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Foreign Minister Dr. Spanta's speech on the Principles of the Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

May 07, 2008 - (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) Dari Version Follows
Excellencies, Distinguished guests, Dear colleagues, Ladies and gentlemen,

Foreign policy in a country that is in a state of transition has certain of its own characteristics. The articulation and pursuit of foreign policy in transitional societies is influenced, on the one hand, by a continuation of the past, the residual structures, values and beliefs and a host of skewed power relationships inherited from the past. On the other hand, foreign policy in a period of transition is influenced by a dynamic present, the various evolving social structures and values that are new and important but not yet fully established as determining forces.

Before I elaborate more on this subject, I want to clarify some of the concepts that are relevant to the discussion. Issues of foreign policy are an amalgam of views, opinions and perceived interests produced through an often fine balance between political forces at the domestic as well as external level, informed by a mixture the economic interests, security priorities, political ambitions and the geographical location of a country. Add to this the international alliances a country has, the nature and extent of its democratic experience, the growth of its civil society and a culture of peace, and you will get a broader set of factors determining foreign policy issues. A serious consideration of a country’s foreign policy requires careful evaluation and analysis of all of these determining factors, which is not possible in the opportunity we have today.

Briefly put, foreign policy is the way an organised society behaves, in the framework of a sovereign state to respond to its surrounding environment. It is the way in which societies would de-fend their real or perceived interests against an external world, the existence of which is also defined in the framework of national sovereignty as well as national and international organisations. In other words, foreign policy straddles political, security, economic and legal spheres. And to the extent that the state is the main functionary of foreign policy, it inevitably presupposes the existence of a state that has the intention and ability to defend its national interests.

From an analytical angle, foreign policy is based on three suppositions: firstly, that it constitutes a states reaction to external factors; secondly, that it represents the interaction between the internal and external factors; and thirdly, that represents not just in the opinion of the government but also of a reasonable multitude outside the government.

Since the late 20th century, the area of foreign and international policy has seen much transformation; players have changed and the role and freedoms of national states in determining foreign policy parameters have decreased. Nonetheless, the state’s role as the primary actor in foreign policy is still undisputed.

The nation state concept and its primacy in politics is a product of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which accepted the state’s right as sovereign. Since Westphalia, the principles of non-interference in the affairs of others and respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity have formed the bedrock of the system of international law and the accepted role of nation states, establishing the role of the modern state as a sovereign body and as the primary actor in international political affairs. Fundamentally, the national sovereignty thesis presupposes state’s independence, or perceived independence, in managing affairs that are internal to the state. Thus, it also falls within the remit of the state to defend its national interests vis-à-vis other states or the brother international sphere.

To the extent that the history of human society is the story of perpetual change in social structures and values, then notion of national interests is also attributed to an evolving phenomenon. In the same way that speaking of permanent cultural values is untenable, so is it difficult to talk of permanent national interests.

Ladies and gentlemen,

With your permission, and for the sake of clarity, I would like to first address the question of how might we define interests and national interests to help understand the discussion better.

The notion of interests, as we discuss it here, is rooted in the thoughts of classic economic and political thinkers from Britain and France. Thinkers such as Helvetius, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham were the first to give a scientific definition of the concept of interests as a factor in un-derstanding how societies exist. According to Smith, the pursuit of interest is a rooted in human instinct, and lies at the core of man’s tendency to perpetuate himself. Thus, in the first instance, the notion of interest is not a rational interpretation of an essentially cultural set of relationships. In Smith’s view, the pursuit of interest is a natural response where it is established that the competitive pursuit of interests yields, at a higher level, to regulation of relationships between individuals, as well as the relationship between the individual and the state.

Emanuel Kant, the philosopher of Enlightenment, considers the notion of interests from a moral perspective. In his view, it is man’s concern for the pursuit of interests that gives rationality its practical edge and lies at the heart of the concept of ‘will’.

