If foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics, our diplomacy is unsurprisingly messy. The government claims ‘diversification’ is at the heart of its foreign policy and has therefore tried to engage countries from around the world. This engagement’s most notable feature has been the many high-level foreign visits of top government officials, nearly everyone from the prime minister down. PM Oli even went to such exotic locations as Costa Rica and Cambodia, besides his more routine trips to India and China. What has come from these visits is unclear.
What is clear though is that the ruling Nepal Communist Party feels an ideological affinity for the Communist Party of China, and so Nepal has gotten progressively closer to its northern neighbor in the past two years. Part of it was warranted. Diversification in the Nepali context makes little sense without closer ties with China. But the chumminess between the establishments of the two countries could arguably hurt the diversification policy. For one, the closer Nepal gets to China, the greater will be the unease in New Delhi and Washington DC.
Fans of King Mahendra point out how the absolute monarch kept the country on track in its international dealings, even if his domestic policies were problematic. When the king charted a course, everyone followed, leading to consistency in dealings with the outside world. As he did not have to pander to any power center, the argument goes, his foreign policy was solely based on national interest. Another way of putting it is that authoritarian governments are better in some ways than democratic ones.
The picture is more nuanced. China has charted a clear foreign policy course under Xi Jinping. But its initiatives abroad generate great controversy just because China is not a democracy. While poorer countries readily open up to Beijing, they get warier as they get richer. On the other hand, even while big democracies like the US and India often betray their values, there is also this default goodwill toward them, at least in other democratic states. (Whether this goodwill is at all warranted is another matter.)
As many observers of Nepali diplomacy advocate, Nepal should emulate certain aspects of China (its meritocracy, its technological edge) while shunning its politics. Theoretically, this is possible. Yet the Chinese rulers also demand a guarantee for the huge investments they make in Nepal. What better way to ensure that than by supporting a strong power center—former monarchs before 2006, and the NCP now? But such a prospect spooks other democratic forces in Nepal, as well as its friends abroad.
Economic diplomacy has been getting plenty of hype of late, as Trump pushes for a pure mercantilist world. In this world, it is possible to diversify your economic ties while safeguarding your ‘traditional beliefs and values’. Contrary to popular belief, I have always held that nation-states are unique entities that have different priorities at home and abroad. For instance, while an abiding faith in human rights may be a country’s core national value, that too can be open to negotiation while conducting diplomacy. For both democracies and non-democracies the pursuit of the vaguely defined ‘national interests’ abroad is often cruelly undemocratic.