Who decides Nepal’s foreign policy conduct?

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Who decides Nepal’s foreign policy conduct?

Leaders, high-rank officials and ministries have made it a habit of bypassing the Foreign Ministry when taking decisions on vital foreign affairs issues

Who takes a final call on Nepal’s foreign policy matters?  Obviously, it is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers can only offer advice, or, to some extent, dictate some issues pertaining to foreign affairs. 

But our leaders, senior officials and ministries always tend to bypass the Foreign Ministry in the decision-making process.

The latest example of this is President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s participation in a high-level meeting of Global Security Initiatives (GSI), a global governance and security architecture unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Boa Forum for Asia in April.

As Nepal has not made any position on GSI, the Foreign Ministry had advised President Bhandari not to participate in the meeting.

The letter sent to the Office of the President by the ministry, which has been leaked to the public reads: “Discussions are under way at the high-level whether to participate in GSI and there is not a concrete position on it so it is appropriate not to participate in it.” 

Yet, the president went against the advice and joined the meeting anyway. Her decision, many foreign policy experts say, goes against the stated position of not joining any military alliances.

This has raised a serious question on who advised Bhandari to attend the meeting or whether she deliberately defied Foreign Ministry’s advice.

“The ministry should be at the center of all external engagements and communication but this is not happening which must be immediately corrected,” says Ramesh Khanal, career diplomat and former Nepali ambassador to Germany. 

According to a high-level political source, Bhandari did not take the decision on her own. Top leaders of major parties including Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba advised her to attend the meeting, saying that discarding the invitation will not send out a good message to China. 

Nepali leaders and high-ranking officials have long been ignoring the input of Foreign Ministry. Just a few months ago it was revealed that the then Nepal Army chief Rajendra Chhetri had written a letter to the US expressing willingness to join America’s State Partnership Program (SPP) without informing political leadership and the ministry. Similarly, the country’s leadership had sidelined the Foreign Ministry from the entire process of America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project. 

The mess in the conduct of foreign policy has become more evident after the formation of the current five-party-coalition in July 2021. Members of the ruling coalition are not on the same page on the issue of international relations. They have their own vision and priorities.  

Prime Minister Deuba is more inclined toward the democratic world and less keen on engaging with China, while Pushpa Kamal Dahal, leader of CPN (Maoist Center), prefers more close ties with China.

Meanwhile, President Bidya Devi Bhandari, who comes from the main opposition, CPN-UML, is reportedly unhappy with several decisions related to foreign affairs taken by the Deuba government.

A high level source tells ApEx to appease Dahal, Prime Minister Deuba has taken some unpleasant decisions on foreign affairs. 

Arun Subedi, prime minister’s foreign policy advisor, also admits there are gaps when it comes to coordination among key state institutions and they are working to fix it.  

As big countries like the US and China are coming up with new strategies in order to counter each other in the Indo-Pacific region, institutions like the Foreign Ministry should be strengthened. 

“Our leaders should strengthen Foreign Ministry and its subordinates, including government think-tanks to study the strategies of big countries,” says a senior official at the ministry. “And to avoid controversy, they should speak or take position on the basis of the report prepared by the think-tanks.”

But politicians, who lack nuanced understanding of critical geopolitical decisions, have hijacked the decision-making process of the Foreign Ministry, creating more problems than resolving them.

One example of this is Nepal’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war.

A senior official at the Foreign Ministry says though they had advised the political leadership to stay neutral in the UN voting, the government decided to vote against the Russian invasion.

Since Nepal’s institutions are not strong and lack the habit of coordinating among one another, representatives of big countries directly contact their favorable leaders or government ministries whenever they need something from Nepal.

For instance, China relies on CPN (Maoist Center) to convey its key messages to the government, while other countries have a direct approach in Baluwatar. Instead of visiting the Foreign Ministry, ambassadors are often seen frequenting the residences of politicians, ministries, Baluwatar and Sheetal Niwas with their agendas.

“Ideally, each and every issue relating to external affairs should be cleared from the Foreign Ministry but in Nepal, it seems like other ministries have a free hand to take decisions,” says former ambassador Khanal.

According to a ruling party leader, Deuba and Dahal take decisions on key foreign policy matters in mutual consultation these days. 

“Many of the Deuba’s foreign policy, be it America’s SPP or India’s Agnipath, were shaped by Dahal’s position. Deuba simply relented due to keep the coalition intact,” says the leader. 

Meanwhile, Minister for Foreign Affairs Narayan Khadka, who can play a vital role to ensure the coordination among the major actors, has not been showing much enthusiasm in his work.  

He has been known to delegate his duties to others. The source at the ministry says Khadka keeps visiting his electoral constituency in Udayapur, ignoring his ministerial responsibilities. 

In fact, ever since his appointment, Khadka has barely agreed for an interview with the press. 

Former ambassador Khanal says Foreign Ministry’s role should be further expanded and strengthened in order to address the current mess. 

 “Had the ministry been allowed to play its role properly, so much of the controversies regarding MCC and SPP could have been avoided.”