Our foreign policy and the foreign ministry | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 17, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 17, 2008

Our foreign policy and the foreign ministry


RETIRED Ambassadors were unanimous on two issues in a Round Table (RT) organized by The Daily Star (TDS) and the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS) recently. First, foreign policy is not important in governance in Bangladesh. Second, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Bangladesh is “the weakest in the world”. It is not that these apprehensions are new. People informed on these issues have known these for a long time.
What is new and important is that this RT has brought foreign policy and the MFA into focus at a time when it is in our national interest to do so. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, international relations are being rewritten faster than most nations can keep pace. Globalization and 9/11 have added new dimensions in international politics that nations have to adapt on a continuous basis for furthering national interests, making successful conduct of foreign policy crucial to all Governments. As a consequence of it all, Foreign Ministries all over the world have gained more power and influence. The TDS-CFAS RT in this context is a timely warning that Bangladesh is harming its own national interests by going against the trend.
It is a pity that we find ourselves in this situation today. We were liberated by blood in 1971 at a time when international law did not favour liberation by exercise of the right of self-determination. It was sheer merit of our cause, heroism of our people and the genocide of the Pakistani Army that swept world opinion in our favour when such was not the case in similar efforts in Sri Lanka and Nigeria where the Biafran struggle dissipated. Immediately after our liberation, it was because of our successful foreign policy that we swiftly became members of the UN, OIC and other world bodies, and established bilateral relations with most of the countries of the world. The MFA successfully charted the course for the nation that allowed Bangladesh safe landing and acceptance in the committee of nations. By 1979, we won a seat at the UN Security Council defeating Japan. In 1981, we came close to becoming the President of the UN General Assembly, a position we lost to Iraq by a coin toss after a tie on the votes cast.
By the time President Ershad usurped power, foreign policy and MFA were on the decline. One major reason for this is interesting; in the period immediately after liberation, when foreign policy was important, MFA officials led by the ex-Pakistan Foreign Service (PFS) officers were enjoying both recognition and prominence. The elite members of the ex-Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) were at that time in particular threat from the politicians. Some of the senior members of this service made an informal proposal to the ex-PFS officers in the MFA to form a Foreign Service Cadre together that was snubbed by the latter on the principle of inter seniority. That was a mistake for by the time Ershad came, these ex-CSP officers were very powerful. In fact, some senior ex-CSP officers helped Ershad overthrow the elected Government of Justice Sattar and became very close to him. Ershad disliked the Foreign Service that these ex-CSP officers used to full measure. They systematically destroyed the MFA, dividing the entire gamut of foreign relations into diplomatic, aid, trade, consular and other components, and distributing all except the diplomatic to a number of Ministries, Division and agencies and incorporated the changes into the Rules of Business.
The MFA and foreign policy had thus been relegated to the backseat by the time Ershad fell. Elected Governments that returned in 1991 carried forward the trend although our national interests required greater attention and importance to foreign policy to adjust to the new and emerging realities of a post Cold War world. While other countries strengthened their Foreign Ministry to meet new challenges that also opened new opportunities, we weakened it. We just did not allow foreign affairs to be shared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs together with a number of other Ministries; no effort was made to set up any mechanism for coordination. As one retired Ambassador commented at the TDS-CFAS RT, our foreign policy had become a hydra-headed creature without focus. Those in charge were happy to weaken the MFA and did not care or consider they were harming our national interests.
MFA under elected Governments thus was captain of a ship where its crews owed it no loyalty. It was therefore only logical that during this period we really had no foreign policy but a series of reactions to situations, mostly initiated at the instruction of the Prime Minister's Office. In the Missions, Ambassadors were as helpless as MFA in the country. As Ambassador to Japan, I was picking a lot of information from newspapers that I read on the internet on what the ERD or other economic Ministries were doing with Japan so as not to be embarrassed with the host Government as it was seldom that these Ministries kept me informed on developments. Left without substance in formulating and implementing foreign policy, MFA came up with high sounding policies like Economic Diplomacy during the AL tenure from 1996-2001; the so called Look East policy of the BNP Government and now the Ten Points Policy of the Caretaker Government. These policies have no concept papers. They have not been formulated through consultations with stakeholders and just been drawn out of the hat! To complicate matters, MFA often