In a multi-polar world where new competitors have emerged and are undertaking multiple endeavours to outperform others, Pakistan’s foreign policy seems to have been lost in the intricate global rivalries and regional complexities. Pakistan was already grappling with a crumbling economy and limping under skyrocketing inflation, and is now confronted with unprecedented foreign policy challenges. The US’ sudden decision to pull out from Afghanistan, Russia’s long envisioned but surprise launch of a war against Ukraine and India’s endless ambitious drive to be reckoned a regional and global power one way or another left Pakistan teetering in the lurch.

The previous government also faced these complexities, but it drove foreign policy on ‘personal desires’, assumptions, and expectations which amplified the existing challenges. Former PM Imran Khan’s ill-timed visit to Moscow on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, his threatening remarks about European diplomats in Islamabad, and his ambitious proposal of an alternative Islamic bloc with Turkey and Malaysia in the lead role, all ruptured the decades-old friendships. Likewise, Pakistan’s relations with only friendly superpower China witnessed little to no development. Although China provided much-needed financial support to Pakistan, its flagship CPEC project was stalled or virtually on the back burner. Additionally, relations with neighbouring Afghanistan soured whereas remained overwhelmingly confrontational towards India after India’s unilateral revocation of Articles 370 and 35A of its constitution. Our foreign policy’s doomsday dawned when Imran Khan levelled politically motivated and unproven charges against the US for the latter’s alleged role in a regime change in Pakistan. He went to lengths to call the incumbent government a ‘slave’ of the US and the US as a forever conspirator. This populist yet accusation-based narrative coupled with regional realignments and global readjustments in the post-Covid era posed challenges for Pakistan like never before.

The foreign office and the foreign policy thinkers started making a roadmap with small steps starting from mere phone calls to international leaders. The major challenge that the foreign office had to subtly tackle was bridging widening differences and uncertainty in the Pak-US relationship. Efforts towards resetting fractured Pak-US ties in a highly unconducive environment soon yielded positive results when the US Secretary of Foreign Affairs invited Foreign Minister Bilawal to attend a food security summit. The following months witnessed a formal appointment of the US ambassador to Pakistan after four years and increased visits to Pakistan by top US diplomats. In mid-September, the Prime Minister embarked on an official visit to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Council of Heads of State (CHS) meeting in Samarkand. Over there he met with several heads of state including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Iranian president. Despite taking place on the sidelines of the main event and for a brief period, talks were conducted in a friendly environment and were rendered successful. The PM himself also tweeted that I am “leaving Samarkand on a satisfactory note”. Local and international media provided generous coverage of the PM’s engagements.

Following the SCO Summit, the Prime Minister with his team attended the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and held talks with almost 40 leaders of different countries. The PM not only highlighted the plight of the flood victims but made a desperate plea to the global community for helping water-strapped people. Before the PM’s journey to catch up with more than 45 international leaders in a span of mere two weeks, young foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto set out to streamline foreign policy goals. He was instrumental in discussing prospects of bilateral trade and related engagements during his multi-country stopovers since assuming office in a challenging scenario. Bilawal was applauded for candidly responding to tough questions asked during his visit to several countries including the US.

The Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and the Foreign Office’s diligent work towards resetting the fractured foreign policy has gradually started yielding positive results. The international community is finding out about the deadly floods in Pakistan and voices for ‘climate justice’ in Pakistan have increased. The world leaders are also meeting and sharing thoughts with Pakistani counterparts whereas key high-profile visits have started happening more frequently. These are only stepping stones towards fixing persistent foreign policy issues; the leadership and policymakers must focus on maintaining a balanced approach and not becoming part of bloc politics. Banking on financial aid from friendly countries and loans from financial institutes is not going to shoulder the country’s economic vulnerabilities for long but a cordial relationship with the neighbours and trade and investment links with the West and Middle Eastern states is the way forward for Pakistan.