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Nepal is in disarray. Its foreign policy doesn’t need to be

Foreign Policy Cannot Serve Individual Interests. In Nepal, Unfortunately, This Is The Norm.

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One of the questions that ails ordinary Nepalis and former prime ministers alike is whether Nepal’s domestic affairs are influenced by foreign nations—primarily, our neighbours. This in turn begets the question, is Nepal’s foreign policy independent of its political leaders’ tendency to squabble with each other? And finally, can there be a time when Nepali foreign policy is not inferred to be a failure?

These are questions every nation-state has faced in their time, and Nepal is no different. What is unique, however, is the propensity of our leaders to negotiate the foreign policy terrain with U-turns and volte-faces. One has to look no further than Prime Minister KP Oli’s much-touted friendship with China post the 2015 Indian blockade. In the first two years of Oli’s rule, the relationship with China had grown comfortable enough to warrant a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping (a success by most measures) and the establishment of fraternal ties between the NCP and the CCP (imagine if the BJP decided to set up similar ties with the RPP or any other ultra-conservative force!). Chinese investments, although few, seemed to be moving ahead, and it seemed Oli had found a friend in Beijing.

Things have turned around since then. Oli’s harsh words against India during the Kalapani dispute have been toned down, and talks over the territory dispute don’t seem to be going anywhere. The sum of the five prime ministers’ joint statement about ‘foreign interference’ seems to be pointed at India’s willingness to do business with Oli despite his fragile position. To a neutral observer, it seems that Oli had first aligned himself with China, and subsequent to the infighting within the NCP, shifted his outlook to the south. To top it, Oli appointed a new foreign minister with no prior experience of diplomacy in the middle of a pandemic, when international support is of utmost priority. It is rare to find a country switching gears on foreign policy so abruptly, and even rarer when it’s on the whim of a leader. Such discontinuity is schizophrenic and comes from a critical lack of understanding about the distinction between national and personal interests.

But can Nepal expect any better when the diplomatic corps itself is sidelined from top diplomatic posts, which are handed out to family members in a manner that befits 18th century pajani decisions than a 21st century nation? Among the recently appointed 11 new ambassadors, nine were politically appointees. Beyond the appalling decision that ambassadors now do not even have to be graduates, that half of all ambassadorial positions do not have to be career diplomats is by itself enough to depress any Nepali who desires a career in the foreign service, which for civil servants across the world remains a most lucrative posting.

Finally, for a political leadership that takes immense pride in Nepal’s sovereignty and historical independence, there is a subtle irony in the fact that much of our foreign policy revolves around the acquisition of aid, as seen in the President’s recent letter-writing spree to acquire vaccines. The politics around foreign aid aside, what does it say about Nepal that even after 70 years of becoming a modern state, no Nepali leader to date has articulated a plan to reduce the country’s dependence on aid? A recent paper, for example, argued rejecting aid could mean an improvement in international status for a state. ‘Our formal model predicts that governments are more likely to use rejection strategies when they have greater ability to respond to a disaster and when they value status more highly.’ In Nepal, however, there seems to be no such correlation.

So what can be done to change such a state of affairs?

Beyond the utopic scenarios and the hyperbole our leaders regularly dish out, the first is to get a reality check about Nepal’s place in the world. As a small state hemmed in between two much-larger and greater powers, a subtle balancing act that favours Nepali interests is the obvious requirement. It has been done in the past—in the 1960s, for instance, Nepal held on to its interests while negotiating with ideological opponents such as the US and Soviet Russia as well as with India and China. The challenge is therefore to rebuild diplomatic capabilities for the 21st century’s multi-polar world once again. There are two possibilities here for Nepal: investing further in think-tanks like the Institute of Foreign Affairs, and incentivising global Nepalis who are already working in such spaces to direct their focus on Nepal—a reverse brain-drain.

Diplomatic capabilities, however skilled, will not matter if top posts turn into handouts by a government in power. While political appointments can play a beneficial role if the said individual has an extraordinary personal rapport with a foreign nation, the diplomatic corps will in turn seek to win political favours to ensure they are in line to be the next ambassador, which is not a desired outcome. But political appointments are the norm in client-patron states such as Nepal, so there will be more such appointees in the future, and foreign policy is bound to suffer unless this is corrected.

Foreign policymaking must also break free from the domestic trappings of nationalistic fervour. Nationalism may be a suitable tool to coax citizens in a government’s favour, but it doesn’t always work to win international support, as seen in the criticism over China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and the changing international perceptions of India under Narendra Modi. For a nation as dependent on its soft power as Nepal, it is also a prerequisite to merge our political, economic and cultural diplomacy fronts beyond the tools of nationalism.

However, the biggest challenge for Nepal is to accept that foreign policy cannot serve individual interests. While the political leadership often drives foreign policy, a continuity in the way Nepal deals with its neighbours and the world will enhance its international status far more than any proclamations or maps. Unless the Nepali leadership doesn’t understand this, Nepal’s outlook of the world will continue to be determined by the leadership’s whims and fancies, and in turn, shape how the rest of the world looks at us.