Much of the contemporary thinking about the notion of interest is based in the conception that man is a social existence and, as such, has certain needs. In this context, interest is the fulfilment of the real and perceived entitlements that individual or groups believe are due to them. In the past, there used to be a view that there is something objectively true and constant about national interests, even though not always appropriately articulated, understood or defended by statesmen. It was in the 1970s that the concept of national interests saw a fundamental transformation: it became less value-laden and became more of a conceptual phenomenon amenable to different political interpretations. The neo-realists saw it as an analytic and empirical category. In this view, national interest is not about the basic needs of a state, or the imperative to succeed in addressing those needs. It is rather seen as what governments define and pursue. This view of national interests sometimes leads to painful consequences for nations.

The developments of the 1980s led to the optimism that communism’s defeat, the success of liberalism and globalisation would lead to greater harmonisation of national interests at the international level and fewer rivalry and differences. It was expected that the notion of national interests had lost its appeal and what was important was to come together to prevent conflict and common threats to peace. This belief also held a linear view of historical progression. If in the past the Russian view of communism reduced history to five stages culminating in the fifth stage when all interests are fulfilled, now the liberal interpretation of the same Hegelian principle held the prevailing of liberal democracy and the free market as the unavoidable consequences of historical progression – as articulated by Francis Fukoyama in his famous book ‘The End of History’. This view is fundamentally premised on the conviction that human society contains common interests that, with the failure of communist utopia, can only be fulfilled by the realisation of liberal democracy and the free market.

Perhaps it is in order to agree with Professor Champeil that national interests are the aggregate interest of a society at a given time that are defended and pursued through recourse to the structure of a state. Of course social and political groupings will continue to have their own particular interpretation of national interests corresponding to their own social and political positions. In societies with significant social and political fragmentation, the interpretation of national interests may denote significant polarity. In progressive democracies and where the nation-state is more fully established, the situation is different, because there is wider common ground as the basis for loyalty to the state. The differences mainly arise from approaches to attain the defined common interests. For example, within the European Union, the relevant political forces, both on the left and on the right, see the Union in their interest. Their differences are mainly about how to realise the vision of the Union, and what that Union should conduct itself along social democratic, liberal or conservative principles. In fighting over the different preferences, the questions loyalty to states, peoples, territory and sovereignty hardly arises.

On the contrary, in transitional societies such as Afghanistan, the main battle is seems to over terminologies, values and so on. In countries where consensus over the nation-state is weak or non-existent, and proponents of different discourses easily overstep legal and moral boundaries, it is usually difficult to reach consensus over a defined set of national interests. In a socially fragmented society, where the culture of violence prevails, and the diffusion of military culture is associated with absence of accepted national institutions and a sense of loyalty to the state, but where the international community has a discernible presence and the imperatives of a global war against terrorism applies, it is a challenge to present a definition of national interests. In addition, where organised social forces and an active civil society are absent and institutions are inadequately equipped, the task of reflecting and promoting policy, including foreign policy, gets reduced to a routinised affair. A routinised policy, in turn, becomes the dead-bed of a patron-cliental system, a shadowy system of war-lordism and breaking the law.

However, in a world of paradoxes, the solution does not lie in shunning politics and abdicating political responsibility. The solution lies in trying to bridge the gap between the inadequate reality and aspirations.

Another challenge that countries with social fragmentation and weak institutions are facing in dealing with politics in general, and foreign policy in particular, is the disparity between the requirements of national interests and values of a democratic system, on the one hand, and the dynamics of power and opposing forces, on the other hand.

As I mentioned, national sovereignty denotes the will and ability of nation-state to exercise power, based on the rule of law, and in pursuit of national interests at the national and interna-tional level. The extent to which this power could be exercised, even by the powerful nations of the world, is dwindling rapidly. In Afghanistan, thanks to obvious reasons, this process is more clearly observable. Thanks to the imperatives of the war against terror, the ongoing state-building process, and the shortcoming of human and institutional capacities, the pursuit of national interests for Afghanistan is complicated by conflicting factional interests.

