– Gopal Thapa
Former Chief of Protocol
Foreign Ministry, Nepal
Formulation of foreign policy takes into consideration factors, among others, a country’s geography, strategic location, economic development status and level of socio-cultural consciousness among people in the country.
These elements together constitute what in fact are called the “vital national interests”.
The “Yam theory” propounded by the late king Prithvi Narayan Shah explains clearly what our vital national interests are and how Nepal should go about protecting them.
Therefore, I believe the Yam theory still remains the most relevant and important policy guideline as far as Nepal’s conduct of its international relations is concerned.
The Yam theory underlined the need for adoption of a cautious and balanced approach while pursuing its relations with its colossus neighbors, then British India and Imperial China.
Maintaining a studied but informed distance from both was what the Yam theory all about. Nepal was, therefore, able to protect its national independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty during the time when the entire south-Asian region had fallen victim to fast spreading clutches of imperialism and colonialism.
Diversification of international relations:
It was only after the 1950 onwards when Nepal finally came out of the cocoon of the Rana dynastic rule that it began to diversify its international relations.
If King Prithvi Narayan propounded the Yam theory, it was late King Mahendra, Tanka Prasad Acharya and BP Koirala who made important contributions in various times to the diversify Nepal’s foreign relations by expanding diplomatic relations with countries from Europe, Africa and Asia.
Nepal embraced the major foreign policy underpinnings of universal character, such as abiding faith in the principles and purposes of the UN Charter, Non-alignment, five principles of peaceful co-existence, among others that still remain the cornerstone for her international relations management, as they constitute the time-suited and enduring theoretical basis for our foreign policy.
Policy and practice:
It is a fact that policies alone, regardless of soundness, cannot produce the desired results.
They bear results, only when executed through application of smart and effective diplomacy.
In other words, it is their effective execution with exercise of smart and result-driven diplomacy that is more important.
In Nepal, particularly the post-90s Nepal, I don’t recall having heard, let alone witness any informed debates on the methods and manner with which foreign policy objectives should be implemented to better respond to the contemporary national and international needs.
Democratic governments should have given enough time, space and thoughts in terms of rendering the conduct of foreign policy in keeping with the changed international order.
Barring a few closed door interactions with selected people, no meaningful and wide ranging public debates and discussions have ever taken place at the initiative of the Foreign Ministry.
It would have been a good idea to have organized such comprehensive debates and interactions from time to time to gain a better insight into and correct perspectives on, the appropriate diplomatic tools to be devised.
The refined and fine tuned conclusions and recommendations emerged from such debates would have certainly helped the Government to seek national consensus on core foreign policy issues among political parties.
Never a subject of public debate:
No government of the day did ever pursue that path to achieve at least minimum national consensus on core foreign policy issues, before making them the integral part of our Constitution.
The ideal way would have been that the distilled policy elements reached through broad-based participatory processes, including their execution, should have then been enshrined in the Constitution and pursued with a fair degree of consistency, credibility and clarity, irrespective of changes in governments as guiding principles in the pursuit of foreign policy.
Minor shift in emphasis on implementation may happen with a change in governments. Yet, the fundamental goals and principles of foreign policy remain unaltered.
I was only presenting an ideal way of formulating, as well as effective execution of foreign policy.
But, in Nepal, foreign policy formulation exercise has never been a subject of serious public debate!
It was understandable that foreign policy issues during the Panchayat days enjoyed an aura of exclusivity.
However, the post-90 periods and the periods after the popular movement, the clamor for a foreign policy that is pro-people and result-driven grew exponentially because of increased public awareness of and understanding about foreign policy issues.
It was hoped the new Nepal under Democratic Federal Republic setup will initiate interactive dialogues with participation of actors as wide-ranging as intellectuals, scholars, foreign policy experts, former diplomats, business sectors representatives and others, to render foreign policy more inclusive and people oriented.
But such a need was never felt, let alone hold discussions.
Nor were attempts ever made to achieve national consensus on core foreign policy issues.
Surprisingly, even during writing of the Constitution by the CA, foreign policy issues could not figure prominently and visibly for public debate.
In other words, such a vital issue remained agonizingly ignored!
The Constitution thus failed to articulate a clear and comprehensive picture of our Foreign policy goals and objectives distilled from informed public debates, including ways for its implementation through exercise of effective diplomacy.
In a way, popular expectations for a pro-people, inclusive and development-friendly foreign policy formulation and execution couldn’t find a clear resonance in the Constitution.
National consensus never reached:
Even after the new Constitution was promulgated, no governments made serious and genuine efforts to achieving national consensus on core foreign policy issues in the conduct of foreign policy.
