The People’s Foreign Policy

The People’s Foreign Policy
Pakistan’s young foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has become the first top Pakistani diplomat to visit India since 2011. Bhutto's attendance at the meeting was seen as a significant step towards the possibility of improving relations between India and Pakistan, which have been strained for the past few decades.

The purpose of foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s visit is to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers’ (CFM) conclave hosted on May 4 and 5 in Goa this year. The news was revealed among much fanfare some two weeks ago, and has ignited speculation and positive anticipation, with the usual suspects trying their utmost to spark needless controversies.

In an already polarised political atmosphere, we must be vigilant to baseless propaganda that invokes fear and suspicion. Instead, we must welcome a foreign policy based on maturity and far sightedness, one that seeks to steer Pakistan away from isolation and into a beneficial and cooperative relationship with the rest of the world.

As we enter a new era of multipolarity marked by a diffusion of hard power, regional cooperation frameworks now have increased relevance. In this day and age, the most successful foreign policy is one that strikes a balance: where meaningful engagement with multiple stakeholders can be achieved, in spite of tensions among those stakeholders themselves. A nuanced approach seeks to override these contradictions, and place oneself as a meaningful ally to multiple partners, without compromising one’s core values or principled interests.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is perhaps the most important regional organisation in our part of the world. Both in terms of geographic scope and economic vitality, the SCO is a platform that reaches deep into Asia, including the Central Asian states where Pakistan’s economic future lies. Since its inception in 2001, the SCO has mainly focused on matters pertaining to economic cooperation and engagement, but more recently it has developed regional security frameworks, particularly for the fight against terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism that its member states are engaged in. Furthermore, avenues for regional cooperation in social development, culture and tourism are also being explored.

SCO member states currently represent nearly half of the world’s population, around 25% of global GDP and around 80% of Eurasian landmass. Coupled with shared history and culture, the SCO promises to be a useful platform to encourage bilateral as well as multilateral trading partnerships, encourage cultural and social linkages, and enhance regional peace. Apart from India and Pakistan, SCO member states include China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

India currently holds the presidency of the SCO, which is headquartered in Beijing. South Asian neighbours Pakistan and India became permanent members of the SCO in 2017. Since its membership, Pakistan has participated in all its mandatory meetings, including the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) meetings. The CFM carries massive significance for member states as well as for the SCO platform, as it finalises the decision, documents and sets the agenda for the SCO summit meeting.

Meaningful engagement at the SCO is vital to Pakistan’s national interests. Populist voices steer us away from this long term goal for their own parochial benefits, and continuing to surrender to fear mongering and animosity will only harm Pakistan and its people.

Most importantly, the SCO is a multilateral forum focused on regional security. Keeping in mind Pakistan’s strategic place in the international security regime, as well as the recent resurgence of domestic terrorism, Pakistan’s participation and seriousness towards the SCO becomes an important component of the national security and counter terrorism policies of the current government.

Multilateral cooperation on anti-terrorism and religious extremism is vital for Pakistan’s security, stability, and long term strategic interests. SCO member states are cognisant of Pakistan’s immense sacrifices in countering terrorism in the region and around the world. Pakistan has a historic opportunity to gain the support of SCO members in its counter terrorism approach, and to obtain their support in dealing with this transnational threat.

Only elements lacking both foresight and a commitment to the country’s broader interest would oppose Pakistan’s full and effective participation in the SCO. That the SCO is hosted in India this year should not deter Pakistan from its commitment to the SCO charter and platform.

In the past year, Pakistan’s foreign policy has seen a massive shift, as we have managed to steer our way out of isolation and are regaining our credibility on the international stage. Pakistan’s prominence in geopolitical affairs, and as a powerful voice seeking peace and prosperity in its region, is thanks in large part to foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. From a nuanced approach on counterterrorism, which stresses on the need for introspection by Western powers, while simultaneously urging the Afghan Taliban to fulfil their commitments that they agreed to in the Doha Deal, to arranging an international donor conference that pledged billions in aid after the devastating floods of 2022, Pakistan’s foreign policy is now more rational, more relevant, and more respected by our partners and allies.

The Foreign Office (FO) under Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has also reoriented itself to give the SCO the importance it warrants, as part of a new ‘multilateralist’ approach to the world community. Bilawal’s ongoing visit to India must be seen vis-à-vis this emphasis on multilateralism in Pakistan's foreign policy, since the SCO is first and foremost, a multilateral platform.

It is also important to note that vital matters must be deliberated upon through mutual consensus in a democratic society. Keeping this ethos in view, the foreign minister consulted key partners and stakeholders before his visit. Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif firmly stands by his foreign minister, and has publicly affirmed his support on the significance of the SCO and his approval of Pakistan’s attendance and participation. Civil society and the diaspora community at large have also welcomed this movie, since these constituencies have long been proponents of easing tensions between India and Pakistan and normalising ties between the two ‘adversaries’.

On such momentous and historical occasions, there will always be those who will ignite fires of jingoism to blur our rationality and foresight. Populist forces and their proxies would have you believe that patriotism is demonstrated by prioritising ego over maturity, short sightedness over prudence, and hatred over hope. But if one is true to the nation, then national interest lies in drowning out the hatred, by overcoming our pride without compromising our principles, and by also focusing on areas where cooperation is not only possibly, but increasingly necessary: dealing with the shared challenges of poverty, climate change, gender inequality, terrorism and extremism.

Our future lies in enhancing progressive values that promote peace, stability and cooperation. It is therefore commendable that the Pakistani foreign minister has chosen to be the voice of reason, and the young representative of an important country that is back on the international stage. By not isolating Pakistan from the SCO, and by representing Pakistan and Pakistan’s interests at this extremely important forum, foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari continues to prove that his foreign policy is truly the people’s foreign policy.