Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari speech at the Institute of Strategic Studies

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Islamabad, 16 May 2022: Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party and the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addressing the Founding Day ceremony of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad has said that we have to find new ways for Pakistan to conduct itself internally and externally.
Following is the full text of his speech.
“Nowadays, all over the world, the provenance of think tanks and their impact on policy-making is obvious to all but surely in the 1970s it was perhaps not obvious to all. It shows the vision and the foresight behind the establishment of this institution. Pakistan is blessed with incredible intellectual capacity. Our intelligentsia, our civil society, our educational institutions produced a metaphorical army of thinkers. Pakistanis have a unique advantage over so many other countries because our presence, our population is not confined to Pakistan. I would say that Pakistanis are present in every nook and corner of the globe and we contribute to all walks of life internationally as well but there too, Pakistani students- I was one far more recently to much of you, are a large segment of the population of international students at any given university in the United Kingdom, United States and even in many universities in the East. That means that if we were to effectively engage the intellectual capital of Pakistan within and without the country, particularly with the youth who have a stake in our future but also those who have reached the pinnacle of their careers and have gained a lifetime of experience, if Pakistan was to conduct informed policy-making in general, that was a result of a healthy and open debate and dialogue. We would be better for it as a country.
I would very much want for the Foreign Office to at least work in close coordination with your institute and engage the hardworking individuals over here, not necessarily saying that everybody will agree on all topics but surely with your contribution and input, we can conduct a far more informed foreign policy. The importance of foreign policy, I don’t need to remind all of you. It not only is a question of Pakistan’s national interests, our security interests or our economic interests as a theoretical subject but it is a direct impact on the lives of every single Pakistani. Pakistan’s discourse on foreign policy unfortunately does not rise to the level that is necessary particularly in the public domain to educate the people of Pakistan, to explain to the people of Pakistan the actual context of our foreign policy, what is happening in the world today and how it affects your lives. We like to paint the world in black and white, in good and evil and perceived concepts of what is in our national interest based on a narrow perception of nationalism and patriotism. What one must understand is if one is truly patriotic, then one is ready to do whatever is necessary to safeguard the people of Pakistan, to advocate for the interests of the people of Pakistan and achieve what is strategically necessary in your country’s interest. I would argue that recently, we have continued to go down this path in an extremely unhealthy manner that has actually had a direct negative impact on Pakistan’s foreign policy, national security or national interest but also on the health of our economy and the lives of the average Pakistani.
If I was to sum up the political conduct of our foreign policy and frankly quite a lot of policies, has been one of cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face. It requires all of us to have a deep rethink about where we stand in the world today and where we would like to see ourselves in the next ten years, twenty years, fifty years and the next hundred years. Are we as a nation, are we as a country, doing all we can to position Pakistan in not today then tomorrow, in the best place for its people. I would argue, unfortunately that we are not. As stated in your presentation, Pakistan’s foreign policy is far more effective by the development of geostrategic and geopolitical events than many other countries. Pakistan’s geographical location is such that we are positioned in a place that means that the developments of geopolitical effects have affected us, have effected Pakistan directly in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Our neighbour to the north is China, our all-weather friend. Whether we like it or not, we will never be able to change the fact that India is also our neighbour and on the other side, we have Iran from where I just returned, on my first official visit as the foreign minister, and of course Afghanistan. So, it is very easy to see that the development of global geopolitical events have had a direct impact on Pakistan, but, have we been conducting ourselves in a way that engages with these challenges and sees them not only as challenges but also an opportunity? I don’t think we have been, or if we have been, I’m sure we have been trying to but there’s a lot more potential which is just waiting to be unlocked.
Diplomatically, economically, culturally and politically, we believe that engagement in the answer. When I say that we’re cutting our nose to spite our face, I mean that if we’re not even going to try and engage on the basis of one issue or the other, then how can we hope to impact or change the course of events? The decisions Pakistan makes, I believe will not only change the course of events or direction that our country will take, our people will take, our economy will take, but the decisions that Pakistan takes will directly impact world events.
