Infusing imagination in Nepal’s foreign policy

It is true that Nepal should not discount the strategic importance of working with China and India. But the government seems to think Beijing and Delhi are the only capitals in the world it should reach out to.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 6 min.

The visit of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda to India, once again, exposes an often forgotten truth: That the foreign policy of the country is constrained by lack of imagination, a consequence of the current state of political affairs in Nepal.

Foreign policy is only discussed and shaped and carried out not in terms of new possibilities but rather is defined by the opposite, the lack of search for opportunities.

Lacking imagination in foreign policy does only mean an approach unable to create new spaces for people to people diplomacy. For example, in the specific case of Nepal-India relations, why can’t Kathmandu grant some university scholarships to students from India as well?

What about sponsoring, also with the financial support of the major business houses of the nation, bilateral exchange programs so that a new crop of young Indian leaders can come to Nepal and better understand its potentials? These are just a few examples of innovative soft power that Nepal could embrace not only with India but also with China, its two major bilateral partners.

What I really meant with “lacking of imagination” is something different, deeper and more political.

Big picture

Instead of exploring new diplomatic pathways and forging new relationships across the globe, the country remains stuck in a policy dictated and constrained by the need of finding a balance between its two big neighbors. It is true that Nepal should not discount the strategic importance of working with China and India. Both nations remain essential for the prosperity of the country.

While it is obvious the visit to India of Prime Minister Dahal is a big deal and likewise the following probable, though still unannounced visit to Beijing, it seems that these two are the only capitals in the world that the government of Nepal should aspire to reach. There are Washington and Brussels as well but these relationships, though very important, remain secondary in terms of strategic priority.

The truth is that you cannot have a strong foreign policy without a strong government. By a strong government, I do not mean a government that flirts with authoritarianism or worrying about some trends of majoritarianism.  By strong government, I mean a government centered on principles of good governance whose one of the cornerstones, let’s not forget, is also a government that is responsive to the needs of the people, including the special needs of those historically neglected. Despite the many proclamations and speeches by Prime Minister Dahal, it is obvious that the government and its way of operating are still weak and ineffectual.

There is a lot of cynicism around the political class and correctly so but sometimes I feel like, perhaps naively, to give the benefit of the doubt to the Prime Minister. Both from a self-centric perspective (after all he might be really concerned with his legacy) and at the same time from what could really be a genuine desire to improve citizens’ lives, Prime Minister Dahal does not miss an opportunity to state the efforts being taken by the government to address the challenges faced by the country.

The budget just released on Monday is also a testament of promises that will probably, once again, be swept under the carpet.  So with the current state of internal affairs, lacking strong institutions at central and local levels, it is extremely difficult for Nepal to project a confident foreign policy capable of forging new bilateral partnerships. Yet, foreign policy of the country, like any other dimensions of policy making, should strive for, both in theory and practice, going beyond imagination. The challenge is doing so even without effective institutions in the country.

The quest of re-thinking the old school approach to international relations could start by leveraging its diaspora. We are talking about millions of people who are still genuinely emotionally and personally attached to the country. If you think that the network of foreign missions that Nepal can count on is not at all small, ambassadors, whether career diplomats or political appointees, should be encouraged and supported to unleash the creativity of the people of Nepali origin living overseas.

It means having a very detailed strategy on how to work with and engage the diaspora.

Showcasing the rich and diverse cultures of the country, together with its natural beauties, in the mountains and in the plain, is always paramount.  These are the elements that should be always capitalized on also for the obvious touristic reasons.

But if you think about it, the diaspora could do much more to help project a different image of the nation, including helping forging a sense of good will in their new capitals, in the centers of power that gave them a chance to start a new life. Parliamentarians there could be lobbied to bring to their attention the unique offerings that Nepal is at disposal: Low manpower costs, a market that is actually not at all so small and most importantly, a market that still is underdeveloped.

They can also bring their focus on the geopolitical importance of investing in Nepal not from a perspective of a new cold war among powers but from the perspective that the country still has unlimited potential and it is connected with the two biggest markets in the world, India and China. It is true that showcasing the strength of a country is not easy, especially when national politics is still a work in progress.

There are also lots of difficulties, bottlenecks, and a regulatory framework too complex to navigate. There is corruption too. But look at Bangladesh.

Beyond neighbors

While vastly more populous than Nepal, it is a country that was able to attract huge international investments despite the many same challenges that Nepal is also facing, including a weak governance despite the authoritarianism of the Awami League in power in Dhaka. Nepal is a true democracy, though a messy one, but still it is something that is valued and noted overseas. Yet it would be disingenuous to rely only on the diaspora.

The country needs a new foreign policy that reflects the desire of change that each single Prime Minister in power, no matter the political party s/he is affiliated to, professes, in words and paper, to do whatever it takes to achieve.

Why not create a conducive environment in which foreign policy experts from the government, academia and civil society, can truly discuss ways in which the country can truly emerge and be recognized as a lower middle income nation? De-linking foreign policy from internal dynamics of national politics is not only hypocritical but it can also be counterproductive.

They two are interlinked and the latter ultimately is the key to determine the former.

It’s something so obvious and so intuitive that sometimes we forget about it while we keep lamenting about the usual and so boring narrative that Nepal is a country sandwiched between China and India as if this were the only inescapable fate waiting for the country.

Coming up with a new realistic but at the same time future looking foreign policy could also create a new sense of urgency related to Nepal’s much-needed reforms. If the regulations in matters of foreign investments have already improved in the last few years, much more should be done to make the country a real destination for foreign capital. And let’s also be honest that running investment summits or even any future edition of the Sagarmatha Summit won’t be enough.

As important as these events are, they won’t truly make the headlines around the world. What will strike the international community’s attention is a government that is in the process of graduating from the category of least developing country and it is not just begging for an extension of its preferential trade facilities but rather is proactively engaging the world.

Coming up with a new realistic but at the same time future looking foreign policy could also create a new sense of urgency related to Nepal’s much-needed reforms. 

Delhi, Beijing deserve to be on the top list, followed by Dhaka, Washington, Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, Berlin and Paris. But what about Jakarta, Bangkok, Hanoi and Manila, Putrajaya and Singapore, for example? Nepal does not even have a South East Asia Policy that actually could become one of the key pillars of a new foreign policy compass. In this regard, the country could leverage its membership to the BIMSTEC.

At least thanks to the hydropower, Bangladesh is being elevated and started being given the due priority. Moreover, the fact that the SAARC is stuck in a limbo does not mean that Nepal can’t forge its own way to promote regional cooperation through bilateral mechanisms. Other pillars of a new foreign policy could see Nepal engaging the broader world, including the Gulf nations, not just from the prism of being a source of cheap labor.

Doing so would further diminish the stature and dignity of the nation, a nation that should also aspire to even engage Africa and the Americas. What’s, after all, the scope of having a diplomatic presence in Pretoria, Ottawa and Brasilia?

The entire world is open for business and the foundations should be laid for a more effective diplomacy that will reflect new priorities set by a new sense of confidence that should accompany Nepal towards its journey towards becoming a middle income country.

Think new

Let’s start a conversation on foreign policy.

Let’s do it in an unconventional manner, including experts but also the youths because they are the ones who could contribute the most to make Nepal truly prosperous.

I conclude with one idea.

Besides scholarships and exchange programs, why not create a program that will allow young professionals with at least five years of working experience at middle level management and a clear track record in the private and NGOs sector, to be seconded for two years in one of the country’s missions around the world?