Modern foreign policy is also complicated by the multiplication of actors in addition to states. Multinational institutions, non-governmental organisations, international bodies and regional associations play an increasingly influential role in foreign policy domains. This is an inevitable consequence of the process of globalisation and changing global structures.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear colleagues,

With the collapse of communism and the end of bi-polar world, many hoped for new global order; an order in which humanity’s moral and material capacities would be expended to procure a better life for all. However, global politics took a somewhat different course. The end of the bipolar world left many post-colonial states in field-state, and many regions lagging behind the globalisation process. Ethnic cleansing and genocide became state policies in some places. The politics of humanitarian interventions to prevent massacres and systematic violations of human rights, particularly within Europe, challenged the established principles of non-intervention in the affairs of states. For the first time, the discourse of international law, intervention as a response to systematic violations of human rights within nation state boundaries was accepted. The Westphalian nation state was overturned; human rights and the obligations of states to respect them, became an established principle.

However, despite these developments, the vision of promoting the United Nations as the only legitimate protector of international peace was not realised. The ‘end of history’ thesis, and the dream of humanity achieving liberal system retreated when confronted with the reality of poverty and underdevelopment. What is certain is that we have not reached the end of history; history has not spoken its last word and, in all likelihood, there is no end to history.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The prevailing of Western democracy and its value system over communism did not herald the end of war and bloodshed. New threats emerged. International terrorism, organised crime, environmental degradation, shortage of strategic natural resources, the collapse of post-colonial states, the development of shadow economies and, above all, social inequality at the international level, are among the new threats facing us.

Back to Afghanistan, there are established value systems in our country that are contradictory and acting as obstacles to the articulation and representation of foreign policy. This is not just a result of social and political fragmentation and the structural affiliations of political forces with foreign powers, but reflects a more fundamental conflict in interpretation of value systems, such as the nation-state, citizenship, human rights and so on. As a result, these challenges rebound with greater consequence, reducing politics to a mundane routine and pre-empting the development of strategy.

Ultimately, this imbalance in value-systems and conflicting expectations from social and political processes bodes ill. There is a famous saying in political science that “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous breeds crisis”. This is the painful reality of our situation in Afghanistan today. And this is why it is not easily possible to articulate and pursue a foreign policy that is strategic and beyond the routine. Thus, rountinisation and a culture of triviality is our main challenge. The effort by our foreign policy apparatus to seek a creeping definition of national interests in the face of all obstacles, shows the void left by the absence of political support base, and a lingering about losing the progress that has been achieved so far.

Despite the challenges, it is important that we work within the limits, push the boundaries and work towards a clear policy. It is this understanding, alongside a realisation of Afghanistan’s long term interests and geopolitical importance that has informed efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the past two years.

During the years of the Cold War, Afghanistan pursued a foreign policy that was non-aligned on surface but had, in reality, a Soviet leaning character, like those of India and Egypt, which continued until 1978. That policy was undoubtedly influenced by regional rivalries, colonial legacies around the world, the Cold War and the bi-polar nature of the world order.

The military coup by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, while alleging the continua-tion of the same non-aligned policy, in fact led Afghanistan towards international isolation to an extent that Afghanistan effectively lost control of its foreign policy. All that remained of the exercise of foreign policy were empty slogans, speeches about the irreversibility of the ‘so-called’ revolution and desperate efforts at veiling the Soviet occupation. Foreign policy was no longer non-aligned, or active, or positive. Foreign policy was ideologised.

After the takeover of Kabul by Mujahideen forces, Mr Hekmatyar, the then Prime Minister pro-posed the idea of Islamic confederation with Pakistan. However, factional fighting and massacres left no opportunity for the realisation of this proposal until, ultimately, the greater part of Afghanistan came under Pakistani occupation.

