A country may be free to shape its foreign relations but the scope of choice is limited particularly for small powers. Enmity does not require permission but friendship is by mutual consent. Has Pakistan been able to make good friends? Not quite.

Foreign and domestic policies are interrelated so if there is something wrong with Pakistan’s foreign relations it is largely because something is wrong with its domestic policy. Powerful groups or institutions are embedded in the country’s body politic and they have defined Pakistan’s national purpose in a way that primarily serves their own interests and barely satisfies the people’s needs. This has enabled them to devise a system that can bring them back to power with ease.

A system monopolised by the elite, without reference to the people, weakens the state. It has led to personalised and non-institutionalised governance, degrading the integrity of decision-making. Excessive concern with security has skewed national resources, to the neglect of the economy and human development.

And feudalism supported by religious institutions has created self-sustaining disparities in society by resisting education, women’s rights and socio-economic emancipation. This has excluded large segments of the population from productive contribution to national development.

Weak state

A weak state comes to depend on others and its foreign policy ends up serving its strategic purposes, sometimes even at the expense of its own national interest. A dependent foreign policy is restrictive and addictive. It robs the country of the freedom to find new allies. The entrenched dependency syndrome makes it vulnerable to exploitation. Look at how Saudi Arabia and the United States have taken advantage of Pakistan’s reliance on their help. These relationships have come at a great cost to Pakistan.

A dependent foreign policy is contingent on other countries’ policies. So when your services are not required you are left with no option but to fend for yourself, something Pakistan has never quite learnt to do. Nations then resort to borrowing, which Pakistan has done with reckless abandon. What is worse, aid and massive borrowing have become an incentive for poor governance.

Apart from the economy, the regime itself can be doubly vulnerable to exploitation. A classic example of policies being dictated – thanks to the regime being desperate for international legitimacy and financial support – was former Pakistan President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s decision to join the Afghan jihad and Musharraf’s later joining the Afghanistan war after 9/11.

To justify their controversial moves, one exaggerated the Soviet threat, and the other came up with the story about being bombed to the Stone Age if Pakistan did not join. The country is still paying for the two worst foreign policy choices it ever made.

Extremist outfits born of Washington’s ill-conceived wars and Pakistan’s strategic ambitions in the region have come to threaten our internal stability and economic future. As the economy suffers and governance falters, social grievances and the lure of extremism are underscored. Forces of instability thrive if the state is weak and too ambivalent to act.

Pakistan-China relations

Pakistan’s foreign relations have no doubt had their success stories as well, and have been crowned by the Pakistan-China friendship. But the “glory” days of our foreign policy are long gone as the gap between our diminishing capability, and escalating challenges, especially adverse geopolitics, new regional alignments and the perilous Afghan situation, has widened. Even China-Pakistan relations face testing times.

Yet for Pakistan, the China connection has become ever more important, and not for all the right reasons. It is fomenting a public opinion that with China at its back Pakistan does not need to care about other relationships, inciting anti-Americanism and an “absolutely not” rhetoric. Pakistanis may feel they are asserting autonomy but actually, this is a worrying sign of the country going from one dependent relationship to another.

The dependent foreign policy is reflected in many of Pakistan’s serious problems. Pakistan needs to develop an independent foreign policy but that will not happen without systemic changes at home involving a shift in the power balance from the elite to the people, and from the military to the civilians. It also involves the rebalancing of foreign policy priorities from security to development.

But domestic changes will not be easy and need to be catalysed by gradually reducing dependence on foreign countries and the International Monetary Fund, and by easing the preoccupation with external security. Pakistan with its professional army and nuclear capability can deter any security challenge.

It is a big task, and Pakistan has not even thought of this journey, much less begun it. And the geoeconomics slogan is not a magic carpet.

This article first appeared in Dawn.