By MR Josse
KATHMANDU: In this valedictory column yours truly will flag issues relating to the recent formation of a foreign policy review task force – naturally ‘high-level’ as is the wont these rhetorically extravagant days – that, our national news agency informs, is mandated to produce a document focusing on a “dynamic foreign policy suitable to the changed context of the world,” with a view to providing “concrete suggestions” relating to the same to the government.
One is further enlightened that this taskforce, which will be coordinated by Foreign Minister Prakash Saran Mahat, comprises 16 “experts” from different sectors including “finance, diplomacy, law and security” granted a four-month term to complete its onerous assignment.
WHAT CHANGED CONTEXT?
At the very outset, allow me to pose this blunt query: what “changed context of the world?” Indeed, one truly wonders how the luminaries tasked with such a lofty and noble academic mission can be guided by such a vague frame of reference. Does it, for example, have reference to the “changed context of the world” since the days of Prithivi Narayan Shah, who was without doubt modern Nepal’s pioneer geo-strategist and visionary foreign policy architect?
Or, are the 16 ‘high-level’ stalwarts to grapple with their mind-bending duties by identifying a myriad of other possible timeframes of reference for their work? One that suggests itself is the period before/after the British Raj morphed into India and Pakistan; another is that during the heyday of the Chinese empire, or its decline, or, much later still, following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong.
Should the changes in the world – or perhaps regional – situation be identified, for the purposes of the work of the ‘high-level’ task force, with the period before or after Nepal’s UN admission? On the other hand, could one not consider the “changed context” as having salience to the period of the Shah dynasty/Panchayat period, and thereafter, particularly in the context of Nepal’s policy towards India and China?
To give one more example of a timeframe for comparison purposes: what about probing Nepal’s conduct of foreign/security affairs before and after the establishment of ‘loktantra’, including ‘naya’ Nepal’s humiliating defeats in a number of prized UN contests, including to Indonesia when they competed for a two-year term as non-permanent member on the UN Security Council? Earlier, of course, Nepal successfully secured UN Security Council membership twice!
From other perspectives, too, the rubric of the “changed context of the world” is tantalysingly ambiguous: just think of the enormous implications for Nepal’s foreign/security policy before and after the age of ICBMs, globalisation, digitalisation, the age of Internet, Facebook and Twitter.
You get the general drift, loyal reader, don’t you? When the terms of reference of the deliberative body itself is this sloppy, what is one to expect of its outcome? Which, naturally, makes one question who – or what – really prompted this dubious foreign policy review!
WHAT HAS NOT CHANGED
To change gears, I maintain that perhaps what is of even greater paramount significance to the designated work of the 16 wise men of Kathmandu, than the nebulous “changed context of the world”, is to understand and anchor Nepal foreign/security policy on the constant or immutable factors that influence it. Among them are, of course, the familiar long-standing ones of history and geography.
Before venturing any further, let me just underline that in the various categories of cerebral pundits identified as members of the said taskforce what I found disconcerting was the inexplicable absence of historians, geographers or geo-political thinkers.
Why that is so, I cannot tell. What I most certainly can – and will do – however is to remind one and all that no exercise in the formulation of foreign/security policy of any country worth its salt will be tantamount to more than the proverbial pile of beans if relevant lessons of history are ignored, or not enough cognizance is taken of the seminal implications of its geopolitical or geo-strategic moorings.
Specifically, in Nepal case, can anyone in his/her right senses argue that Nepal’s foreign/security policy direction/thrust/options are not overwhelmingly determined by its location: sandwiched uncomfortably between India and China? Would they have been the same, one may ask, if Nepal were, say, an island in the middle of the Pacific?
Likewise, is it not fair to assert that Nepal’s experiences through centuries of interaction with states/entities in her immediate neighourhood are invaluable in forging an appropriate policy framework/doctrine for her?To make matters clearer still, should we not tailor our foreign/security policy more on our historical experiences than to merely emollient, and all-too-often false, rhetoric about similarities in political make-up, such as that India and Nepal are democracies while China is not?
Additionally, should China’s hand-off domestic affairs policy vis-à-vis Nepal not be factored into such an academic exercise, as well as India’s ubiquitous meddling and interference in our domestic domain? Likewise, should no consideration or weightage be given to the policy implications behind India’s studious refusal, in the not too distant past, to endorse Nepal’s Zone of Peace proposal and China’s prompt support for the same? What lessons for Nepal’s future should one legitimately draw from that?
And what implications, if any, will our gallant 16 draw for their assignment on India’s repeated arm-twisting, most recently manifest in a cruel five-month blockade?
In conclusion, let me briefly identify a couple of other considerations. High up on that shortlist is the jettisoning of any notion that Nepal’s relations are ‘special’ with respect to India. Not only is such a thesis repugnant to nationalists but it flies against the very concept of a truly independent and sovereign Nepal.
Finally, it is time to do away with the open border with India – if we are not, bit by bit, to be swamped by a flood of migrants from India making us a minority in our own land.
I believe it is a tall order to fulfill – in ‘naya’ Nepal!