The Taliban regime, again thanks to its dependent nature as well as the continued recognition of the legitimacy of the anti-Taliban resistance by much of the outside world, failed to construct Afghanistan’s foreign policy.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban regime as a result of the US-led international military intervention, and the establishment of the new state, Afghanistan’s foreign policy was shaped in line with the requirements of the cooperation with the international community in the war against terrorism. Structural constraints, in particular the absence of a workable apparatus to execute policy, became the new obstacles, relegating the exercise of foreign policy to an unstrategic, routinised process. The main challenge was for Afghanistan to define a clear, forward-looking foreign policy that takes account the multiplicity of new actors and weakness of state institutions, and that serves Afghanistan’s national interests in the new global environment. The challenge was to introduce the principle of ‘thinking globally, and acting nationally’ in the process of policy making.

The most pressing priority was to distinguish between the true national interests from the con-flicting interests of other entities that were involved in Afghanistan’s politics. The need was for us to define our friends and allies on the basis of the true national interests of our country, and to prevent our country from falling victim to potentially damaging rivalries in our Region. It was also a foreign policy priority for Afghanistan to convince the world that Afghanistan is the main victim of terrorism, and that fighting terrorism must also involve fighting it at its sources. Despite the challenges in the discussion about the threat of terrorism, we continued to raise the need for a broader, strategic approach to the fight in our bilateral and multilateral engagements. We are pleased that this view was duly recognised by the NATO Bucharest Summit and incorporated in its communiqué.

As part of our foreign policy priorities, we opened a totally new chapter in Afghanistan’s relations with the Arab world. Our steadfast insistence on an independent national standing led some of our neighbours, who had thitherto seen Afghanistan as an agent of their own foreign policy, to succumb to our wishes to exercise our sovereign right in conducting foreign relations, including relationship with India. The multi-polar policy we have pursued so far has proved effective. China’s decision to undertake large-scale investment in Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates investment in the telecommunication sector and so on, despite the persistence of insecurity, are signs of our success and their confidence in our secure future. Despite the conceptual challenges often posed in the context of international community’s presence in Afghanistan, the long term commitment of the international community to remain in Afghanistan in pursuit of common strategic objectives, including the war against terrorism, is beyond doubt.

Our foreign policy apparatus is the only institution in the country that has purely relied on the theoretic and empirical knowledge of its own employees, without recourse to international con-sultants, in the effort to formulate a framework for Afghanistan’s foreign policy objectives. While I am proud to acknowledge the hard work of our diplomats within and outside the country, I am aware that there is a long way to go before we achieve the intellectual, professional and practical capacity for conducting Afghanistan’s foreign policy. The key principle, in my view, is to have confidence in our own ability and be loyal to this ancient homeland.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Keeping in view the broad framework foreign policy I just mentioned, here I outline some of the core policy lines that Afghanistan will continue to pursue:

1. At the core of Afghanistan’s foreign policy lies the principles of non-intervention and be-lief in world peace. Peace may be defined as the absence of war and armed conflict. However, in my view, peace is also about removing the threat of war and its underlying causes. Peace will not be achieved when weapons fall silent; it is a historical progression towards a society where the precondition for a free and just life can be fulfilled. We are the proponents of just peace, a transition from negative peace to positive peace.

2. In our foreign policy, we want to encourage proactive diplomacy, including where it con-cerns addressing the social, political and economic causes of conflict before the eruption of violence. Globally, we support justice as a principle of international relations. We stand with the global South, we support the search for justice and the fight against pov-erty and underdevelopment.

3. In our foreign policy, we want to encourage multilateralism. We want the strengthening of a global security order that is underpinned by broad multilateral and international cooperation. We believe there is no institution that has more legitimacy than the United Nations to play a role in building and strengthening peace. Expediting the reform of the United Nations and its strengthening will benefit international peace and security.

