On Tuesday, Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain spoke at the Wilson Center on the topic of Pakistan-US relations. During the course of his speech, Mr. Hussain touched on several important issues including blowback from increased drone strikes, differences in priorities vis-a-vis Afghanistan, and the burden of perceived historical rebuffs. One issue in particular, though, stood out – the effect of domestic politics on foreign policy.
Domestic politics is a reality that affects foreign policy not only in Pakistan, but in all countries. Recently, President Obama was overheard telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have “more flexibility” after this year’s elections are over. The situation in Pakistan is no different.
Earlier this year, by elections and Senate elections in Pakistan boosted the Pakistani People’s Party’s (PPP) representation in parliament. But general elections for the National Assembly scheduled for next year puts the majority of seats in play. As a result, politicians are under intense scrutiny not only by the public, but by their opponents as well.
It is through this lens that we should view debates about redefining terms of engagement with the US taking place in Pakistan’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS). Recommendations from the PCNS were expected weeks ago, but the process has been slow due to both boycotts by opposition parties and a general cautiousness about tackling sensitive issues such as drones and re-opening NATO supply lines with elections looming.
Despite taking longer than anticipated, however, the committee appears to have achieved a breakthrough as the PPP and opposition parties have managed to find consensus on tough issues. Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, remarked at the beginning of the process that the parliamentary review of US-Pakistan relations was “a success for democracy,” and it appears she was right. Democracy has never been fast moving, but by building consensus among political parties, it is the only way to develop sustainable policies.
Not all foreign policy decisions can be made through pure consensus, though, and it is in this area where political leadership is put to the test. In 2009, President Barack Obama demonstrated took the extraordinary step of addressing the Muslim world from Cairo, seeking “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”
Obama’s speech drew sharp criticism from many American conservatives, including Mitt Romney, for “apologizing” for past American mistakes.
Similarly, Pakistan’s President Zardari transcended historic mistrust last weekend when he became the first Pakistani head of state to visit India in almost a decade. Right wing organizations in Pakistan vocally opposed the president’s trip. Zardari made the trip anyway, and a few days later India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told The Wall Street Journal that his country is willing to open a new dialogue with Pakistan about resolving issues over the disputed area of Kashmir.
In the modern world, domestic politics is rarely confined to domestic issues. Complex issues of international relations are widely reported and discussed among local populations, and political leaders must make decisions based not only on what the believe is in the best interests of their country, but within a range of policies that can receive domestic support.
In mature democracies, this means that foreign policy is informed by consensus derived from the people’s elected representatives, and executed by the country’s leadership. The people of Pakistan have long cried out for change in relations with both the US and India. Recent events give reason to believe their democracy has matured to a stage that can deliver it.