As the Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli wraps up his visit to Europe, commentators in Kathmandu have been busy debating its utility. His supporters in his party, Communist Party of Nepal, have euphorically praised the visit. On the other hand, his opponents have viewed it as a pleasure trip. Bear with me: I find it useful and useless at the same time.
Bear with me, and let me start with expectations, if not principles. High-level visits between countries, formal and informal, have taken place for centuries. Their ultimate goal has been, and ought to be, advancing the national interest, which in itself could be vague. One’s national interest could be another’s personal and partisan interest.
With this caveat, high-level visits have usually taken one of the three forms: Goodwill, cooperation, and problem-solving. Goodwill visits have the immediate aim of introducing leaders to each other, building friendship and trust between them and opening the door to advance the mutually compatible national interests, the ultimate objective. Often the first high-level visits fall into this category.
Once the groundwork has been done with goodwill visits, leaders often instruct their subordinate to pursue specific cooperation in the mutual areas of interest. Problem-solving high-level visits have worked as an instrument to try and hammer out the lingering differences and obstacles left unresolved in discussions at the lower levels.
To be productive, all three types of visits should to be prepared meticulously and specifically. Otherwise, they have been unproductive, hardly useful, and even counterproductive. Against this background, we need to examine Prime Minister KP Oli’s Europe visit.
This time, Oli has visited Switzerland, Britain and France, his second to Europe. The overall first impression the visit has given me is that it had not been fully prepared in advance, which automatically means it has not been as successful as Oli’s blind supporters have tried to portrayed.
More specifically, the multilateral side of Oli’s Switzerland visit was symbolic and the bilateral side incidental. Oli had gone to Geneva primarily to address the centenary celebration of the International Labor Organization.
To be sure, it was important for Nepal to participate in the event and reiterate Nepal’s abiding commitment to the principles and work of the ILO, which has done much to protect and promote labor rights in the country and around the world. Oli has done it.
However, the bilateral part has left much to be desired. Oli met only with the interior mistier, Alain Berset, according to news reports. Nepal’s major development partner, Switzerland has helped Nepal in the road, suspension bridge, agriculture and health sectors. Oli’s visit could have been more productive if Nepal had presented concrete proposals for Swiss assistance, including a road-map to replace tuins, the dangerous single ropes to cross mighty rivers, with proper suspension bridges, one of the several promises made by him.
Moving on to Britain, which has been the largest or the second largest development partner for several years, Oli’s visit has been ill-timed and unproductive. He met Prince Harry and caretaker Prime Minister Teresa May. Some in Nepal have made an issue of his not meeting with the ceremonial queen. But there is a more pertinent and significant issue here.
When Oli met Teresa May, she had already resigned and she had been working as caretaker prime minister. She had no power to make or extract any commitment, let alone to oversee its implementation. Once they retire, British leaders walk into political oblivion, unlike the date-expired Nepali leaders to hang on to a post unto their death.
So the visit has not had any substance, and the British side had made it clear about it in advance. Since Nepali leaders seldom meet the British prime minister, Oli’s sterile visit could have come at a steep future price. After 17 years, the visit at this level has taken place.
Finally, France’s case has been more ambiguous. Oli met his counterpart, Edouard Philippe, not President Emmanuel Macron, who is the power center. As a side note, Prime Minister Girija Koirala had met French President Francois Mitterrand during his Paris visit 18 years ago.
More substantively, for some time, France has been diverting its resources from Anglophone countries to Francophone countries. The handful of projects funded by them in Nepal have been useful but modest in size, and majority to them have already been completed. In recent years, Paris has shown no major interest to expand its cooperation in Nepal.
Despite that, France has been important to Nepal as the permanent member of the UN security council and member of the European Union, which is a sizeable development partner. If Oli’s visit has broken a new ground, which will take time to materialize, it would be deemed as useful for Nepal for the future.
Whenever high-level visits fail to produce expected results, they get rationalized that such visits should not be judged only in terms of dollars and cents. While that is partly true as an investment in the future, it cannot completely be detached from practical considerations of cost and benefit at some point.
Our capricious leaders often make whimsical decisions and try to justify that black is white and white is black. Their acolytes and sycophants parrot the boss’s line. In such a toxic and pervert environment, there is little room for an objective assessment to be received positively from those whose sentiments have been ruffled.
However, let me conclude with these words: The visit has been a mixed bag. More precisely, it has been more useful to burnish and boost Prime Minister Oli’s image and less to deliver value for the money to the country. Ill-timed and ill-prepared, the visit has undermined its utility and underachieved its potential.