4. Afghanistan believes in the principle of collective security and ensuring it through de-fending it against actual and potential regional and international threats.

5. In promoting peaceful coexistence, Afghanistan is opposed to the proliferation of weap-ons of mass destruction throughout the world, but especially in our own region. We want a region that is free of weapons of mass destruction.

6. Afghanistan’s foreign policy is based on the principle of promoting regional cooperation. The emergence of new players and realities at the global level, demand that we use ap-propriate instruments to integrate Afghanistan in the globalisation process. Our geopo-litical situation, as an unavoidable passage between the Central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia, and our vicinity to the Middle East, is one of our important assets. Asia is going to be the centre of global rivalries in the twenty-first century. The existence of vast natural resources, such as oil, gas and clean water, the accumulation of capital and the development of technology, all these will create unprecedented opportunities as well as competitions. I am confident that Afghanistan’s membership in such regional organisations as SAARC and ECO is the beginning of Afghanistan’s role in the process of regional integration. A globalised world is indeed a world of united regions. Removing boundaries and obstacles to interaction between peoples and countries is the stepping stone in elevating our region from the object of globalisation to a subject of this process.

7. Afghanistan pursues a policy that does not favour escalation in all bilateral and multilateral relations. We will strive, with sensitivity, to keep Afghanistan out of any tensions or confrontations between regional and international powers.

8. Afghanistan’s foreign policy is based on the principle of strengthening relations with Is-lamic countries in the framework of friendly relations in bilateral and multilateral set-tings. Our active role in the Organisation of Islamic Conference and other Islamic bodies is a recognition of a cultural reality in our policy, a reality that will remain unchanged in the future. Nurturing our connection with the Islamic civilisation is one of the enduring principles of our policy and will not be affected by the nature of political systems. In the same way that Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey’s secular regime, despite the wide variations in their political cultures and systems, are all inseparable parts of the Islamic civilisation, so will Afghanistan, despite our cultural and political differences, remain an inseparable part of this civilisation. This enduring connection will also form the basis of our responsibility to project common values to the outside world and work towards strengthening the coexistence of different civilisations in a multicivilisational world. In finding common grounds, while appreciating our differences, we will also fight Islamophobia around the world.

9. Afghanistan’s policy towards relations with the United States and democracies of the West is not confined to the parameters of the war against terrorism. We see our relations with the United States and the West from a strategic perspective, from the perspective of common political, legal and social values. As a young democracy, Afghanistan is determined to work step by step towards the full realisation of the ideals of human rights and democracy. In this context, our strategic partnership with the United States is not just based on common political and security values but also our longterm interests. This relationship is among our core foreign policy pillars.

10. Afghanistan’s policy towards our neighbours is rooted in the principles of peaceful coexistence, non-interference and respect for national sovereignty. In addition to our interest in regional cooperation, this policy is crucial in view of its direct bearing on the political, security and economic dimensions of our relationship with the neighbouring countries. With the Islamic Republic of Iran we have cultural and historical commonalities and will pursue a policy of friendship and brotherhood with this country. We see this relationship from the perspective of unavoidable interests of our present and future generations. With Pakistan too we have deep cultural and societal ties. Security and the attainment of prosperity in both countries will depend on security in the region as a whole. We are hopeful that the recent positive developments in the relationship between the two friendly and brotherly countries will lead to the strengthening of the fight against terrorism. As for as Afghanistan is concerned, we feel compelled by our national interests to maintain this environment. Peace is a critical need of our region and the world at large, and terrorism is a serious threat to peace. We believe any conciliatory approach to terrorism, or any vested interest, whether military or intelligence, in terrorism will pose a serious threat to political stability in the region.

11. Afghanistan’s foreign policy is also based on the principle of friendship and cooperation with regional powers. In this context, we maintain productive economic and political cooperation with the Republic of India, an extensive economic and political cooperation with the Peoples Republic of China, and Russia, as an important element of our policy.

Thank You for your attention


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