially successful in shifting the focus away from the US and the Middle East to improving ties with China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. He also tried his level best to normalise relations with India and the fundamentalist government of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While ties with these states did improve (with the exception of India), we suffered the consequences by falling out of favour with the Gulf states, especially when Nawaz’s government decided to not get involved in the war in Yemen. Similarly, as our relationship with China furthered and we grew less dependent on the US, we also fell out of favour with Washington.

The current PTI government, which is not very experienced in the geopolitical front, lacks the competence to understand the dynamics of the diplomatic and foreign policy domains. The decision to turn back to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for immediate relief packages in the form of soft loans and oil on deferred payments has raised serious concerns regarding the current direction of our foreign policy. After all, there is no concept of a free lunch in the diplomatic world, and the Parliament still has not been taken into confidence about the detailed nature of our agreements with the countries who have agreed to ‘assist’ us.

After all, the presence of Saudi Arabia and UAE in Gwadar will not please Iran, their greatest rival in the region. Further, despite claims by the government that Pakistan will remain neutral in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and mediate in Yemen, one wonders how neutral we can remain given our newfound dependence on the Gulf States. One hopes the present government understands that Pakistan cannot afford any confrontations with Iran, especially once the Taliban and the US agree on the latter’s departure from Afghanistan, leaving the region more vulnerable.

On the other hand, there have been hints that China is not too happy with the possibility of Saudi involvement in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As China is often tight-lipped regarding such policies there have been no recorded official statements, but their hesitation to offer assistance (before eventually doing so) indicates that all is not well.

One must also remember that the Saudi monarchy played a major role alongside Washington in giving birth to extremism in Pakistan, particularly through the dollar and riyal sponsored jihad in the 80s and the war on terror after 9/11. The extremism that almost destroyed the social fabric of our society is the by-product of relying on the Saudis and the US. Once again relying on the Arab States in order to fill the void left by US dollars goes to show that we have not learnt our lesson and perhaps need a refresher of our recent past.

Talking to the Express Tribune, former Ambassador of Pakistan to the US Hussain Haqqani cited our dependence on other countries as a flaw in our foreign policy. According to Haqqani,

“Dependency is never a good policy. Pakistan had several difficult decades because of dependence on the US, and the willingness to depend on China also hampered economic growth, as an addition to creating a rent-seeking mentality. Saudi Arabia and UAE are less likely to be as interfering as the global powers, but there will still be political consequences of economic dependence. Pakistan should keep balanced relations with other countries instead of persisting with seeking patrons whose aid constrains the country’s foreign policy options.”

Haqqani seems to get it right, for our foreign policy over the last 71 years has seemingly revolved around seeking patronage from different but powerful countries instead of making ties based on equality and trade, the way India does.

Imran had the unique opportunity to change this, and instead of relying on the Arab States or other global powers, he could have added some balance by neutralising relations with our neighbours and put in front of the world the case of Pakistan as a state ready to learn from the mistakes of the past and interested in making friendly and business-seeking relations with states other than the ones it is presently dependent on.

However, Imran missed the opportunity and we are back to square one. If we are only to be a state dependent on foreign aid and willing to become a part of proxy wars waged by powerful countries, we can attain neither peace nor progress. One way forward would be for elected governments to have more control in laying down the foundation of a new foreign policy. China is an example in this regard, for despite having major conflicts with the US, India and Japan, it still maintains good trade relations with these states and never lets hostility become a hindrance towards its trade and profit.

Thus, it is not hard to see that an entirely aggressive or defence-based foreign policy will get us nowhere in the world. Additionally, a government whose own legitimacy is in question, due to allegations of electoral manipulation, cannot fully take control and reshape foreign policy while also surrendering to the national interest of other states and taking dictation from its benefactors. Without a balanced and multidimensional foreign policy, Pakistan will keep moving in circles and will always remain dependent on various global players for its survival.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar

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

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

  • Zubair

    Khan is doing the best for Pakistan.Recommend

  • NKAli

    Truthfully, PTI should be commented upon not after 100 days but in particular or specifically after one-year in power.
    Eleven years of national grand larceny committed by PMLN-PPP duo has left us teetering on the brink. So, again we have to eat dirt by asking friends to bail us out, which thankfully they have done.
    Give it time! Rome, the Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal were not built in a day. Over here we are talking of recovering the country in all activities of state and human welfare. New proponents and exponents with new ideas and actions. Let the results come out and then lets start forming opinions and suggest new methods (we are bound to make opinions). SalamsRecommend

