Pakistan’s Foreign Minister: We’re Not a ‘Geopolitical Football’

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on Islamabad’s relations with Beijing and Washington and how his country is dealing with deadly floods.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
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First came a heat wave. Then glacial ice began to melt. Torrential monsoon rains arrived, and Pakistan was confronted with its worst floods in living memory. About a third of Pakistan remains underwater, with many thousands of homes submerged or washed away. More than 30 million people in Pakistan are directly affected, with their access to food now cut off. The threat of waterborne diseases is adding to what is shaping up to be one of the world’s deadliest crises this year.

Pakistan’s current government—an unlikely coalition between two prominent parties that were formerly rivals—came to power in April after a no-confidence vote felled the government of Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician. Islamabad’s new top diplomat, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has been doing the rounds in New York and Washington in the last two weeks, raising awareness around his country’s plight. Bhutto Zardari comes from a storied political dynasty: Both his maternal grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and his mother, Benazir Bhutto, served as prime minister of Pakistan. The former was executed under order by Pakistan’s then-dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq; the latter was assassinated as she campaigned for a third term in office. Bhutto Zardari’s father, Asif Ali Zardari, served as president of Pakistan for five years after the death of his wife.

I spoke with the 34-year-old Bhutto Zardari on FP Live on Tuesday, Sept. 27. Subscribers can watch the full, 30-minute interview here. We discussed Pakistan’s humanitarian response, its efforts to raise aid money, and Islamabad’s relations with Washington, Kabul, Beijing, and New Delhi. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript.

First came a heat wave. Then glacial ice began to melt. Torrential monsoon rains arrived, and Pakistan was confronted with its worst floods in living memory. About a third of Pakistan remains underwater, with many thousands of homes submerged or washed away. More than 30 million people in Pakistan are directly affected, with their access to food now cut off. The threat of waterborne diseases is adding to what is shaping up to be one of the world’s deadliest crises this year.

Pakistan’s current government—an unlikely coalition between two prominent parties that were formerly rivals—came to power in April after a no-confidence vote felled the government of Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician. Islamabad’s new top diplomat, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has been doing the rounds in New York and Washington in the last two weeks, raising awareness around his country’s plight. Bhutto Zardari comes from a storied political dynasty: Both his maternal grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and his mother, Benazir Bhutto, served as prime minister of Pakistan. The former was executed under order by Pakistan’s then-dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq; the latter was assassinated as she campaigned for a third term in office. Bhutto Zardari’s father, Asif Ali Zardari, served as president of Pakistan for five years after the death of his wife.

I spoke with the 34-year-old Bhutto Zardari on FP Live on Tuesday, Sept. 27. Subscribers can watch the full, 30-minute interview here. We discussed Pakistan’s humanitarian response, its efforts to raise aid money, and Islamabad’s relations with Washington, Kabul, Beijing, and New Delhi. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: You’re in Washington right now. You were at the U.N. General Assembly last week in New York. You’ve had a busy American visit. Have you gotten what you came for?

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari: From our perspective, it has been positive. We’ve been able to highlight the plight of our country, and we’re very grateful to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who not only visited Pakistan before the General Assembly meetings but effectively focused a lot of those meetings into talk about climate—in particular Pakistan’s floods.

We’re still in the initial rescue-and-relief phase, and we’re conducting our damage needs assessment. So far, we’ve only launched flash appeals, to which we’ve had a fantastic response—not only the United States’ contribution of around $60 million but from all of our friends.

FP: Isn’t that just a drop in the ocean, so to speak?

BBZ: It’s all a drop in the ocean compared to what we need. Once we’re done with the assessment, we’ll be in a better place to understand the total damage. At the moment, it’s just a guesstimate, which puts the total damage at $30 billion.

FP: I remember when Pakistan had devastating floods in 2010; more than 1,700 people died. America stepped in with more than $1.3 billion in various types of aid that year. They gave a fair bit in succeeding years as well. U.S. aid today is a fraction of what it used to be. Does it worry you that Pakistan’s relationship with America isn’t what it used to be?

BBZ: No, actually, I’m far more comfortable in our relationship today with America than back in 2010. I think that we were hyphenated as “Af-Pak” and seen only through the prism of Afghanistan.

With our reengagement with the U.S. State Department and with the U.S. government, we’ve seen a more broad-based conversation about our trade relations. But to be realistic, we have to understand that the world has changed. It’s not just Pakistan or the U.S. that has changed. We’ve seen a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. We’ve seen the fall of Kabul. We’ve seen the Ukraine crisis. It’s a very different economic space. And a lot of money is being spent domestically and on other international issues. I’m very cognizant that everyone is dealing with domestic economic challenges.

FP: You mentioned the hyphenation of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I understand that things have changed. But if the two are now de-hyphenated, I have to ask: When America orchestrated the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, what level of cooperation did your country offer?

BBZ: I mean, it wasn’t in our country, nor was it in our information that this individual was there or that there was an operation to take him out.

FP: Did Pakistan offer its airspace to America?

BBZ: No. As I said, we were not aware of this. I don’t think anybody was.

FP: Let’s move from America to China, then. Beijing and Islamabad have become much friendlier in recent years. Your predecessors have called the Pakistan-China relationship an “all-weather” friendship, which is also a dig at a supposedly fair-weather friendship with America. But China hasn’t quite come to Pakistan’s aid in a big way this year—in its greatest moment of need. Is that right?

BBZ: No, that’s absolutely incorrect. Our relationship with China is not new; it has long roots, bipartisan roots. And I like to say that we wanted to be friends with China when nobody wanted to be friends with China. Now, everybody wants to be friends with China.

FP: Not in America.

