For a long time, Nepal's foreign policy was couched in a struggle for survival between contesting empires. It sought to avoid a phase of “silent cry” when it found no reliable friend to support its struggle except dense forests and high mountains. The quality of survival depended on its leaders’ ability to take prudent decisions based on the nation’s core national interests and ward off adverse extension of outsiders’ ideas, culture and policies. Now Nepal is no longer cut off from the means of support of contemporary society and the world. It is utilising small state virtues attached to it and looking for peaceful coexistence and cooperation with powerful neighbours-- India and China, without giving up its syncretic culture, values and freedom-loving national character that conferred it a distinct sense of national identity in the comity of nations.
It cherishes an aspiration for just order and cooperation within the nation and with regional and global powers, an aspiration for non-adversarial ties with them. Nepal has thus lent the primacy of rule-based order over lawless geopolitics or spread of sphere of influence of powerful states within the national space. The cardinal values of Nepal’s foreign policy are derived from its constitution, Panchasheel, the UN Charter, non-aligned movement and adherence to treaty obligations. Its leaders had, however, harboured an ambition to shape public policies in education, law, security, socialisation and worldview in the image of other nations that weakened its Nepalisation and Sanskritisation process of nation building.
The country’s strategic geography that lies in the security orbit of neighbours has vaulted its vitality and value, endowed it with leverage as well as commanded the attention and competition of powerful states for a balance of power, restraint and reposition of each other’s strapping clout. The nation’s strategic value involves their stakes which espouse their concern, sensitivity, perception and attention. The underlying fact of its undying governmental instability has sporadically strained foreign policy disposition. The nation cannot afford geopolitical acrobatics or reset foreign policy following each regime change and lapse into loss of memory of history of how Nepal had played a balancing act and pulled itself out the maelstrom marked by turbulent time. Precisely for this reason the nation had pursued isolationist foreign policy and remained introvert during the Rana regime.
The democratic opening allowed it to adopt positive neutrality in the fifties and later espouse an extrovert policy of non-alignment based on balanced disposition between rival states, their interests and ideologies locked in cooperation, competition and conflict. Now the nation’s internal life is deeply pervaded by dependency of power -- remittance, aid, trade, investment and advice and international legitimacy, laws and obligations. Nepal’s survival as a sovereign state depends on securing its territorial space, culture, population and best utilisation of resources, with its own edifying setting spurred by adaptive strategies to deal with scores of interacting actors, institutions and processes that define world politics.
Varied topographical landscape endowed with diverse natural resource prospects for the survival of its population, certain advantages in the production, specialisation and diversification of essential goods and realisation of its national potential by careful use of management, science and technology and statecraft. Yet, its human and natural resource use remains sub-optimal devoid of surplus to synergise progress. The landlockedness offered it a protective shield, increased the cost for the forays of invaders and allowed the beauty of its own way of life though it has also increased transportation cost for trade and circulation of goods and people for the nation’s overall progress.
The virtues of a small state lie in not imposing its will on others, or becoming a conduit of third country’s interests against neighbours or self-assimilating its identity for universal ideologies. Defensive basis of its survival strategy is the lynchpin of its cordial ties with friendly nations beyond the neighbourhood. It aims to harvest benefits from the global power shift, especially with the ascent of China, India and the self-assured USA. Joining the larger associations, movements and membership has widened its gaze and space for manoeuvre, lifted up the threshold of deterrence and acquired moral and material support to repeal predators. Nepal has often acted as an interlocutor of small, landlocked, least developed and mountainous nations in international fora.
It has voiced the larger interest of the international community on peacekeeping, disarmament, peaceful settlement of international disputes, passed critical judgments on concrete cases of great powers’ violation of small nation’s right to self-determination and struggled for justice. It has helped Nepal to earn goodwill in international relations and reduce the impact of dependence on its policy sovereignty. National aspiration for independence also helps the alleviation of the security dilemma of neighbours. This aspiration defies the leadership temptation to be dictated by other powers stifling its rational foreign policy orientation.
National independence rests on reducing dependence and increasing competitive ability in many matters of survival, vital and major interests. It entails enduring vitality of internal vigour, cohesion of diverse societal elements to congruent politics and smooth adaptation to a fluid regional and international circumstances with which the nation’s various forces interact, reap the resources to enhance the inter-societal unity and viability and build strategies for the promotion of shared interests as opposed to thought-conditioning now, “Nepal is poor and daily becoming poorer” akin to parroting cynicism about progress invoking the curse of sati. The survival of Nepal is taken for granted as a civilised nation whose classical treatise reveals “do not kill asylum-seekers” and sincerely perform duties beyond borders.
