There may be different opinions about what actually constitutes a national interest and what does not, for the simple reason that what one considers as a vital national interest may not be so for others. For a person, protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation may be the most important of all issues, while for others personal wellbeing and the state’s role, or lack thereof, in ensuring that wellbeing may be a matter of greater concern.
In Nepal, the topic of national interest sometimes receives rather blithe responses from a certain section. ‘What good is national interest if a citizen is deprived of vital fundamental rights—right to food, right to shelter and equal opportunities?,’ they argue.
In Nepal, the constitution itself has made it easy to understand national interest by clearly defining what it is and what it is not.
Article 5 of the constitution defines national interest as “safeguarding of the freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, independence and dignity of Nepal, the rights of the Nepalese people, border security, economic wellbeing and prosperity shall be the basic elements of the national interest of Nepal.” The same Article adds “any conduct and act contrary to the national interest shall be punishable by Federal law.” Under the Directive Principles, Policies and Obligations of the State, Article 50 of the Constitution states that “the State shall direct its international relations towards enhancing the dignity of the nation in the world community by maintaining international relations on the basis of sovereign equality, while safeguarding the freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence and national interest of Nepal.”
Though national interest encompasses a wide range of issues, like in countries elsewhere, in Nepal it is largely linked with foreign policy conducts. It is often the matter of how Nepal should deal with neighboring India and China and the far-off America. It also includes safeguarding Nepal’s interests by not pitting one power against the other, or by tilting to one power to the perceived chagrin of others and so on.
In Nepal, there is a unanimous understanding among political parties, at least in principle, that they should safeguard national interests while conducting foreign policy. But in practice, they tend to defend the foreign policy conducts of the governments led by some parties in the name of national interests while criticizing the governments led by other parties in the name of the same national interests.
Takeaways from policy dialogue
These contradictions regarding Nepal’s national interests were stark during the policy dialogue organized by Policy Research Institute (PRI), the think tank of the government of Nepal, in Kathmandu some days back.
It is never too late to write about such events and discuss the reflections.
The participants raised a wide range of issues–from Nepal’s relations with India, China and the US to Russia-Ukraine war to the recent SSP debacle, cautioning one and all, particularly the government that Nepal stands at the most challenging times at the moment and it should handle its foreign policy with utmost care.
Rajan Bhattarai, the CPN-UML leader who also served as the foreign affairs adviser to former prime minister K P Sharma Oli was of the view that Nepal is at the most challenging time at the moment. According to him, the threats for Nepal emerge from global context, polarization and competition among the global players, India and China competing to expand their influence in the region and change in balance of power in the region after the rise of China, regionally and globally.
The reason to worry, he said, is that “this competition is turning into confrontation.” Bhattarai was of the view that Nepal needs to draw a lesson from the war in Ukraine. “How could the leadership of Ukraine balance the situation in the past? Where did the current leadership make mistakes? This is something we need to find out and draw a lesson for Nepal.”
He said that our geopolitical situation is similar to that of Ukraine. “Ukraine was enmeshed in the rivalry between the Russian power and Western power,” he said, suggesting that the current tragedy is the outcome of the same.
Political parties tend to defend the foreign policy conducts of their governments in the name of national interests while criticizing the governments led by other parties in the name of the same national interests.
Bhattarai was clear what Nepal should and should not do. “First, we need to ensure and be clear that we do not allow our land to be used against any country. This is something linked with our independence and internal sovereignty. This is the principle defined and given by our geopolitical location and this is something we must never deviate from,” he said.
The real danger will befall Nepal, he said, when any of the powers begins to feel that Nepali land has become unsafe for it. “Then our national security will be challenged.”
The second fundamental, said Bhattarai, is that Nepal must maintain its non-aligned principle. “We are non-aligned due to our geopolitical location. We need to remain neutral and nonaligned. We must not lose balance in our relations with neighbors and foreign powers. We should not go for any military alliance or the alliance that may have a whiff of military component in it.”
So was the position Nepal took on Russia-Ukraine right and just? He was of the view that Nepal’s position on Russian aggression on Ukraine should have been limited only to calling for peaceful resolution of the conflict. “We should not have voted in the UN in favor of a certain country and against others,” he said.