Reports with the objective of undertaking time suited organizational reforms were prepared from time to time, with emphasis on the need for achieving and conducting national consensus foreign policy.
But no governments have since made serious and sincere efforts to that end.
On the other hand, the governments chose to make a selective application of only some of the recommendations from the reports that served their personal interest.
On the strength of the recommendations of such reports, new embassies abroad were open without conducting adequate cost-benefit analyses, only to appoint as envoys to their entirely diplomatic greenhorn loyal followers.
It was sad every new government that came in, spoke highly of the need to forge national consensus on the conduct of foreign policy, but never pursued it with the seriousness it deserved.
Lack of national consensus on core foreign policy issues, therefore, is the main reason why we have been seeing so many inconsistencies and anomalies in the conduct of foreign policy.
It would not be unfair to say that the foreign policy of Nepal now is being operated at the whims and pleasure of the governments in power.
Elements of continuity, consistency and clarity have all been thrown into winds.
Downplaying of diplomacy in the running of foreign affairs, breaching of diplomatic code of conducts in meeting with foreigners and making sensitive diplomatic appointments without heeding to the advice of the Foreign Ministry has become the name of the game!
Let me now touch upon some aspects of operational dynamism.
People and policies are important underpinnings of any organization, including Foreign Ministry.
We can also call these three elements- institution, individuals and ideas as the integral part in the conduct of foreign policy.
Policies constitute important institutional frameworks because they contain organization’s visions.
It is important, therefore, that foreign policies are sound, realistic, time-suited and reflective of the ideals and objectives that the Ministry as an Organization stands for.
The foreign ministry officials or individuals together help create ideas and organizational visions in terms of how to conduct foreign policy effectively.
Diplomacy is the main tools or methods with which the policy visions are translated into action.
Together, they generate an ideal ambience for organization’s operational dynamism.
Hence, effective conduct of foreign policy demands the application of informed, skilled and effective diplomacy.
The principle and goals articulated in our constitution are reflective of the geo-political and socio-economic ground realities.
However, policies alone are not, and cannot be, the measure of organizational soundness and success.
These days one gets to read and hear a lot about operational dynamism of an organization.
Opinions and views vary as to what actually operational dynamism is all about.
Many believe it refers mainly to the favorable in-house working environment, manned by highly skilled, motivated and professional officials.
In Foreign Ministry, these officials are called career diplomats who are groomed and trained for years in the art and knowledge of diplomacy.
They are also considered as linchpin for the pursuit of a country’s foreign policy through application of effective diplomacy.
Operational dynamism of foreign policy depends on their ability to interpret and analyze the delicate nuances of diplomacy for the promotion and protection of country’s vital national interest, in keeping with the foreign policy goals and objectives.
So what is the quality and standard of our Foreign Ministry’s operational dynamism in terms of discharging its diplomatic functions effectively?
How well trained, professional, knowledgeable and articulate are our career diplomats for that?
Quality vs quantity Foreign Ministry’s quantitative strength has vastly expanded in the last few years.
Many new positions have been created in the ministry and its missions abroad.
But more questions are raised when quality of delivery is concerned.
One of the constant criticisms against the ministry pertains to its less-than satisfactory diplomatic performance, both at the Ministry and in the diplomatic missions abroad.
Career, or non-career, it is alleged that foreign ministry officials and its diplomats have failed to give a good diplomatic account of themselves either at the bilateral or in the multilateral missions.
Many believe Nepal has lost its visibility that it once had at the bilateral and multilateral arenas.
In multilateral forums, loss of elections both for United Nations Security Council’s non-permanent seat and later on for the United Nations General Assembly President that we had contested are the examples that are often cited.
Sharp and progressive erosion in the practice of effective diplomacy, therefore, has always remained a moot topic in the post-republic governments.
Depleting institutional strength because of frequent political interference, Foreign Ministry being led by a leadership bereft of knowledge about the sensitivities involved in the foreign policy matters and lack of focus on, competence, quality and professionalism are some of the reasons cited.
It is not that successive governments of the time did not make efforts.
They pledged to work for making foreign policy, including its practice, more attuned to the emerging needs of the post-republic Nepal.
But these commitments remained only on papers and remain largely unimplemented.
This was because, earlier on, all governments suffered from the protracted political instability, bane of coalition governments, politicization of bureaucracy and absence of clear-cut organizational goals.
Foreign Ministry, too, could not remain immune to this messy environment.
Professional competence of its personnel suffered heavily.
Competent officials, for lack of incentives, became opportunity-seekers, often knocking at the politicians’ doors seeking favor.
