When the Soviets opposed Nepal’s UN membership in 1949, the country had to wait for six more years before it was admitted to the global body in 1955. The newly independent India, a de facto Soviet ally at the time, wanted to secure its hold over its traditional backyard. The Soviets also saw Nepal as falling under the American camp after the establishment of Nepal-US diplomatic ties in 1947. The small landlocked country thus became an early victim of Cold War politics.
Nonetheless, back in the 1950s and 60s, Nepal wielded some influence abroad, whether under King Mahendra or briefly under BP Koirala. They were perhaps the only two leaders in Nepali history who could deal with their foreign counterparts as equals, betraying no inferiority complex. Koirala held his own against Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai. His 1960 address to the UN General Assembly—where he held forth on ‘big power complex’, China’s UN membership, Algerian independence, among others—has not been matched by another Nepali leader since.
Mahendra was also completely at ease chatting up head of Soviet Presidium Kliment Voroshilov or American President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His 1960 state visit to the US, with roadside crowds cheering his motorcade, and his address to the joint session of US Congress, were both unprecedented.
Perhaps it’s no accident that the two times Nepal has been a member of the UN Security Council (1969-70 and 1988-89) were during the Panchayat days. With the domestic population under the monarch’s absolute control, he could focus his attention outwards, contributing to a consistent foreign policy. The prowess of diplomats like Risikesh Shah, Yadunath Khanal, and Bhek Bahadur Thapa who were at his disposal would also be hard to replicate today.
Prolonged instability after the 1990 democratic change—greatly exacerbated by the Maoist insurgency—did significant damage to Nepal’s international standing. As the newly liberated political parties fought for power among themselves, Nepal’s national interest was compromised, once again showing that only a stable country can successfully project is power abroad.
As the head of a powerful government with two-thirds majority, KP Oli has some clout on the international stage. Under Oli, Nepal has generated more interest abroad than at any other time since 1990. Yet nobody takes him seriously. This again owes to political in-fighting in Nepal, even within the ruling NCP, and the country’s ad hoc foreign policy (the abrupt dismissal of Leela Mani Poudyal as Nepal’s envoy to China a case in point). Even among the ruling NCP, factions compete for ambassadorships.
Nepal’s increasing proximity to China, to the exclusion of everyone else, is also doing damage to her carefully cultivated non-aligned image. In fact, Nepal is these days known more for having a government closely aligned to its communist brethren to the north than it is as a vibrant federal democratic republic. Nor does the country have a coherent foreign policy. It is still the norm to hand out ambassadorships based on personal connections. Unnecessary embassies have been opened abroad while the ones that needed strengthening have been neglected. The two-third Oli government cannot even pass a long-agreed foreign compact through a parliament it controls.
On the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, it is worth looking back at the days when Nepal was both seen and heard in important capitals and forums.