“We should have limited our opposition to condemning the Russian aggression. Not stood for vote. We made mistakes in the Russia-Ukraine war.”
He suggested that Nepal should have considered the positions of immediate neighbors–India and China–before joining the anti-Russia bandwagon. “We used to consider the position of neighbors before deciding what to do in international matters. This time we did not.”
While Rajan Bhattarai maintained reservations on Nepal’s response to Russia-Ukraine war citing possible implications on Nepal’s national interests, Prakash Sharan Mahat, former foreign minister and the spokesperson of Nepali Congress, defended the same again on national interest grounds. “What if China or India, someday, based on the perception that Nepal is going against their core national interests, decide that they should invade Nepal?” He said. “India and China stood for their interests. We stood for ours.”
Like Bhattarai, however, Mahat was also clear about one thing: Nepal cannot afford to become pro-India, pro-China and pro-US or anti-India, anti-China and anti-US. “We don’t have that luxury.”
Mahat repeated that Nepal should have a common position and same criteria in matters of accepting grants and loans from foreign countries. “Only this will be in our national interests. We cannot have one set of standards for America, different ones for India and China.”
How should Nepal conduct its foreign policy then? Mahat would argue that we need to consider that we lie between two powerful neighbors and ensure that whatever we are doing is for the sake of our national interests and it does not in any way violate their core interests. “We need to be able to tell them that we don’t compromise our interests but we don’t violate your core interests either.”
His bottom line: We should not make neither neighbors feel that Nepal’s land and Nepal is being used against their legitimate interests.
Upendra Yadav, the leader of Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal, who also served as the foreign minister in 2008, spoke about how difficult it is for a landlocked and least developed country lying between two major powers to advance its foreign policy independently.
For him the biggest threat to our national interests came from the foreign intervention in internal affairs. “At the moment, our national interest is in saving Nepal from external intervention. We need to be able to decide the internal matters ourselves. For Nepal, to be able to decide the internal matters ourselves is what constitutes Nepal’s national interests.” Yadav spoke vocally against the “open micromanagement on Nepal’s political affairs from the external actors” and said that Nepal needs to be able to free itself from this trap.
“Nepal is a sovereign nation. It needs to be able to assert this sovereignty in matters of dealing with internal matters on its own. Only then we will have secured our national interests,” he said.
For Yadav, foreign policy, national security policy and policies on economic development should be the policies of the nation not that of a party in the government.
Dr Meena Vaidya Malla, the Professor of Political Science in Tribhuvan University, said that internal conflicts and instability weaken national interests. “Political leadership should safeguard the national interests but the opposite is happening in Nepal. While in power they tend to undermine the national interests but when they come out of the government they appear to begin to defend the national interests. This has put our national interests under the shadows,” said Malla.
According to her, national interest is paramount for a country like Nepal lying in such a sensitive geopolitical location. “There should be national consensus on national interests. National consensus on vital national interest issues is possible. For example, the political parties stood on the same page on SPP.”
Former Nepali ambassador to China Leela Mani Paudyal suggested that Nepal should first agree on fundamental pillars of foreign policy and there should be a mechanism to hold to account the individuals, parties or institutions which violate or depart from the fundamentals.
“When small states, while dealing with big powers, make even small mistakes that can result in big consequences. Big powers may make small mistakes while dealing with small states but they can later correct such mistakes. Small states cannot,” he said.
“Nepal is not in a position to commit even small mistakes.”
Draw your conclusion
In a country where political actors openly lobby with foreign power centers for pelf and positions, who have openly invited foreign intervention on internal affairs several times in the past, where whose loyalty is with which country and who works to safeguard the interests of which power is open rather than secret, none of the wise counsels may help to keep our national interest inviolable.
Each government in Nepal is tagged and labeled as pro and anti certain power largely because of the conducts of the political parties themselves. We have seen this happen several times in the past and we are seeing this happening now as well.
But that there is a think tank of the government which still conducts debates on such vital issues, and politicians talk sense at least in such forums and that there are no dearth of wise men to remind the politicians what should and should not be done is a pleasing consolation to the discerning minds.