Thus post-republic governments miserably failed to give the attention and importance to the vital foreign policy issues.
Foreign Ministers were picked at the whim and pleasure of the Prime Minister, who lacked sufficient knowledge and experience on foreign policy matters.
Inability of our political leadership to make a distinction between domestic and foreign policy issues and sensitivities caused sharp decline in the country’s diplomatic image abroad.
Disappointingly, even when the politically stable government came in, it did not show any serious interest to make positive changes in matters of foreign policy execution.
Rather, it continued to suffer from the same undiplomatic malaises cited above.
It made irrational and undiplomatic statements if it served its personal interests, only to create controversies.
Acting against established diplomatic code of conduct, breaching diplomatic norms and standards as often as it wished, despite knowing the enormity of damage that may inflict upon the time-honored diplomatic decorum and decency by such undiplomatic behavior remained a routine affair.
The government seemed little bothered that such behavioral inconsistencies would create serious credibility questions in the eyes of our international and bilateral friends, that it would cost heavily on our international image and that our diplomats and negotiators, as a result, tend to lose negotiating edge in the vital national agendas and issues as they are not trusted.
Like in India and in many other South Asian countries, conduct of foreign policy in Nepal too, should have largely been left to the Foreign Ministry.
Promotion of operational dynamism in the ministry’s workforce would call for encouraging and injecting a fair degree of professionalism into the entire spectrum of Foreign Ministry.
This would mean appointing a thoroughly professional diplomat with long diplomatic experience and exposure as Foreign Minister.
The same should be the measure for appointment of ambassadors as well.
We can take a leaf from the diplomatic book from India where former foreign secretary has now been been on the chair of Minister for External Affairs.
Practice of appointing foreign minister from among professional diplomats is the first step which must be introduced sooner than later.
However, this alone will not suffice.
The entire Foreign Ministry workforce needs to be redeemed from unprofessional intervention from any quarters.
The foreign minister should be given full operational freedom to institute required reforms in the ministry to render its workforce more professional, result driven and capable of dealing with the challenges in foreign affairs.
Their diplomatic performance must be measured in terms of the quality of service they have delivered.
The present business as usual attitude will backfire.
Hence, we have to make sweeping reforms in the way we have been conducting foreign policy.
Ongoing and emerging geo-political and socio-economic challenges and their ramifications on our national security interests require diplomats with sharp analytical knowledge on international relations.
They need to have enough diplomatic skill to be able to negotiate our way out of those challenges.
This is possible only when we sufficiently enhance our negotiating skill and leverage our diplomatic prowess.
To achieve this we must place greater focus on improving the operational dynamism of foreign policy in the days ahead.
The progressive decline in the operational aspect of our foreign policy has become the serious issue of concern in the media, well-meaning intellectuals, conscientious politicians and seasoned former diplomats.
Among others, blatant political interference into sensitive diplomatic functions have been cited as the fundamental reasons.
Consequently, the Foreign Ministry and its manpower have become the unfortunate victims of politicization.
It has sadly been reduced to a mere tool to be used at the discretion of the government and powerful political masters.
Clearly, this has had a deleterious effect on our diplomats’ performance abroad.
We have plenty of examples of the inability of our ambassadors abroad to disseminate timely and adequate information to the international community in preempting in time any disinformation campaign about Nepal.
Unfortunately, all the governments in the past remained impervious to all the calls and clamors for ending this political interference.
As a result, political connection, personal relations, nepotism and favoritism have become the standard government norms, particularly, for selecting political nominees as ambassadors, utterly overlooking professionalism, academic background and diplomatic skill and will of a candidate.
The Foreign Ministry has been seemingly made a silent sideline onlooker.
It has not been allowed to play even the recommendatory role that it deserved, in this process.
All governments that came in gave verbal assurances only.
At the end of the day, they also have chosen to follow on the same soiled footsteps of their predecessors, particularly in respect of envoy appointment.
These appointments, this time round also have been shared among key political parties in power, under the same infamous “political quota system”!
More disappointingly, such political nominees have literally swamped those from the Foreign Ministry!
Undoubtedly, political appointments in ambassadors are made everywhere from the business community, academics and experts on international relations.
This is basically to harness talents from outside and utilize their knowledge, expertise and skills into diplomatic arenas for better diplomatic outputs.
There is nothing wrong in political appointments as long as the candidates are picked on the basis of their sound academic background, competence and professionalism.
In fact, such appointments bring-in fresh and innovative ideas and may inject diplomatic dynamism in the work.