  • Umair


  • numbersnumbers

    Pakistan has a fiscal choice!
    1) constantly depend on the begging bowl to barely keep the country afloat.
    2) actually fix the pathetic Pakistani Tax-to-GDP Ratio by finally bringing the Feudals and wealthy Elites into the Direct Tax Net!
    And the choice is (drum roll, cascading trumpets…..) predictable!Recommend

  • Fahad Hameed Ahmad

    the article quotes Haqqani, who was installed to give CIA operatives visas so they could operate freely in Pakistan? then Nawaz Sharif was the charismatic leader who shifted foreign policy towards China, when all along, the chinese were only talking with Raheel Shareef or Bajwa. What is this writer smoking?

    Nawaz Sharif wasn’t trying to improve links with India, he was acting more like their paid servant. Nawaz Sharif did not utter a single word about Kulbushan Yadav and Indian involvement in terrorist activities inside Pakistan. On the other hand he did the oppositte, highlighted Pakistan’s role inside India. Who does that?Recommend

  • Anita C Lakhwani

    PTI needs to rid itself of their OWN criminals first! Dewan Sachanand (Jhootanand more apt) is a court convicted criminal – yet Arif Alvi wanted him bailed out! PTI is a party of criminals!Recommend

  • Humza

    How strange to hear PTI followers ask for more time to evaluate Imran Khan’s performance when their leader promised to bring back an alleged 200 billion dollars looted within a few days of being elected. How about his promise to not go begging for aid but rather commit suicide. How about the PM House where he supposedly wanted to make a University but was recently seen begging the leader from UAE? If you want to talk about larceny, why not tell us why a committee is not formed to find out where Imran Khan’s sister and the family got the money to buy benaami apartment in UAE and why there are questions being raised about Hospital donations being misappropriated by the Imran Khan family? Curse and blame others just like Trump in US blames all of US problems on others since he has no solution. All we can see from the confused negative speaking group of Imran Khan’s incompetent, confused and corrupt team is an agenda of begging and u turns on every major decision affecting this country- while blaming others, we all suffer with a weaker rupee and lower economic growth rate. Under the last government, CPEC started, the economy was picking up and the energy crisis largely solved. Now sadly, the whole country is suffering because of incompetence due to our own version of Trump who can only speak badly of others but ignores his own faults.Recommend

  • middleway1

    Pakistan’s foreign policy since PTI took over is very dynamic. Pakistan’s standing has gone up significantly in the world just in the past few months. Imran Khan has already made significant steps to get out from under the thumbs of the US.
    There are also indications he wants to stay clear of Chinese dominance. I remind you here of the false cries of “he wants to get out of CPEC.”
    The only way to achieve true independence is to be economically strong. I think baby steps have been taken in this direction. The short term loans from friendly countries will be hopefully just that-short term.
    All signs are hopeful. Let’s hope they stay the course and pull Pakistan out of the mess left by the previous rulers.Recommend

  • Taimur Javed

    Wait a minute, Pakistan’s relations with Russia & Turkey improved because Nawaz Sharif asserted himself in domain of foreign policy…….seriously. One needs to see how many visits our ex. and current army chief have paid to Russia to understand that it was actually military to military contacts + convergence of goals in Afghanistan & against ISIS that has led to thaw in relations.

    How is PTI’s foreign policy approach static while PML-N’s was dynamic (writer never mentioned). PML-N never has a FM and PM NS was nothing but a bumbling fool reading out of a piece of paper. Both PML-N & PPP led “Democratic” governments put their cronies like Hussain Haqqani, Wajid Shamsul-Hasan, Ali Jhangir Siddiqi etc etc in important capitals of the world while this time around we have career diplomats leading the charge. Not to mention, our relations with US are improving.

    Quoting a person like Hussain Haqqani (who has been actively working for more sanctions and punitive actions against Pakistan – a darling of India) says volumes about the agenda of the writer.Recommend

  • Umar Agha

    Who does that? A traitor does that!Recommend

  • Umar Agha