The key challenge is to generate sustainable progress. This can be achieved by improving the wellbeing of its people, reducing the toxic agents of the system and catching up the progress in science so that neither the nation’s youth, capital stock nor the finest brains of the nation find the international market the last option, without engaging in nation-building. National policy must be geared to overcome the vicious cycles of poverty, inflation, joblessness, budget and trade deficits, rising debt, declining foreign investment and tourists and set macro political economy in a robust state so that it can graduate from the club of least developed nations. Nepal should also upscale capital investment, alleviate the shortage of industrial and agricultural production and improve clear and green energy.
A shift from survival to progress has to be seen in a wider global gaze shaped by conflict and wars, climate change, pandemic and return of geopolitics which has fused economy, security and politics. This means survival elements of the nation, its sovereignty, territorial integrity and national self-determination are related with the enduring national progress, not retardation and decay, without fully conditioned by the policies of the other nations appallingly inapt to meet national needs. National progress has a teleological end to secure matters of public good as it helps enduringly escape from the tightrope walk, builds a safety valve by a balancing strategy, acquires means of defence and deterrence and buttresses the mechanism of security, stability and status.
Prithvi Narayan Shah, the builder of modern Nepal, imagined the cultural nation without any prejudice to the other. He combined cultural, commercial, security and spiritual sources to mobilise national sentiment and loyalty of people. Its cultural identity can perfect organic solidarity, not spelling the ferocity of subsidiary identity politics triggered by postmodern politics now. Bolstering the vitality of vision equally demands correct reading of internal correlations of forces, especially identifying their centripetal and centrifugal bents and their ties with external actors in the shifting geopolitical milieu. It also requires constantly re-evaluating diplomatic insights, tools and strategies for implacable national destiny and opportunity to move from mere survival to progress.
The strength of rational action abroad springs from purposive direction and conscious adaptation of its foreign policy, diplomatic means and strategies to serve Nepali state’s ends so that barriers to adaptation are conked out, capacity is strapped up and the nation acquires international acceptability like in the past. Jung Bahadur Rana’s defiance to promote British interest in Nepal, Chandra’s refusal to sit together with Indian princes, BP Koirala’s rejection to serve other’s security interest, kings Mahendera and Birendra’s rejection of Nepal’s buffer status and Kirtinidhi Bista’s statement “not to sacrifice its sovereignty for other’s security interests” are precisely crafted to keep its foreign policy autonomy, sovereignty and independence. It attracted the cooperation of many friendly nations for its overall progress.
Keeping spirit of sovereignty demands a knack to beef up foreign policy props and check the lure of imperial or hegemonic powers to extend its security perimeter, knowledge, laws and culture through leadership change in Nepal. How can diverse political elements of Nepali society struggling for power, resource and recognition by any means find common ground for national collective action? Does national identity transcend tribal, ethnic, gender, regional and class differences so that each supports the other in collective enterprise of nation building? Can Nepali state, citizens, business and civil society build convergence for mustering national strength for foreign policy effectiveness?
All these require the mobilisation of national sentiments transcending the leader, party and regime-oriented foreign policy and foster national consensus in organising collective action. An overwhelming majority of Nepalis is totally opposed to an alliance with any power or favour geopolitical determinism. But it did not prevent the nation from allowing Gorkha recruitment in the Indian and British armies, signing arms assistance agreement, peace and friendship treaty with security implications, import of arms for national defence and entering into strategic partnership with India, China, the UK and USA.
Nepal’s ideological affinity with India and the West is marked by its education, economic, constitution, admin, and worldview. The reason is that most of Nepal’s democratic change is inspired by them though it officially maintained non-aligned foreign policy between neighbours and great powers. As a result, Nepali leaders’ tendency to place their confidence in personal relationships with the leaders of other countries rather than rely on institutional disposition, especially foreign ministry, diplomatic code and protocols has made their action controversial. It has invited the criticism of the media and intellectuals. Nepali leaders must uphold national confidence, integrity and dignity and stay consistent in conducting foreign affairs so that they can shift foreign policy from mere survival oriented to sustainable progress.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)