|Sunday, October 18, 2009
Popular opinion is not, and shouldn’t be, the place where foreign policy is decided.
It isn’t usually, because most people don’t care what their nation’s relationship is with another nation. This has exceptions. We are interested in the way our nation behaves with a neighbour we have gone to war with, or a country that we have deep economic ties with. But we are unconcerned about what treaties our government signs with Congo or Vietnam or Austria.
And popular opinion shouldn’t be where foreign policy is decided, because weighing in on foreign policy needs more information and background – what is called domain expertise — than is available to most of us. If it is available, most of us find it uninteresting.
It is for the same reason that budget deficits are not decided directly by popular opinion, but indirectly through elected leaders.
We could decide to influence our policy with a nation through popular opinion, but then a significant majority of us must know the history of the two nations’ relationship. They must understand the text of current documents, and the consequences of action.
This is difficult, though there are times when all of it is swept aside because it becomes irrelevant, for instance if that nation declares war on us.
Another reason for foreign policy being best kept out of popular opinion is that we are emotional when thinking of ourselves as a nation.
We might think of our collective behaviour as honourable or shameful, but our nation does not feel our emotion, even though we cast it in a human light as motherland or fatherland.
In our temporary emotion, we might push the government into taking a position that is actually harmful to the nation in concrete economic terms, though it might make us feel better emotionally.
In most democracies, foreign policy is not in the domain of popular opinion for the first reason: people do not care. Americans didn’t care about their country’s policies regarding Afghanistan, till the September 11 attacks brought Afghanistan, and the emotion of vengeance, into the domain of popular opinion and Bush declared war.
America’s relationship with Iraq also came into public opinion, and it inverted what had been a popular presidency. Foreign policy cost the Republican Party their legislative majority because the public quickly corrected their mistake, which had been made in a fit of anti-Arab emotion.
India fought China in 1962 and lost. The Chinese withdrew from most of the captured Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh voluntarily, but Indians still fear China.
Partly this has to do with that nation’s size and power. But it also has to do with the fact that we cannot understand the Chinese, and they are alien to us.
Indians cannot think about China unemotionally or rationally and so that creates a problem for the government.
For a few weeks, stories on China have been prominent in India. The one that caused most anxiety was the report that Chinese soldiers were trespassing on the Indian side of the border.
Had there been a skirmish? No. Had any Chinese been seen? No.
What the report was based on was some rocks that had been found which had Chinese writing on them.
Much coverage was given to this, and the Chinese know that Indians respond to the slightest shift and so they keep us unbalanced.
The media in democracies understands public opinion quite well, especially television, which is quite alert to what sort of story works because it gets feedback through ratings.
In successive weeks we had stories of the Chinese stamping visas for Jammu and Kashmir residents on loose leaves instead of their passport; Chinese objections to Manmohan Singh’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh (based on an internet poll); and then a story about a dam being raised over the Brahmaputra, which originates in China and then flows into India. This last story was probably the one that should have worried us most, but that got mention only in one newspaper because it doesn’t concern national honour.
Left to itself, this government will probably sort out matters with China easily, because India in 2009 is not the India of 50 years ago. But being pushed forward by the fearful and enraged public behind it makes its job tougher.
It is an example of an issue that has become complicated by being in the public realm.
Something similar is happening in Pakistan, where some are opposed to the Kerry-Lugar bill which President Zardari’s government thinks will be good for Pakistan.
The US government will give Pakistan $7.5 billion through 2014. It is very unlikely the majority of Pakistanis know what $ 7.5 billion means; certainly most Indians would not know. This is because we do not use million and billion, but lakh and crore.
What the US is giving is Rs622.5 billion in exchange for fighting extremism in the Frontier. This is Rs3,660 for every Pakistani.
America wants to make this money conditional, which is its right as a donor. As a recipient of aid, Pakistan is entitled to reject conditions and go its own way.
But it is already fighting a war against extremism. And it is doing this with an effectiveness that can be seen in the desperation of last week’s attacks.
Pakistan is fighting this war because Zardari’s government believes it’s the right thing for Pakistan. Some of those urging Pakistan to reject this money have been wrong before. Some of them said earlier that the Taliban should not be fought, that they were a threat only because of America’s war. But that line of argument ended after the Pakistan army’s stunning success in Swat.
The people who are disturbed by America’s possible infringing on the sovereignty of the Pakistan government could also respond to the real infringement of sovereignty that happened when the army expressed its concern on the Kerry-Lugar bill. The Pakistan army is a servant of the government and has as much of a right to express its concern publicly as any other government department.
One of the conditions of the bill is that Pakistan’s army remain out of politics. This is good news for all Pakistanis who like democracy because it supports their cause, but it might have upset GHQ. The army should have raised his irritation or concern in private with the government, to whom he reports, rather than send a public memo through the media. In India if an armed forces chief were to do that, he would be fired from his job – and that is what sovereignty is really about.
To outsiders it is difficult to understand what the fear of Pakistanis over Kerry-Lugar is; or why Pakistan’s honour has been stained by accepting these conditions.
America will withhold money if Pakistan does not act to prevent a repeat of the proliferation which happened under A Q Khan. But surely that is something that the Pakistani government and army must also be concerned about.
The US says that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad must be acted against, but that is something that is already happening.
It’s quite silly to say that we will do something that benefits us, but only if America doesn’t say we have to do it.
Pakistan is served by some very competent ministers, like Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who’s really world-class, and there should not be an irrational fear that they are acting against Pakistani interest. They should be allowed to do their job without the press of public opinion that is based on emotion more than it is on rational thoughts about where the benefit to Pakistan really lies.
Pakistan’s brave soldiers are shedding blood on behalf of the international community in the war against extremism. Pakistan must be compensated for that, and that is what the Kerry-Lugar bill is actually about.
The writer is director with Hill Road Media in Bombay. Email: aakar@ hillroadmedia.com (The News)