Ambassador, you talked about the presumption, the way that the most of the world is seeing global events developing today, of global power conflict, great power conflict. Is this great power conflict in the interest of Pakistan? Can Pakistan do anything to mitigate, avert or play its part rather than increasing conflict, tensions but actually to reduce tensions, to play a bridge, to play a role to enhance engagement. I believe we have in the past and we can do so again. If it is in the context of our relationship with China, there is no doubt that Pakistan’s relationship with the people of China will continue to grow from strength to strength. We are committed to our economic engagement, we have achieved quite a lot through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and there’s much more for us to unlock as far as economic potential is concerned. If the development of global events takes the trajectory as we see today, then it surely doesn’t serve Pakistan’s interests that a great power conflict breakout in our neighbourhood and the consequences for that, for our people and our region have significance. In the past, Pakistan has not played the role of an aggravator in such a conflict, in fact Pakistan has played the role of a bridge in the past, between the United States and China and establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Rather than being perceived as it being inevitable for us to be sucked in a great power conflict in the region, Pakistan still has the potential to play the role as a bridge between great powers rather than a divider. That require engagement, it requires engagement with the United States as well. Our relationship with the United States has also been heavily tinted by a specific security lens. Pakistans are so well-positioned, if we engage with our overseas communities, if we engage with our intellectual capital, and if we engage with the United States not just as a country but as a people, to put across our point of view and provide not only economic opportunities for our people but to play a role in reducing rather than increasing the tensions on the world stage.
We have our issues with India. Pakistan and India have a long history of war, conflict. Today, where we have serious disputes, the events of August 2019 cannot be taken lightly. The attempted undermining of the internationally disputed status of Indian-occupied Kashmir, the beginning of a process to undermine the Muslim majority and artificially empower the minority are such important issues for us that indeed we have to take them up in the most serious and most aggressive manner. They have formed a cornerstone of any conversation that I’ve had since becoming the foreign minister. Indeed, it’s an incredibly significant assault on the rights of the people of Kashmir. Then, in May, we had the delimitation commission and then just recently, the Islamophobic remarks of officials and all of that creates an environment in which engagement is very difficult for Pakistan, if not impossible. I’d like to leave a thought for you to think about as we are talking to a think tank, that does it serve our interests or do we achieve our objectives, whatever they may be, be it Kashmir, be it the rising Islamophobia, be it the Hindutva supremacist nature of the new regime and government in India, does it serve our objective that we have practically cut all engagement? That I, as foreign minister of Pakistan, as the representative of my country, not only don’t speak to the Indian government but I also don’t speak to the Indian people. Is that the best way to communicate or achieve Pakistan’s objective? We don’t have a trading relationship with the east and many would argue that absolutely, we should not, given these outrageous assaults on our principled positions, it would be inappropriate for Pakistan to take a step. Others would argue that this is just a continuation of the thought that we cut our nose to spite one’s face. Ambassador, when you were speaking here, you were explaining about the trajectory of great power conflicts in our region between US and China, you also mentioned that their economic engagements was one of the reasons that you didn’t necessarily see it getting as bad as everybody predicts. One wonders, if not now, but say, when Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto had engaged with her counterpart when she was first elected PM, or back various people and the various events where engagement has been made. If at that point in time, we had achieved economic engagement with India and our economic engagement on both sides had been to such a level that perhaps we would be in a position to more effectively influence Indian policy-making. That if India’s economic integration with Pakistan and Pakistan’s economic integration with India was at such a point, perhaps neither state would be in a position to take such extreme positions. Unfortunately, if we follow ‘cut one’s nose to spite one’s face’ and if we don’t have that economic engagement, the perhaps we’re in a position where we are less able to impact and to affect Indian policy-making. Whatever I think about the government of India and their policies- and we have very strong feelings on that, if I’m taking at them through the media, through press conferences and press releases