Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Foreign Policy, research and pursuance of our national interests

Daily Sun
October 2, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I often wonder how our Government copes with the task of foreign policy formulation in the current international situation where the task of dealing with this subject is one of the most difficult for any government as a consequence of the breakdown of the bipolar world. In the Cold War period, foreign policy was either pro-US or pro-Soviet with little maneuvering ground or the need for it in between. Foreign policy issues for countries such as ours were either pro- America or pro- Soviet.

Since the end of the bipolar world, the need for permutation and combination in foreign policy issues have become so complex that for determining national interest, any foreign policy topic has to be researched and analyzed before a policy can be reached. In most countries, in fact in all except our own, it is the Foreign Ministry that leads in formulation of foreign policy out of a myriad of complex issues so that the best interest of the country is served. In the Foreign Ministry of these countries, research is a very important and integral part of its work, so as to arm the policy makers with all the options so that the best policy can be formulated.

To cope with the increasing complexity of foreign policy formulation, the Foreign Ministry in most countries uses think tanks and research institutions because alone it cannot cope up with the work load. In my own experience in Tokyo, I have seen the Japanese Foreign Ministry work closely with the think tanks in its effort to arrive at the best policy on respective foreign policy issues.

In our Foreign Ministry, we are almost totally oblivious to the need of research in pursuit of our foreign policy. In the 1960s, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry had recruited Dr. GW Chowdhury as the Director-General of Research in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a time when his renown as a scholar was internationally acclaimed. In fact, he went on from the post to become a Federal Minister in the Government of Pakistan.

In our Foreign Ministry, an apology of an attempt was made in the late 1970s to follow the tradition that Pakistan had set in recruiting a scholar for research. The attempt was made at the level of a Director than ended in a fruitless exercise. I guess there is a post of a Director for Research still in the organogram of our Foreign Ministry in which no one is interested as it has never been filled up. At least, I am not aware if it has ever been occupied.

We thus have a Foreign Ministry that does not feel the need of research in pursuit of its work in matters of foreign policy formulation. It is incredible that it does not because even the thought that a country can formulate foreign policy without research is in itself irrational. In theory, the Foreign Ministry funds two think tanks or call them research institutes in you want but I am not sure if the former makes any use of either.

The two institutes are the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) and the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA). The Ministry funds the former with the Ministry of Defense and the latter with the Ministry of Law. In BIISS, the tradition has been to have one of the two key posts of Chairman and the Director-General from MOFA. As a mark of the Ministry lack of inclination for research, both posts at BIISS today are held by members of the armed forces.

In the days after independence, BILIA was an institute of international repute. In fact the institution had a key role to play in the development of laws related to crimes against humanity. At a time when the country is united on the need to try those who committed crimes against humanity in 1971, BILIA could have played a major supporting role that it has failed to do. The Foreign Ministry that has long ago ceased taking active interest in BILLIA has thus failed to contribute to policy formulation on an issue of great importance to the nation because of its strange lack of interest in issues of research and research institutions.

The Ministry has also failed to use BIISS as a research institution that was palpably visible in its role or the lack of it in connection with the Government’s efforts to improve relations with India. In the nearly two years between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to India and the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Dhaka, BIISS could have been used significantly in research and enhancing public awareness, two areas where our side fell well short that caught us unprepared to negotiate with India to secure our national interest.

Meanwhile, significant developments are taking place in our region. Chinese Prime Minister has recently visited New Delhi, following President Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron and President Sarkozy, underlying India’s emergence as a world power. Despite Wen Jiabao’s efforts to win Indian friendship, the two sides are locking horns in the region and abroad. The two countries that together make up 40% of world’s population are fighting hard for oil that is becoming increasingly worse with China ahead in the race.

We seem unaware and unconcerned about these developments that are crucial for our foreign policy formulation as we are strategically located for both. After decades of developing excellent relations with China, we have shown our preference for India in our aborted attempt to make a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. As a sovereign country, it is our right to pursue our interests with any country we decide. Nevertheless, we could have handled the options in a better way if our foreign policy makers had the benefit of research or awareness for the need of it.

The Foreign Ministry, unfortunately, is not really in charge fully of either formulation of foreign policy or its implementation. Hence it would be unfair to put the blame on MOFA for its lack of interest in research. In fact, its primary responsibility to conduct our bilateral relations with India for instance has been taken away from it and placed with the Prime Minister’s Advisers. This is a main reason why Bangladesh has faltered in achieving its interests in the disappointing initiatives in Bangladesh-India relations. There were gaping flaws in research on the issues our side negotiated.

It is therefore an urgent need to place foreign policy formulation and implementation in charge of MOFA. The latter in turn must put the utmost emphasis on research in foreign policy formulation and to that end, build its research division and give it as much importance as it gives to its other divisions. In acknowledgement of the fact that even after a fully fledged research division in created in MOFA there would be additional need of research, the potentials of both BISSS and BILIA should be fully exploited to the fullest extent.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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