Foreign Policy Formulation in Pakistan: Challenges & Response


Contrary to the general impression of Pakistan always following inept foreign policy, an honest and objective appraisal of the process of foreign policy formulation and its implementation in Pakistan would reveal that it is extremely difficult to assess 75 years of a policy in either/ or type of answer. It is a mixed bag; while there were some glaring examples of poorly designed or badly executed foreign policy options, Pakistan can also boast of some very good foreign policies formulated and executed during its 75 years of formal existence as a nation-state. Sometimes it did not have a policy at all for a long time in the field.

However, without passing any judgement, we may identify some of the weaknesses and constraints of Pakistan’s foreign policy formulation process

1. Lack of Holistic Approach

One of the main accusations against the entire process of foreign policy formulation in Pakistan entire process of foreign policy formulation is national interest. Besides ambiguity about the exact nature of its national interest and the objectives to be achieved, there is an absence of an institutional mechanism to synthesise the political, economic, and security aspects of foreign affairs in the consideration of foreign policy issues. There has been a growing gap between the foreign policy perspectives and the security assessments of the military establishment and the elected or unelected political leadership of the country. The country selected or unelected political leaderships of national security have been reached. Trying to play a larger-than-life role in world politics, we fail to understand that we do not have enough resources to achieve this Utopian objective.

Most of the time, our foreign policy choices are reactionary, either a knee-jerk action against some Indian move or complying with American whims. And in issues relating to the Islamic world, it is invariably emotionalism that triumphs over real politica.

2. Procedural Mismatch

Formulation of the foreign policy, like any other policy, is the exclusive domain of the elected representatives, and the parliament is the supreme forum to discuss and formulate our foreign policy. However, in actual practice, the two Houses of Parliament and their Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs have not been as active in the consideration of foreign policy issues as they could or should have been. Our legislators have paid little attention to the area of foreign policy even while recognising its importance. They do not take interest in its formulation and invariably just rubber-stamp the policy drafted by the bureaucrats.

Besides creating crises of legitimacy, it also creates crises of ownership as it does not properly reflect the wishes of the people. Who will monitor its implementation if those who were supposed to make it just abdicated their role? For some of them, it is a subject of such enormous complexity and delicacy that it is best left to the experts. More cynically others have chosen to ignore it because there is no real constituent pressure to take an interest in this area nor does specialisation in this field create the sort of influence that the legislator can use to advance his/her political ambitions or to solve the day-to-day problems of constituents,

3. Institutional Overstepping

Every institution is responsible to formulate policies belonging to its sphere with suitable inputs from all the concerned stakeholders. However, in the case of some very important national issues having foreign policy implications, the concerned ministries including the foreign office have been abdicating their responsibility and allowing others to call the shots. The dominance of the armed forces in foreign policy formulation results in the paramountcy of security over other components of national interest. Foreign Office has been undermined to a large extent by the tendency of the security/intelligence agencies to bypass the foreign office because of their easier access to the rulers, especially during military regimes.

4. Capacity Deficit of Government Agencies

There are two types of capacity deficit in the agencies dealing witarethe issues relating to our foreign policy namely shortage of resources and inadequacy of proper expertise. Consequently, our foreign policy process suffers from adhocism as it mostly relies only on short-term perspectives and neglects medium or long-term perspectives. The foreign policy process also suffers from a lack of coordination between the foreign office and the various think tanks established by the government for research on foreign policy issues. Similarly, our Intelligence Agencies do not have a proper capacity for analysis. Sometimes, input provided by the ISI is way off the mark resulting in wrong decision-making.

5. Structural Flaws

Every policy must have some clearly defined evaluation mechanism not only to gauge its impact but also to learn lessons for the future. Unfortunately, this crucial element of policy formulation has been missing in most of our policies with the result that there has been not a single case of anyone held responsible for the failure of policy formulation or its implementation. There is also a lack of inter-ministerial coordination; economic ministries often do not involve the Foreign Office in the consideration of important issues relating to the country’s foreign economic relations.

6. Personality Imprints

Every policy has a champion behind its formulation. However once formulated by the elected representatives, a policy reflects the wishes of the people and should be owned by the concerned institution even if there has been a champion behind it. However, in the case of Pakistan, most of the policies are known by the name of the person who championed them and invariably go to cold storage when the personality is gone. This lack of continuity sends wrong signals to those interested to commit resources on a long-term basis.

Unfortunately, the consistency of the country’s foreign, defence, security, and economic policies became a victim of the recurrent failure of the political process.

7. Global Influences

As stated earlier, globalization has resulted in a larger-than-life role of the global state and non-state actors who are increasingly penetrating those domains which were henceforth exclusively reserved for the domestic state machinery. They not only interfere in the policy formulation but are now acting directly through their proxies in the form of nongovernmental organizations in domestic policy formulation and implementation

All these developments need careful assessment and action to keep your country relevant in the comity of nations and should not be considered an outcast because of a lack of proper and timely response to these developments. This is all the more penetrative when the state is suffering from capacity and legitimacy deficits. Pakistan is no exception to this wholesale blind following of global actors’ prescriptions which can be visible in almost all major policies formulated. This is not bad if the policies formulated have been in sync with the wishes of the people but not following the wishes of foreign forces with one size fits all labels.

8. Implementation Inadequacies

One of the biggest charges against policy formulation in Pakistan has been the inadequate implementation of policies. The basic reason for this lopsided implementation has been the absence of commitment/ lack of ownership at the political level or capacity deficit of those responsible for its implementation. Sometimes best-designed policies are doomed because of inadequate funding or stoppage of their execution due to changes in the political elite.

