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EDITORIAL: Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi dilated on the imperatives of an independent foreign policy while speaking at an event titled ‘Vision FO’ in Islamabad on October 12, 2020. The most telling comment by him was that economic security is a sine qua non for an independent foreign policy. Countries drowned in debt and going around with a begging bowl could not make this desirable goal a reality, he said. Our primary focus, he went on, has been security ever since Pakistan came into being. We are in a better place in that area now, but our vulnerability lies in economic security, he added. Pakistan is destined to remain subject to the International Monetary Fund’s conditionalities or be forced to seek help from countries bilaterally until and unless it becomes independent economically. He then went on to lay out the steps the Foreign Office is taking to improve Pakistan’s economic diplomacy and outreach. These include the overhaul of the Economic Diplomacy Wing, updating the Foreign Office’s ‘toolkit’ to cope with the 21st century’s diplomatic challenges to improve communication, coordination with various departments and specialisation, a 24/7 Crisis Management Centre, updating the curriculum of the Foreign Services Academy in its new premises, using the Institute of Strategic Studies as the research arm of the Foreign Office, upgrading the Institute of Regional Studies after its takeover by the Foreign Office, and setting up an Advisory Council on foreign affairs while adopting modern communication tools and platforms for internal and external quick connectivity. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in an unspoken allusion to what has been dubbed 5th generation warfare, stressed the importance of developing a narrative that could serve purposes such as countering hostile and negative propaganda and views about Pakistan and its policies.

While Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s explication of the requirements, technical and ideational, of foreign policy in today’s world make sense, the nagging thought remains that his argument about economic security has the potential to nullify all these sincere efforts at improving Pakistan’s image and place in the world. And his rider that we have concentrated on security to such an extent that perhaps not enough attention has been paid to achieving economic security is well taken. Partly the explanation for this course is to be found in the circumstances surrounding the birth of the new state, with larger neighbour India’s hostility providing the foundation for prioritising survival through national and defence security over all other considerations. But given that the country is now 73 years old, a legitimate question arises why we have been unable to balance the imbalance tilted towards national security and defence in the direction of a more self-sufficient, if not independent economy able to stand on its own legs. The explanation at the heart of this conundrum is something Pakistan, despite its peculiar and particular circumstances, shares with most countries of the developing world. That is the phenomenon of having to rely on foreign borrowing to keep the ship of state functioning if not progressing economically. That has landed us eventually in a classic ‘debt trap’, defined as a country having to borrow more and more only to service past debt. This then becomes an unbreakable cycle because of failure to generate sufficient tax revenue to service the debt mountain. Successive governments in our history (not just the present one) have contributed to this scenario by borrowing incrementally more than their predecessors. What is missing in this track record is a plan to reduce over time this dependence on external borrowing until economic security, if not outright independence, is achieved. Truly, only then can one think of an independent foreign policy stance that operates purely in the country’s best interests without being hemmed in by considerations of keeping international and bilateral lenders ‘sweet’. The best minds in the country need to be brought together to debate and consider this objective and suggest ways and means to set the country on the path of economic security, which would have a positive impact on national security too.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020