Frugality at the expense of national image

Courtesy: Malik Muhammad Ashraf

Traditional diplomacy has its own advantages and efficacy but it cannot match the power of public diplomacy, conducted through the media, in changing the perceptions and attitudes of the people and influencing their judgments

We often hear our leaders hankering after projecting a soft image of Pakistan internationally and calling for a paradigm shift in the conduct of our foreign policy, with greater emphasis on public diplomacy as an effective and indispensable ingredient of the strategy to achieve the desired objectives. However, an incisive look is needed at what has been happening over the years in regards to realigning our foreign policy objectives with the new emerging global realities and the new mechanisms evolved as a consequence of the ability of the emerging technologies to expand the horizons and options available to conduct public diplomacy. Our record shows a rather regressive approach steeped in a visceral aversion to well thought out and well researched decision making processes.

The focus regrettably remains on traditional diplomacy and mechanisms devised to promote and facilitate state-to-state relations rather than public diplomacy, which, from its previous emphasis on developing contacts between a state and the public of another state, has of late transited into the realm of people-to-people contacts on a bilateral level as well as state-to-global audience outreach, a phenomenon made possible by new technologies like the internet, digital communications and new techniques of public relations on the global level through the use of the vast array of media outlets.
Pakistan is the most misunderstood country in the world and the phenomenon of terrorism and religious extremism, arguably, is a leading factor in distorting its image at the global level. Pakistan as a frontline state in the war on terror has suffered the most in men and material and has helped in dismantling the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden but regrettably our allies and western countries look askance at our endeavours, doubt our commitment to the cause at hand and decidedly remain oblivious to our national and strategic interests in the region.
The western media, with its all-permeating power and unfettered global outreach, is also feverishly engaged in maligning Pakistan and soiling its image among the comity of nations. Under the prevailing circumstances, it is absolutely essential for the government, besides relying on state-to-state diplomacy, to also accord top priority to the efforts to create a better understanding of Pakistan’s position and its image internationally, countering the negative propaganda against it and projecting a soft image of the country premised on the positive things that have happened in the arena of the war on terror as well as the measures adopted to improve economic, social and political conditions in line with globally accepted principles. The emergence of an independent judiciary and a free media in Pakistan are indeed epoch making developments. So are the strides taken towards gender equality and emancipation of women. All these factors can be used to achieve the desired results provided the government takes concrete measures to strengthen its PR apparatus at the international level.
This is the age of information, media and specialisation. As such, image building assignments need to be handled by well-equipped, trained and professional officials of the information service, constituted for this very purpose. However, it is a matter of great shame that our press sections in the foreign missions are either not properly equipped or lack the wherewithal that is necessary to do justice to their roles. It is not only a much-needed compulsion to strengthen these outfits but also to expand their network to the areas that hitherto have escaped the attention of the government. We do not have any presence in important capitals of Central Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Putting in place arrangements for capacity building of the press officers, language courses, streamlining the procedure of their foreign postings free of political influence and exploring the avenues of public-private cooperation are some of the other steps that can immensely contribute towards building a softer image of Pakistan.
Traditional diplomacy has its own advantages and efficacy but it cannot match the power of public diplomacy conducted through the media in changing the perceptions and attitudes of people and influencing their judgments. Pakistan needs a sustained and well-orchestrated effort to use the power of the media and the PR regime to address the issue of image building in the larger and long-term interest of the country.
It is, however, distressing to note that the developments so far point towards a regressive policy thrust based on recommendations of one or two member committees comprising bureaucrats belonging to the foreign service who invariably have tended to protect and promote the expansion of the foreign service cadre at the expense of the press and commercial sections in the missions abroad, whenever the government has assigned them the task to look at the ways and means to curtail unnecessary posts in the embassies designed to cut expenditure. In 1997, on the recommendations of the Shahryar Committee, a number of press sections in our foreign missions were abolished without analysing the pros and cons of their presence and the role that they were playing in promoting public diplomacy based on people-to-people contact.
It is understood that the present government, on the recommendations of a committee headed by Tariq Fatemi, a retired officer of the foreign service, has decided to close press sections in three countries of Far East Asia. This is too important a matter to be left to two or three individuals who have no idea of media-related issues and the efficacy of the press sections in promoting the objectives of public diplomacy. If the government is really interested in cutting expenditure, and rightly so, it must focus on a slew of other areas where the national resources are being filched or wasted. The government has already taken some appreciable decisions in regards to cutting expenditure like withdrawal of secret and discretionary funds at the disposal of the prime minister, ministers and government departments, which will save Rs 40 billion. Phased withdrawal of subsidies, expanding the tax net, privatising the state owned enterprises and the contemplated policy to abolish tax exemptions are some of the imaginative and necessity-driven steps that will go a long way in enhancing the availability of much-needed resources for development purposes. I am sure there are a myriad other options available for curtailing expenditure and generating extra resources, which can more than compensate for the money that will be saved through the closure of press sections, so vitally needed to improve the quality of public diplomacy. It is an unavoidable national obligation and must not be allowed to become a casualty of the moves aimed at frugality.