Unfortunately, in Nepal, power of purse, political and personal connection, and trusted party loyal continue be considered for political nominations as ambassadors!
Many independent observers regard such political appointments as an opportunity without accountability and responsibility.
It is assumed to be an expensive pleasure trips abroad for those fortunate political nominees, at the colossal cost of scant national coffer! Such a sordid public perception has well-founded reasons.
The growing loss of our diplomatic image and prestige abroad and the sharp and progressive erosion in ability, credibility and deliverability of our diplomats has a lot to do with the appointment of professional and uncouth, as ambassadors.
Regrettably, the government has knowingly refused to learn lessons from the continued loss of diplomatic image of the country by less than diplomatic performances of such callow and shallow political ambassadors!
In picking political appointees as envoys, therefore, important qualities such as competence, skills, appropriate educational background and professionalism have to be given due consideration.
It is imperative that political appointments for as sensitive and professional post as ambassador must not be driven purely by political, personal and party interests.
It is also true all nominees from the Foreign Service may not look necessarily impressive.
Presumably, they all may not be equally gifted with necessary diplomatic skills, knowledge and competence as required for the job!
It must be understood that appointment as ambassador is not a cake walk! It is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge to be able to earn, through demonstration of performance the qualification of a real “career diplomat”!
I believe foreign ministry officials are simply “career foreign service officers” before they go out to serve as ambassadors.
At the most, their various diplomatic assignments in the past can be understood as only the practical learning and experience -gaining processes in the field of diplomacy.
In a way, these were not the diplomatic leadership roles such as the Ambassador.
Only from the time that they become ambassador will they enter into the real but complex domain of diplomacy!
This is because ambassadors’ role and functions are not merely about making diplomatic representation abroad.
They have to be equally effective communicators and adept negotiators to promote and protect their country’s national interests abroad.
In this new role, they confront with new international actors, come across new agenda items and confront new working methods.
Adequate training, diligent preparation, enough international exposure and sufficient “diplomatic skill and will” are necessary to achieve success.
Clearly, those officers who have seriously had taken their earlier mission assignments as occasions to remain frequently engaged in diplomatic interactions, negotiation and to learn network building skills will perhaps be more at ease in handling the new and varied diplomatic leadership roles.
Only their proven diplomatic dexterity and ability to navigate their way through these complex diplomatic responsibilities would qualify them to be called as real “career diplomats”.
Moreover, marked elements of individuality, powerful personality, experience seniority and above all, impeccable performance track -record are supposed to be the hall marks of a seasoned and successful diplomat, career or non-career.
In view of the lack of enough information outside the Ministry about the professional antecedents of the aspirant ambassadors, questions remain whether all the nominees from the foreign service do really embody, more or less, those hallmarks; whether they are experienced enough to successfully deal with the diplomatic challenges that may be thrown upon them; and whether the Foreign Ministry has prepared them sufficiently for the new diplomatic role and responsibility.
Diffusion of information about their professional antecedents through regular exercise in public diplomacy by the Foreign Ministry would have helped defuse such a public misperception.
This is because, informed publics, politicians and intellectuals of the country have always pinned their high hopes on them, in view of the dwindling diplomatic image of our diplomats, largely those of the political ones, abroad.
Since these erratic behaviors of the stable government of the time have already caused considerable damage to the country’s image, hopefully the present coalition government would avoid trying to step into the diplomatic shoes of its predecessor.
It may sound ridiculous to many to talk of a dynamic Foreign Ministry with sharp operational teeth at the present murky political ambience.
We all know the country is at a crossroads of confusion.
Today, all the three important organs – Executive, Legislative and Judiciary have shown confusion about separation of power.
A rainbow coalition government with divergent personal and political interests is in place.
These coalition partners may not allow any institutional reforms that may contradict with their interest to get off the ground.
The dismal scenario in the conduct of foreign policy at present is also very much the reflective of the current messy domestic politics.
It would therefore be pointless to talk of reform in the foreign policy domain alone.
In such an uneasy national ambience, one can only hope that the coalition government may not damage further the credibility and image of Nepal in the international community.
Maintaining a balanced approach to our bilateral and multilateral relations with a fair degree of fairness, caution and calculation is important, therefore.
It is encouraging the coalition government has so far not been out of sync with handling foreign policy matters.
It must understand it can falter only at its own and that of the country’s peril.
# Text courtesy: Association of Former Career Ambassadors of Nepal ( AFCAN), Volume 2, 2021.
# Thanks AFCAN President Dr. R. B. Thakur for permission and the distinguished author Shri Gopal Thapa: Ed. N. P. Upadhyaya.
#Our contact email address is: [email protected]