Knowledge-based approach to Nepal’s foreign policy


Shiva Prasad Tiwari 

The primary goal of foreign policy is the protection and promotion of ‘national interests’. Its goal is to protect national sovereignty, independence and economic interests, and enhance national security and prestige in the international arena. A number of factors – both domestic and international – influence a country’s foreign policy.  Like other state policies, it is also shaped by geographical realities, history, cultural and political factors. Hence, foreign policy is sometimes called an extension of domestic politics. States identify their priorities and formulate the policy to achieve their goals. But Nepal sorely lacks this knowledge-based approach, without which we cannot formulate and implement our foreign policy.

Not surprisingly, we are not producing expert knowledge such as theories, models and paradigms that could be useful for countries like ours. I doubt if we have even developed realistic conceptual frameworks for our foreign policy formulation and implementation. Most of the studies have only produced ‘thick descriptions’, which is of limited use when it comes to understanding and developing a sound policy.

During the reigns of Rana oligarchy (846 to 1951) and monarchy (1951 to 1990), the domestic as well as foreign policies were tailored to the need of regime sustenance. The democratic governments after the regime change in 1990 were expected to adopt the knowledge-based approach and develop strong institutional structures. But that did not happen. Not that Nepalese foreign policy experts have not raised the issue. But they just put the blame on the political instability and protracted political transition for lack of this knowledge-based approach.

There were some initiatives in the past to shape and update the foreign policy. The Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) was set up in 1993 under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and was revamped in 1998. The purpose of the Institute was to conduct policy research and training, and disseminate information through seminars and publications. Though IFA at present claims to be doing research on security, climate change and food security, it has hardly produced reliable and authentic knowledge. IFA is limited to publishing annual reports, speeches of heads of states and conducting a few seminars on foreign policy every year.

Similarly, university research centers don’t seem to be effective. Centre for Nepal and Asia Studies (CNAS) and Political Science Department under the state-owned Tribhuvan University are not in a position to contribute knowledge to foreign policy. The government has been unable to coordinate among scholars and experts to create knowledge. Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs), on the other hand, have only been producing books, journals and holding workshops just for the sake of showing their existence to donors. Some political analysts and foreign policy experts are making limited contributions to I/NGOs because of the sake of handsome payments.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials admit that they don’t have any mechanism for knowledge production. They hardly get inputs from IFA. CNAS and I/NGOs even don’t bother about giving inputs/feedbacks to the officials. The officials also argue that they don’t have any mechanism for inter-ministerial coordination because of lack of ‘funds’. It is however difficult to accept this argument. Government of Nepal has been spending billions of rupees for academic institutions like Tribhuvan University and many research centers. The foreign ministry itself has been spreading its presence in many parts of the world. The budget required for an institution would be equivalent to the funds Nepal government allocates for a couple of its embassies abroad.

One welcome development has however happened recently. Tribhuvan University has started Masters Program in International Relations and Diplomacy in 2013. It seems that this program has worked as a platform for many International Relations and foreign policy experts. If this department sets up research centers, it will be in a position to contribute to foreign policy formulation.

For a country like Nepal that occupies a sensitive geo-strategic location, a sound foreign policy is needed to protect its national sovereignty status. Nepal’s domestic politics is being shaped by external powers such as India, China and the US, among others. International Organizations like the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO) and many other international institutions have also played important roles in shaping policies of Nepal.

The emergence of India and China as ‘superpowers’ is likely to pose a challenge to Nepal’s sovereign status. These two states are not so friendly when it comes to cooperating on our economic development.

So, it is only the knowledge based pragmatic foreign policy that can ensure Nepal’s survival amidst the challenging domestic and international settings. For that, we must change the mindset that we can have a sound policy only after ending the political transition. As we cannot become a militarily power, it’s only the knowledge-based foreign policy approach that can ensure Nepal’s survival. So, it’s time we corrected our course to meet the new challenges.

Tiwari is a faculty member at Masters Program in International Relations and Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University