One of the reasons for this implementation inadequacy has been the lack of a competent and professionally managed foreign office, with its network of embassies and consulates. And this, in turn, has partly been undermined by the absence of a well-coordinated national security system and partly by a steady decline in the country’s image.


There is a need for a holistic manner for the formulation and implementation of successful foreign policy in which intelligence agencies provide the relevant information alongside their own analysis, if necessary. Based on that and other input, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should make recommendations, which, once accepted by the government, be subject to deliberation and debate either in open session or, if the subject is sensitive, in-camera by the relevant committees of Parliament and become the basis of policy only after they have been approved.

To improve the performance of our foreign policy process, here are some suggestions

1. Building National Consensus

There is a need for a broad national consensus of all stakeholders about the long-term vision of the country’s role in world affairs and the formulation of a coherent foreign policy framework to achieve it. And this national consensus is only possible if we narrow the wide gap in thinking that continues to exist between the military establishment and the elected civilian set-up on different aspects of national security.

Armed forces must accept that they are a subservient part of the state and not an independent state within a state. They must not regard themselves as the ultimate custodians of the national interest; multiple stakeholders must be on board while establishing the parameters of national security. One of the main causes of political instability and frequent dissolution of the Parliament was this gap in perceptions on major security issues. At the same time, we will have to end the religious, ethnic, provincial, and political polarisation in the country as it is far more lethal to national security than outside aggression or internal subversion.

2. Establishing Effective National Security Forum

There is a need for an effective institutional framework to define the components of the national interests, their inter-se priority, and the best strategies to achieve them effectively and efficiently. Instead of reviving the controversial National Security Council, we should strengthen the Cabinet Committee on Defence and Foreign Policy by providing it with the necessary wherewithal to perform its functions effectively. The creation of such a high-level forum, suitably assisted by talented think tanks, would not only help to narrow the gap between the military and civilian establishments mentioned above but would also create a comprehensive mechanism for research, analysis, and consultation on policy options and their short and medium-term implications.

3. Activating Standing Committees of Parliament

It is imperative to activate and strengthen the Standing Committees on Foreign Affairs of the two Houses as they can play a major role in facilitating a wider process of consultation on a major foreign policy issue. and the executive should make a conscious effort to consult the Parliament and its leaders on foreign policy issues more frequently than has been the case in the past. Parliament and its Committees can play a major role in facilitating a wider process of consultation on major foreign policy issues; such a role has been very scarcely played by the Parliament and its committees, although they are constitutionally empowered to oversee the executive as well as formulate and forward foreign policy options in keeping with the aspirations of the people of the country.

The conduct and formulation of foreign policy are governed by the interplay of multiple determinants. Some of these core determinants are geography, history, security, and ideology. The Parliament serves as a policy-forming agent in direct proportion to the extent of its use of the constitutional powers that it possesses to support, modify or defeat the programme of the executive. Foreign policy must rest upon the basis of domestic law enacted through the legislative process.

Keeping in view the due role of legislative committees, the committees gather data, listen to the views of specialised interest groups, hold public hearings on important issues, and carefully weigh alternative courses of action in the formulation of policy. Parliament and the committees, by utilising the powers of investigation, carefully scrutinise the execution of policy by the executive. They can also instigate a nationwide public debate on controversial foreign policy issues. The cabinet and the relevant ministries own the primary responsibility for the formulation of foreign policy.

4. Strengthen Foreign Office

The foreign office is the core state institution without which a country cannot anticipate the reaction of other states and thus cannot formulate a considered foreign policy. An efficient and professionally managed foreign office which can present well-considered options, whenever required, and can implement policies effectively, once these have been formulated by the Government. It must strengthen its Policy Planning Division by allocating more manpower and financial resources.

5. Responsive Feedback System

Last but not least, there is a need for a robust and responsive feedback system, consisting of internal checks and balances assisted by external stakeholders, civil society organisations, think tanks, and media. A country’s foreign policy mirrors its national agenda, priorities, social attitudes, and political structure. Foreign policy is a cumulative process; even revolutionary governments have to worry about what their predecessors, whom they condemn, had or had not done or promised to do or not to do. The feedback from the external environment is already in place before policy options are drawn. For the foreign policymakers, the concept of state sovereignty, though paramount, is not a license for a free choice of action, particularly in the case of relatively less strong states.


Although Pakistan’s foreign-making process is not as flawed as it is made out to be, certain areas need a lot of improvement. Keeping in view the complexity of the challenges Pakistan is going to face due to the rapidly changing geostrategic environment in the region, involving multiple state/non-state stakeholders, there is a need to improve the capacity of all institutions to formulate proper policies, including foreign policy, and implement them with ruthless efficiency


Thank you very much for reading the article

If you liked it, kindly express your appreciation by visiting my ko-fi account

And please do not forget to click the clap icon below as many times as you like

Why not share it with your friends on social media? Knowledge is a common heritage of us all

And, kindly, do follow me as well as subscribe to my newsletter

You may like to read also

1. Two-Nation Theory: Myths and Reality

2. Pakistan Ideology: Sources & Content

3. Federalism in Pakistan: Challenges & Response

4. Constitution-Making in Pakistan during 1 the950s: Causes of Delay

5. Pakistan’s Water Crisis: Challenges & Response

6. Causes of the Breakup of United Pakistan in 1971: Lessons Learnt

7. Pakistani Culture: Sources and their Legacies

8. Pakistan-USA Relations: Challenges & Response

9. Civil Service Reforms in Pakistan: Challenges & Response

10. Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Seven Strategic Dimensions



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store