and statements and not talking with them, then am I able to effectively impact any sort of change? Forget about the government, if it’s our principled decision that I will not, which I don’t think has ever happened in the history of the course of time and man, that a state even in times of war not communicated. Surely, talking to the people and engaging with the public serves the interests of Pakistan, that despite the hyper-nationalist nature of Indian media, are we going to seed that space to them and them alone? Or do we not believe that no matter what policy or whatever position the government of India may be taking, surely we don’t blame the people of India, who we share thousands of years of history with for every single decision of their government. If we engaged with the government and state functionaries that has its own benefits, but if we were engaged with the Indian media and public, surely we would be in a better place to advocate for Pakistan’s cause and position, to expose the abuses of their government directly to their people. I believe that these are serious topics that think tanks such as yourselves have been talking about, but it’s time for us to seriously get thinking about it. We, as Pakistanis have to understand where we stand in this point in time. We are at a crossroads, at an extremely difficult crossroads of human history, we faced a once-in-a-hundred years pandemic that the Ambassador said is yet to be over, people are still dying and global health is still as risk. The threat of climate change is real and something that we as Pakistanis at least can no longer deny. If Jacobabad is experiencing a 51 degrees heat in spring, if we are in what seems like a perpetual drought facing water scarcity levels of 60%, if our crop year after year suffers drastic damage, if there are fires reaching from Balochistan to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for ten days on end, surely one of the greatest existential threats to man, climate change will have an impact on a developing and poor country like Pakistan. Since geopolitical events have a direct impact on our citizens, so we had economic difficulties as a result of supply chain issues and the shock of Covid-19. Now, the war in Ukraine has a direct impact on the lives of average Pakistanis. We used to import significant amounts of wheat and urea from Ukraine. The international world is now facing sky-high fuel prices and everyone is feeling the effects of inflation as a direct result of these geopolitical events. This is a time where everyone is pivoting to economic diplomacy and focusing on engagement, engagement and engagement everywhere and anywhere they can. It is unfortunate that human history will record this that we were facing the existential threat of a pandemic and of climate change, the world decided to go to war, that’s what they decided to do. In Europe, there’s a war. There are tensions and conflicts threatening to spill out all over the place. Our neighbours in Afghanistan, are at an extremely difficult crossroads of their own history. Due to geopolitical events, we have never reached the true potential of our economic potential of our neighbours in Iran. Now, we have to race against time. The unity government has inherited a Pakistan where whenever you look, there’s a crisis. Internationally isolated, international disengaged for one reason or another, economically we have inherited an IMF deal that is stale, outdated, pre-Covid, and pre-the fall of Kabul, pre-the Ukrainian and Russian global conflict and pre-the global economic recession. But that is what you’ve got. Then, you have inherited such economic decisions that can only be described as suicide attacks on our economy, that not only make things difficult for Pakistan but obviously make things incredibly difficult for average Pakistanis. You have inherited institutions that have faced challenges throughout the course of our history but in our perspective for the last three to four years have been playing rather than a constitutional role, a more controversial role while we’re hoping for a transition back to the constitutional role that poses its own challenges.
Whether it is on the economy, our domestic challenges and foreign policy, everybody has come together in this unity government to address these issues together. I am manning our foreign policy and international challenges, others our manning their own forts. We are working together under incredibly difficult circumstances not only for us but the world. It’s time for all of us to start thinking of new ways for Pakistan to conduct itself internally and externally with the sole objective of not benefitting me or any one individual but benefitting the people of Pakistan over any perceived notion of hyper-nationalism or hyper-patriotism. The most patriotic thing we can do, I can do as the foreign minister of Pakistan is to conduct a humble foreign policy based on the challenges faced by my country, to be firm in our positions, to be firm in communicating the interests of our people but to never be arrogant, because we cannot afford it and our country cannot afford it.
I am once again, extremely grateful for this opportunity to address you today and I look forward for my ministry to work closely with your institute for us to think of ways.”