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Maldives: A Case For Nonpartisan Foreign Policy – OpEd

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A partisan foreign policy might not pose a threat to a country’s independence, but by conducting foreign policy in partisan terms, we are compromising gains that would be greater when we play foreign policy in national terms.

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Partisan politics is based on rivalry and competition among political parties to “please” voters in order to win elections by presenting their policies on issues they deem attractive to voters. But the question is how far they can involve partisan politics in the affairs of a political entity: the state. Since the pivot of partisan politics is polarization; though not deep polarization, policies of governance may vary over time with the shift in the governing party or the coalition. But at which point should this “policy flexibility” stop?

Does polarization in domestic politics affect foreign policy as well? There is a long-standing belief that it should not. A classic statement of that view can be found in the widely cited words of a leading Republican senator in the early days of the Cold War. Speaking in 1947, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the influential chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, provided key support to Democratic President Harry S. Truman and admonished his colleagues that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge.”

It is not just the words of the senator, but also the lessons we can learn from them. We understand that national policies need consistency, steadiness, and vision, and these national policies are destined to serve national interests at home and abroad for a longer period of time. Hence, this feature of national policies require coherence in domestic politics and consensus among domestic political parties dealing with such policies.

Foreign policy should be indisputably acknowledged in this category of national policies. The posture of the state needs to be firm and steady while dealing with the outside world. Other states need to build trust and harmony in-between, and this is not achievable with a state that changes the stance of its foreign policy and foreign engagement, possibly every five years. What would be the posture of a state that changes its foreign policy with every election?

According to Senator Vandenberg, foreign policy should be independent of domestic political rivalry and polarization. A national policy is always more adamant. In this context, the senator said, “so long as we can keep partisan politics out of foreign affairs, it is entirely obvious that we shall speak with infinitely greater authority abroad.”

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A nation within a geopolitical competition.

The Indian Ocean connects the economic East Asia, the Middle East, and the west of the globe. This feature of the ocean puts the region in a pivotal position in the geopolitical realm. Admiral Alfred Thayer (1890) once quoted, “Whoever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene. Whoever controls the Indian Ocean controls Asia. “

Increasing Chinese trade has made the Indian Ocean a potential spot for geopolitical competition between China and India. It is an ocean that India considers as their backyard, and India’s quest to maintain the neutral status of the Indian Ocean, if not the quest to dominate the region, is long-standing. For India, it is alarming to see Chinese ‘influence’ growing in the region, either militarily or economically. Therefore, mainly India’s anxiety on the issue can be from the fact that any other power might seek to establish their dominance in the region, rather than from devoid of Indian dominance in the region.

The Maldives, being located in a strategic position in terms of geopolitics, should consider that the behaviors of other nations are significantly affected by its domestic policy choices. In this sense, their foreign policy shall be to maintain balance and neutrality in the region, considering allying with a particular state might imbalance the geopolitical status of the region precipitating an inevitable turbulence where the Maldives itself is to suffer.

After being elected in 2008, president Mohamed Nasheed allowed the first ever continuous Indian Military presence in the Maldives in 2009 which created the impression that the Maldives is tilting towards India (The Hindu, 2016). However, the Maldives enjoyed Chinese economic guardianship during president Yaameen’s administration that Chinese investments flooded the country. Then the opposition, Maldivian Democratic Party (led by president Mohamed Nasheed), accused the government of getting the nation trapped in Chinese debt. 

The Maldivian Foreign Policy oscillation between China and India continues until this day; the current government maintains a close relationship with India. The opposition “progressive coalition”, led by the former president Yaameen, accuses the government of compromising the sovereignty of the nation and has been rallying against the Indian military presence as “India-Out” campaign. This exhibits instability and partisan modus operandi of the Maldivian Foreign Policy.   

‘Nationalizing’ the foreign policy

For these reasons, it is necessary that, despite the choices available to form government policies, foreign policy remains outside the sphere of partisan politics and the reverberations of partisan rivalry. Our foreign policy should not be about making a choice between China and India; instead, it should be a policy of “geopolitical engineering” of regional stability.

President Maumoon Abdul Qayyoom’s long era was characterized by consistency in its foreign policy, which could be attributed to lack of political pluralism, thereby eliminating the policy competition that normally exists among several competing parties. However, with the rise of political pluralism in the post-constitution eve of 2008, parties appeared on the scene, presenting competing policies to the voters. This policy flexibility has also affected the foreign policy regime of our government.

 The executive branch of the state is vested with a variety of powers. Their choices of execution depend on their ideological inclinations. This undeniably creates deep polarization between political parties. However, as mentioned earlier, policies to achieve national goals must be stemmed from consensus; with broader inclusiveness in making decisions.

There are several ways to “Nationalize” a policy. One way is to scrutinize the policy through parliament or oversight of the parliament to maintain consistency despite party polarization. The Maldives parliament’s (People’s Majilis) “Committee on National Security and Foreign Relations”, which has the mandate to oversee the government’s national security and foreign policy, is the key avenue to seek consensus on Foreign Policy. It is the avenue to harmonize party differences when it comes to foreign policy and other national policies.

My take in this piece is that, despite policy competition among various political parties, foreign policy deserves particular treatment due to its national sentiment; the face of the Nation; first impression driver of the nation. Therefore, foreign policy needs to be built on political consensus.

Partisan foreign policy might not pose a threat to a country’s independence, but by playing foreign policy in partisan terms, we are compromising gains that would be greater when we play foreign policy in national terms.

*Ibrahim Nahushal is a master degree student in International Relations and Cultural Diplomacy at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin.

References:

Curl, J. (2018, July 18). Petty partisan politics no longer stops at the water’s edge. The Daily Wire. https://www.dailywire.com/news/petty-partisan-politics-no-longer-stops-waters-joseph-curl

The Hindu. (2016, April 11).  India Maldives relations at a glance. https://www.thehindu.com/specials/india-maldives-relations-at-a-glance/article14247670.ece

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