BBZ: Well, I would argue that it would be in our interest for us to cooperate, but let’s not get into that debate. As far as helping Pakistan, China has helped Pakistan whenever we have been in difficult times. The previous administration left us in a precarious economic situation. Lifesaving decisions for our economy were made first and foremost by China as far as our floods are concerned—not only the immediate aid relief but also as far as our loan payments are concerned.

Not everything is about the geopolitical conflict of the United States and China. And I think it’s preposterous that we’re even having that conversation while talking about my country’s survival and our ability to deal with cataclysmic flooding—it’s absolutely ridiculous. We won’t be able to confront climate change if the United States and China don’t work together.

FP: The reason I bring up China is because, if you look at Sri Lanka for example, Colombo will say it wasn’t able to get help from Beijing when it needed it most. So, it’s a valid question for many smaller South Asian countries to wonder what kind of partner China really is.

BBZ: So, as far as Sri Lanka’s concerned, obviously we’re a completely different context. Sri Lanka went through an economic crisis; we’re going through a climate catastrophe.

FP: I’d argue your country is struggling with both a climate crisis and an economic one.

BBZ: Yes, but in the sense that that was solely an economic crisis of its own dynamics. But as far as what China does—whether it’s with Sri Lanka or Pakistan—that’s totally China’s decision. Just like it’s 100 percent America’s decision in either of these circumstances. Rather than being a point of competition or a venue for these divisions to be exacerbated, I would like Pakistan to continue to play a role that we have in the past. Pakistan originally played a bridge between China and the United States, resulting in diplomatic relations between the two countries. And right now, particularly when we’re drowning in floods, I don’t want to play any part in exacerbating any tensions or being a geopolitical football.

In this time of great geopolitical division, I would much rather play the role of a bridge by uniting these two great powers around working together for climate change. Perhaps Pakistan’s unique position as a friend of both the United States and China could encourage cooperation on this front.

FP: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was in Moscow on the very day Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his invasion of Ukraine. That was a different administration, of course, but where does your government stand on the war? Do you feel like it’s time to clearly condemn Moscow?

BBZ: I think that there’s broad consensus within Pakistan that we don’t want to get dragged into this conflict, particularly because we’re just coming out of a decades-long conflict in Afghanistan, and frankly, we’re exhausted by what war does and the consequences for any one country.

FP: Let’s talk about your country’s military. It’s difficult to envision structural reforms to Pakistan’s economy or its government as long as it has an all-powerful army. What’s your sense of the army’s role in 2022? Where do you see it moving forward in relationship with a civilian government?

BBZ: Absolutely. Our history has been a turbulent one. And, as you say, our [army has been a] powerful force. I think any country wants a powerful armed force. But we have long advocated for all institutions within Pakistan conducting themselves within their legal mandate and transitioning away from the more controversial roles that we’ve had in the past.

I think a significant development here was the no-confidence vote against Imran Khan in April. For the first time in our history, through constitutional, democratic means, we managed to remove a prime minister. All prime ministers who were previously removed were either by being hanged, exiled, or through some sort of judicial verdict. So that’s a significant point in Pakistan’s political history, institutional development, and democracy. And if that indicates that our armed forces or our institutions are transitioning from what was a controversial role to a constitutional role, that should be encouraged across the board.

FP: Circling back to climate change, you have called for a Green Marshall Plan. Give us a sense of how this would work. Your country isn’t the first to make these calls. Hopes seem to be pinned on the forthcoming COP meeting, but hopes have previously been dashed there.

BBZ: I don’t think that because hopes have been dashed that we should stop trying. I have talked about climate justice, and rather than seeing it as a contradiction, I would see it as a continuation of the stated position of the president of the United States, and the leaders of many countries in Europe, that we need to invest, get the money together, not only for climate adaptation domestically but also internationally. And within that context, I proposed a Green Marshall Plan for climate-stressed countries, all of which contribute negligibly to the global carbon funds.

FP: Who would fund this?

BBZ: The great polluters who have caused this crisis.

We have to come up with out-of-the-box solutions, one of which is the proposal of a debt swap for climate, where countries that owe a debt to the great polluters would swap this debt.

I understand that this isn’t a solution that would only be in the public sector space. We have to encourage the private sector to invest in climate adaptation. I believe that the public-private partnership model could be adopted not only for green energy but also for green infrastructure.

FP: It’s been widely reported that your country and your government has had a media crackdown in recent months. A TV channel has been shut down. Journalists have been harassed. This isn’t new in Pakistan, of course, but it hasn’t stopped under your leadership. Why?

BBZ: No, absolutely. We’ve only been in power for four months, and the difficulties that Pakistani press freedom has faced over the past four years have been exponential. Between 2007 and 2018, we saw an expansion of rights within the Pakistani context, with practically no political prisoners, where we never went after the [media], and we managed to create an equilibrium in Pakistani politics and said goodbye to political victimization. Unfortunately, as Khan came into power, he undid a lot of the progress we made on that front.

And once you put those norms, those rules, those laws in place, it takes more than four months to walk those back. But I would like to communicate to you our commitment to the freedom of the press, and we will consistently work to improve the environment in Pakistan.

FP: We’ll hold you to that. Just coming back to the floods, are you getting any help from India?

BBZ: No.

FP: Do you expect any help from India?

BBZ: No.

FP: If you could say something to the Indian foreign minister or the Indian audience listening in, what would you say?

BBZ: If I could say something, I wouldn’t say it to you. Look, this is their choice, their position.

FP: Have you asked for help?

BBZ: No, to be honest. I haven’t asked anyone. I didn’t ask for help from the United States—they volunteered it. Didn’t ask for help from China—they volunteered. Didn’t ask for help from the Middle East—they volunteered. In times of human catastrophe, I think it tests everyone’s humanity.

[FP subscribers can watch the full, 30-minute interview here.]

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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