Projecting soft image of Pakistan
We often hear our leaders hankering about projecting soft image of Pakistan internationally and calling for a paradigm shift in the conduct of our foreign policy, with greater emphasis on public diplomacy as an effective and indispensable ingredient of the strategy to achieve the desired objectives. But an incisive look at what has been happening over the years in regards to realigning our foreign policy objectives with the new emerging global realities and the new mechanisms evolved as a consequence of the ability of the emerging technologies to expand the horizons and options available to conduct public diplomacy, our record shows a rather regressive approach steeped into a visceral aversion to the well thought out and well researched decision making processes.
The focus regrettably remains on traditional diplomacy and mechanisms devised to promote and facilitate state-to-state relations rather than public diplomacy which from its previous emphasis on developing contacts between a state and publics of another state has of late transited into the realm of people-to-people contacts on bilateral level as well as state-to-global audience outreach. A phenomenon made possible by the new technologies like internet, digital communications and new techniques of public relations on the global plank through the use of the vast array of media outlets.
Pakistan is the most misunderstood country in the world and the phenomenon of terrorism and religious extremism, arguably, is a leading factor in distorting its image on the global level. Pakistan as a front line state in the war on terror has suffered the most in men and material, has helped in dismantling the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden but regrettably our allies and western countries look askance at our endeavours, doubt our commitment to the cause at hand and decidedly remain oblivious to our national and strategic interests in the region.
The western media with its all-permeating power and unfettered global outreach is also feverishly engaged in maligning Pakistan and soiling its image among the comity of nations. Under the prevailing circumstances it is absolutely essential for the government, besides relying on the state-to-state diplomacy, also accord top priority to the efforts to create a better understanding of Pakistan’s position and its image internationally, countering the negative propaganda against it and projecting a soft image of the country premised on the positive things that have happened in the arena of war on terror as well as the measures adopted to improve economic, social and political conditions in line with the globally accepted principles. The emergence of an independent judiciary and a free media in Pakistan are indeed epoch making developments. So are the strides taken towards gender equality and emancipation of women. All these factors can be used to achieve desired results provided the government takes concrete measures to strengthen its PR apparatus at the international level. This is the age of information, media and specialisation. As such image building assignment needs to be handled by well equipped, trained and professional officials of the Information service, constituted for the very purpose. But it is matter of great shame that our press sections in the foreign missions are either not properly equipped or lack the wherewithal that is necessary to do justice with their roles. It is not only a much needed compulsion to strengthen these outfits but also to expand their network to the areas that hitherto have escaped the attention of the government. We do not have any presence in important capitals of Central Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Putting in place arrangements for capacity building of the press officers, language courses, streamlining the procedure of their foreign postings free of political influence and exploring the avenues of public-private cooperation are some of the other steps that can immensely contribute towards building soft image of Pakistan.
Traditional diplomacy has its own advantages and efficacy but it cannot match the power of public diplomacy conducted through media in changing perceptions and attitudes of the people and influencing their judgments. Pakistan needs a sustained and well orchestrated effort to use the power of media and the PR regime to address the issue of image building in the larger and long term interest of the country.
It is however distressing to note that the developments so far point towards a regressive policy thrust based on recommendations of one or two member committees comprising bureaucrats belonging to the foreign service who invariably have tended to protect and promote the expansion of foreign service cadre and the number of missions at the expense of the press and commercial sections in the missions abroad, whenever the government has assigned them the task to look at the ways and means to curtail unnecessary posts in the embassies designed to cut expenditure. In 1997, on the recommendations of the Shahryar committee, a number of press sections in our foreign missions were abolished without analysing the pros and cons of their presence and the role that they were playing in promoting public diplomacy based on people-to-people contact.
It is understood that the present government has again constituted a committee headed by Tariq Fatemi, a retired hand from foreign service, with a similar mandate and it is feared that the results would not be different from the previous committee. It is too important a matter to be left to two or three individuals who have no idea of media related issues and the efficacy of the press sections in promoting the objectives of public diplomacy. If the government is really interested in cutting expenditure, and rightly so, it must focus on myriad of other areas where the national resources are being filched or wasted. There is an imperative need for getting our priorities right and staying in line with the emerging global realities. It is an unavoidable national obligation and must not be allowed to become a casualty of the moves aimed at frugality.
The writer is an academic.