ISSSP Reflections No. 49, February 27, 2017
Author: D Suba Chandran
Tehmina Janjua, when she takes over the Foreign Secretary in March 2017, will become Pakistan’s first woman Foreign Secretary. Her challenges are numerous – both within Pakistan (especially vis-a-vis foreign policy decision making structure) and outside – especially with big powers such as the US and immediate neighbours – India, Afghanistan and Iran. Besides the above, she will also have to face rest of the international community – in addressing Pakistan’s negative image.
There seems to be an extra focus (though unfair) in the media on she being the first “woman” foreign secretary. Perhaps, it may have played a role in the decision making, as an image building exercise at the international level. There is likely to be a series of changes in the next few weeks. Pakistan’s serving foreign secretary Aizaz Chaudhry will be replacing the present Ambassador to the US. Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s High Commissioner was expected to replace Aizaz, but the Prime Minister seem to have opted for Tehmina Janjua.
Tehmina’s track record is substantial; she is a highly experienced diplomat with so much understanding at the international levels. She has worked extensively with the United Nations and currently she has been Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. She was earlier the spokesperson for the external ministry and has served as Ambassador to Italy from December 2011 to October 2015.
There have been women diplomats in Pakistan, highly decorated, efficient and successful, for example Maleeha Lodhi. Maleeha, though not a career diplomat, is currently Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York; earlier she has served as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ambassador to the US.
Tehmina may not have served as an Ambassador in the region, but has enough international experience. The real issues however, for Tehmina will not be related to whether she has served in the neighbourhood or not. There are serious domestic and international challenges that she would be inheriting. Especially the domestic challenges that would restrict her functioning, is the focus of this short commentary.
It is not easy to be a Foreign Secretary in South Asia in the first place. Given the political decision making process, role and actual position of the Prime Minister/President and bilateral relations with the neighbours and big powers – the position of foreign secretary in the region has always been challenging. In India, the situation has been improving since the 1998 nuclear tests; starting from Shyam Saran, there have been a series of Foreign Secretaries, who have been able to discharge the functions expected of the external ministry.
In Pakistan, there are additional challenges to the Foreign Secretary. First and foremost is the decision making process and the actors involved in it. Though in a democracy, Parliament and elected representatives led by the Prime Minister is expected to play a predominant role in shaping country’s foreign policy, this has not been the case in Pakistan. The military has been playing a powerful role not only in foreign policy decision making, but also on Pakistan’s strategic assets and their developments. Shaping the relations with the neighbourhood and the big powers – especially the US and China has remained more with the GHQ than with the Parliament and External Ministry.
Second, the GHQ would prefer complete control over foreign policy especially vis-a-vis Pakistan’s immediate neighbourhood. Perhaps, that could be a reason also to choose Tehmina, as she has enormous international exposure, than any substantial experience in the immediate neighbourhood. For Tehmina, the above would be the biggest challenge, which her predecessors also inherited.
Third, added to the above restriction is the absence of a full time foreign minister. Nawaz Sharif for reasons best known to him has not appointed a full time foreign minister and has been running the external relations through Special Advisors, in this case Sartaj Aziz.
Though Sartaz Aziz is extremely capable, he is not the “Foreign Minister” chosen from one of the elected representatives of the Parliament. Special Advisor may enjoy a cabinet position, but it is not equivalent to being a Foreign Minister. The protocol conscious diplomatic community should be well aware of the difference.
One could also argue, foreign minister in Pakistan is more symbolic. Hina Rabbani was the last foreign minister of Pakistan and the media, especially social media was highly critical of her.
Finally, the biggest domestic challenge with huge international ramification – militancy and militant groups. While the foreign ministry in Pakistan may have no access, leverage or control over the militant groups within Pakistan, the diplomats will be at the receiving end at the international level – both fire fighting and image building. Even for the Pakistani Ambassador to China, with whom they share an “all weather relationship” that is “higher than the Himalayas” and “deeper than the Oceans” (and now “sweeter than honey”), it would not be an easy task to defend Pakistan’s image and policies relating to militancy.
Worse, for the foreign ministry of Pakistan, they would not be privy to the larger interaction between the political leadership, military and ISI on the use and abuse of militant groups as a strategic asset on Pakistan’s eastern and western borders. As a result, their envoys serving in New Delhi, Kabul and Tehran may not be fully aware of the larger calculations behind actual developments along the borders. The foreign secretary, at times may know about the border developments and Pakistan’s response from his or her envoys in the neighbouring countries than from his or her own Parliament!
All the best Tehmina Janjua. Given the inherent limitations, we sincerely wish, you take proactive measures to stabilise the LoC, strengthen it further with pursuing the earlier agreements between two parts of J&K, and normalise Pakistan’s relationship with India. Hope you bring a new perspective and a change as well across the Wagah.
About the Author
Dr. D. Suba Chandran is Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. He can be reached at <subachandran[at]gmail.com>