tried to first guess the mind of the Prime Minister and important officials at the PMO to deal with foreign policy issues. As Foreign Minister, Morshed Khan was aware that the Prime Minister had reservation about India. Instead of attempting to remove these reservations, he built upon it to be on her right side. In a now well-known tirade, he humiliated India at a Seminar in 2004 in unbelievable language to win the PM's attention. It is therefore no wonder that while India is for geopolitical and other reasons our most important neighbor; we do not have an India policy. In fact, substantive matters with India are not dealt by the MFA and often Ministries who deal with these issues, keep the MFA in darkness! We have not demarcated our maritime boundary with India. We have failed to uphold our best interests in multilateral economic negotiations where our performance at WTO negotiations, led by the Commerce Ministry, was so miserable that we were officially extended support by the UN to develop the negotiating skills of those who represent us there, skills available to MFA officers but not used. The sum total of neglect to foreign affairs and weakening the MFA has marginalized Bangladesh. We have no articulated and coordinated policy on issues as critical as climate change and global warming, on our interests in the WTO, on how to deal with India, etc.
The MFA, sadly, has helped this process rather than stand against it. Those in leadership role in the Ministry opted for their personal interests, like promotions and postings instead of opposing the efforts of those in power to relegate foreign affairs into the back drawer and make MFA weak. They allowed influx of army officers whose seniority destroyed the morale of the directly recruited officers. They also failed to oppose for fear of upsetting the Prime Minister and the PMO, wrong decisions taken at the latter's behest like the NAM Chairmanship in 1998 and Salauddin Qader Chowdhury's nomination for the OIC Secretary General's post in 2004 which given to any other candidate of MFA's choice could have won Bangladesh the post.
The need now is to reverse this process and allow the MFA to play a major role in formulating and implementing the country's foreign policy for the sake of Bangladesh. This is the trend worldwide and therefore is nothing new. An example of how MFA functions elsewhere was given at the TDS-CFAS RT. One Ambassador who was High Commissioner in India said at the RT that after he and the then Indian Finance Minister had fixed the latter's visit to Dhaka, the Finance Minister called the High Commissioner to inform him that he was embarrassed to cancel the visit because the Joint Secretary of the Bangladesh Division at the Indian External Affairs Ministry thought the dates were not suitable. Another retired Ambassador gave the example of Brazil where their MFA is the government within the government, a trend that most nations are now following in one degree or another.
It is simply our national interest that requires functions of aid, external trade and expatriate welfare to be given to the MFA together with the coordinating role for foreign policy related functions now being handled by other Ministries. The former NBR Chairman Badiur Raman made a very good case of this by stating in a talk show that with less than one digit dependence on foreign aid in our development needs, it is a disgrace that we have a Division called the ERD. In arguing the case of the Foreign Ministry, it may help us to bear in mind that in implementing foreign policy, diplomacy is of essence. Diplomacy is a specialized profession; the longer time one spends in this profession, the better that individual gets and the better that individual serves the country. The diplomatic cadre in Bangladesh works under the MFA. By bringing foreign policy related functions to the MFA, the country will have professionals dealing with such matters. Why would we do otherwise?
The Foreign Ministry has deteriorated over the years of neglect in its cadre potentials. To take the extra functions, the diplomatic cadre must be expanded by inducting officers from other Ministries and also from the private sector. Efforts must be made to attract people with special qualifications. Our expats in developed countries could be a potential source. Training, specialization and language skills must be made the key elements of the expanded Foreign Service cadre. Within these parameters, we should pursue clearly set out foreign policy goals that are achievable.
The biggest challenge to evolving a foreign policy of Bangladesh to serve the best interests of the country will be to successfully bring the stakeholders such as the political parties, business groups, and civil societies into the loop in the process of formulation of foreign policy. Once Parliament is in place, the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs should be given a major role in foreign policy formulation where bipartisanship of political parties in approaching foreign policy issues should be made indispensible. Finally, under the elected Government, the country must have a Foreign Minister with background and qualifications for the job that we did not have in the 15 years of elected Government for which the country has suffered. The icing on the cake must come from the Prime Minister who must be the country's number one diplomat by taking a proactive and knowledge based interest in foreign policy for which the bureaucratic walls that the PMO has created in the last 15 years should fall in favour of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The author is former Ambassador to Japan and Director, CFAS.

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