Reviewing Nepal’s SPP debacle

Political parties may not have fully understood the whole implications of joining an initiative like SPP. But the level of vitriol surrounding the issue was simply too big to ignore.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 4 min.

There are many ways of describing Paul Kagame—the president of Rwanda, a ruthless autocrat whose regime perhaps could be better described as a dictatorship but undoubtedly also an efficient and effective administrator. If, on the one hand, Rwanda is one of the most brutal human rights abusers and oppressors of democracy, at the same time Rwanda has also turned into a poster child for economic development and an attractive destination for global investment.

From hosting the African Basketball Championship to the upcoming Commonwealth summit, Kagame enabled a top-down model of economic development that, in many ways, resembles Singapore’s in the best time of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Yet, Rwanda was a country that was able to ditch French, the language of its former Belgian colonizer, to adopt English, the world lingua franca and the only global medium to do business. When Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009 the international community was totally surprised. But it was an apt decision by President Kagame to steer his developing nation towards higher levels of prosperity.

It was a well-calculated move driven by nothing but sheer self-interest in knowing that the country would be better off (especially in terms of prestige and global connections) once accepted in an organization like the Commonwealth, an organization with heavy baggage due to its links with colonialism but at the same time a soft power.

By joining it, Kagame knew that his country would not lose an inch of its own sovereignty and he did not mind his country becoming associated with former British colonies.

It was just a pragmatism at the highest level, a move that did not deter Kagame and the regime to move ahead with its authoritarian style of governance, oppressing and often murdering members of the opposition and those too “problematic” to manage.  I am talking about Rwanda not just because the country is in the spotlight for its “progressive” policies of giving hospitality to illegal immigrants ejected by the UK, nor because Kigali, its shining and thriving capital, is about to host 2022 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Nepal’s SPP debacle

What brought me to Rwanda is the controversy surrounding the State Partnership Program (SPP) of the US—which I see as a low-level exchange and capability mechanism involving the American military and its National Guard.  In the particular case of Nepal, this mechanism was framed from the perspective of disaster prevention and management and humanitarian support.  I cannot tell if the Nepali Army did the right thing by directly formally sending a letter to the US Embassy in Nepal back in 2015 requesting to join the SPP.  Apparently, it was a wrong move as the government has decided to stay out of SPP.  What is so stunning about the whole issue is the capacity of some political actors to create confusion about the issue, in what looked like a replica of the MCC affair.

If Rwanda joined the Commonwealth, why cannot Nepal embrace a more confident foreign policy? 

It is absolutely normal that some parties are wary of formal agreement that involves sections of the armed forces of foreign countries but the US Embassy was crystal clear that the SPP was not, in any way, a military alliance.  Political parties may not have fully understood the whole implications of joining an initiative like SPP.  But the level of vitriol surrounding the issue was simply too big to ignore. As if Nepal has already developed its own capacities in terms of disaster management and neither Nepal Police nor Nepal Army needs any support of this nature. The entire issue was politicized and used against the spirit of partnership between Nepal and the US.

A fear was expressed that Nepal is getting closer to the US by avoiding its immediate neighbors but let’s not forget that all the high-level bilateral engagements following the parliamentary approval of the MCC Compact are happening in the context of the 75th anniversary of Nepal-US diplomatic relations.  Besides, a sovereign nation like Nepal can pursue any type of diplomatic initiative in accordance with its own strategic foreign policy objectives.

Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit to the White House does not preclude his future visit to Zhongnanhai, the center of power in Beijing, or to any other foreign capitals. In the first edition of Prof Yadu Nath Khanal Lecture, renowned academician Prof Surya Subedi advocated that Nepal should embrace the concept of “permanent neutrality”. Nepal is already a neutral country in practice but it is up to the citizens of this country and political class to discuss such possible formalization. Endorsing neutrality does not mean that the country does not take clear positions on the international front nor assert its foreign policy for its best interests. Countries like Switzerland, Sweden and Finland–the last two now in the waiting room to join NATO–have been conducting a positive and proactive foreign policy. In the case of Sweden and Finland, their neutrality did not preclude them from joining the European Union. The same could be said for Austria, another country that remains neutral but which is an EU member.

The imperative for Nepal’s foreign policy cannot be clearer than in the words of Prof Subedi: “Nepal’s foreign policy needs to have a global outlook”.

Think big 

Now back to Rwanda, a country that, while, certainly not neutral, is fully independent and master of its destiny, a nation that was able to assert itself fearlessly and with its national interests always guiding its external affairs. It is a policy not driven by fear and insecurity but a sheer assertiveness to play big internationally. It is a policy fueled by absolute ambition, an ambition that is making Rwanda, despite its abuses, a key regional player in Africa with a truly global outlook. This should make policymakers in Kathmandu think and reflect on the real implications of neutrality and what Nepal benefits from it.

By joining the Commonwealth, Rwanda exerted its own prestige in the international arena. It is not that Nepal should follow suit but, now that the dust has been settled over the SPP, it is high time to be ambitious and avoid the annoyance of futile controversies.

If a country like Bangladesh, also very wary of its position in the region and of what its geography dictates, signed the SPP, it means that such a program was simply not a “big deal”. Debates about foreign policies are essential in a democracy like Nepal. But from how such debates are framed, such discussions risk draining vital energies that could instead be spent to pursue the higher aim of defining, once and for all, the standing of the country in the global arena.

Views are personal.