Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Foreign Policy

Written by Fatimah Naeem 7:52 pm Articles, Pakistan, Published Content

Unveiling the Legacy: How Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Shaped Pakistan’s Foreign Policy

Fatimah Naeem delves into the tumultuous era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s leadership in Pakistan and the profound impact it had on the country’s foreign policy. With a vision of assertive diplomacy, Bhutto navigated a complex geopolitical landscape, facing both formidable challenges and remarkable triumphs. From his ambitious pursuit of nuclear capability to the redefinition of Pakistan’s role in the Muslim World, the author explores the changes in Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors and the US.
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Ms Fatimah Naeem is pursuing her Bachelor's in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defence University Islamabad.


Foreign policies surely play an objectively vital role in the formulation of balanced relations between countries but the task of navigating through them is indeed a sophisticated one. Reputations, interests, and security are all important prospects in displaying a conducive result when it comes to dealing with international affairs.

Without a doubt, every artist needs his muse. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a distinguished leader and founder of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), found his muse in the chasms of diplomacy and the foreign policy of his country. He first began defining Pakistan’s foreign policy as the country’s minister of foreign affairs from 1963 to 1966, then as the president from 1971-1973, and finally as the state’s prime minister from 1973-1977.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971

Pakistan’s foreign trajectory, undoubtedly, was massively influenced by Bhutto’s leadership. Prioritizing assertive diplomacy, regional cooperation, and the urgency of establishing a nuclear program, he found himself attempting to nourish Pakistan’s international standing while catering to its national interests and advocating for the aim of a more equitable world order.

Since its inception, Pakistan has always seen itself revolving on the brink of instability and anarchic circumstances. The change was of the utmost need during such conditions. By inculcating strength and reigniting dynamism in society, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saved Pakistan from suffering futile consequences. His ambitions of modernizing Pakistan’s military and establishing a unanimously agreed constitution paved the way for Pakistan to charter its course in the future. But it was in foreign policy that he made his lasting impression. His extensive grasp of history and acute awareness of the developing world’s numerous issues enabled him to devise policies and strategies that yielded exceptional benefits for Pakistan.

Embracing China’s Unwavering Support

In October 1959, intense clashes took place between China and India on Ladakh soil. These clashes bore the seeds of Pakistan’s strategic alliance with China. Along with being one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan has always presented itself as a trustful ally. The calculated cooperation between Pakistan and China has remained a useful instrument during times of crisis for both countries. These calm and tactical relations should be credited to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as his immense knowledge and valor were great qualities that assisted in traversing the journey of foreign policy with China.

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Being a member of Ayub Khan’s cabinet, Bhutto was passionately leading the Pakistan delegation at the prestigious committee of the UN General Assembly in 1958. During that same time, sensing an ambiguity, he discouraged Ayub Khan from making an offer to India for joint defense forces and encouraged Pakistan’s support for China’s lawful representation in the UN. Bhutto’s campaign was met with a positive response by the Ayub Khan cabinet and since then Pak-China relations have nothing but flourished. Swift negotiations promoting aviation collaborations, massive trade agreements, and border issue facilitation were all important factors that were observed in proceeding with cordial relations between both states.

Being well-educated in subjects of politics and foreign affairs, Bhutto was able to assess and predict the future of Pakistan if support for China was reduced. Working in collaboration with the anti-communist Western bloc had already put Pakistan on a pedestal with China and further aggravating China was the last thing on Bhutto’s mind. Bhutto’s quick actions in supporting China had brought tensions in the Western circle but the prosperous future of Pakistan in fraternization with China was a much more enticing opportunity. Since then, the relations between the two countries have nothing but thrived.

Challenging India’s Hegemonic and Nuclear Ambitions

After facing a crushing defeat in the 1971 episode of Bangladesh’s emergence, Pakistan had felt the colossal gap between its own and India’s military indulgence and sought to increase its military deterrence against the massive Indian onslaught. Bhutto felt that the need of the hour was most likely a nuclear obviation. Bhutto had become aware that no foreign alliances or international treaties were credible enough to look after the safety and security of Pakistan.

It was a detrimental prospect that Pakistan had to pursue nuclear ambitions if it were to challenge India’s increasing regional autonomy. India took the liberty of conducting a nuclear test in 1974, namely “Smiling Buddha” which jolted the international community. After the unfolding of this particular event, Bhutto encouraged Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities to be increased in order to bring a balance in the regional disparity of South Asia. This pursuit had put Pakistan in a fragile situation, with many Western countries threatening to sanction Pakistan along with refusing military and economic aid.

Accompanied by the adamant criticism and sanctions, also came immense support from the Muslim World. Bhutto’s nuclear program sought not just to deter any Indian aggression, but also to boost Pakistan’s stature on the global stage. Furthermore, bringing the spotlight on the Kashmir issue was a strong desire of Bhutto’s in order to finally let the state, which had been under a tyranny of trying circumstances, anticipate peace in the foreseeable future. But India’s opposition to resolving the matter posed a hindrance that Bhutto had tried on several occasions to tackle. Under his guidance, Pakistan increased diplomatic efforts to raise international awareness of human rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir and gain support for the Kashmiri cause.

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Overriding Tensions with Neighboring Afghanistan

The relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have not been particularly pleasant. Both states have funded proxies against each other on numerous accounts jeopardizing each other’s stability. Improvements surfaced in 1972 when Bhutto visited Afghanistan, which depicted a prominent signature of normalizing the ties. This action proved fruitful and Pakistan’s insubstantial reputation in the Muslim world was finally seeing formidable favoritism. President Daoud’s visit to Pakistan in 1976 was also considered to be a substantial catalyst in finally refining the connections.  

A commendable accomplishment of Bhutto was the inauguration of the “Afghan Cell” within Pakistan’s foreign office in order to seek openings that would strengthen ties between the two states. The primary goal of covert funding was to ensure the state’s profound interest in Afghanistan and avoid any hostile administration in Kabul that could endanger Pakistan. Lastly, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan were based on active and passive support for each other until Bhutto’s unfortunate ousting during the late 1970s.

OIC Summit and Bonding with the Muslim World

Bhutto was an important figure in developing relations between the Muslim states. He actively promoted the establishment of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and even held its second summit in Lahore in 1974. The summit’s main goal was to provide a platform where matters concerning cooperation ventures among Muslim nations could be discussed and acted thereupon, along with a special emphasis on the Palestinian issue. This granted Pakistan and Bhutto a much-needed reputation boost and made them a much-awaited appearance in the Muslim World. Growth in Pakistan’s prominence was of utmost importance to Bhutto indeed.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto 1972
Bhutto meeting with Iranian Queen Farah Pahlavi, 1972

He visited many Muslim countries with the intention of building direct and indirect links with them and amongst them. This ultimately led to Muslim nations depending on Pakistan to harvest cross-cultural benefits and engagements. The disposition of this solidarity manifested itself in terms of Arabic being made a language to be learned along with the commencement of construction of the infamous Shah Faisal Mosque in Pakistan.

In a nutshell, Bhutto wished to establish a framework of political and economic cooperation among Islamic countries in order to foster Muslim unity. It was agreed by Muslim leaders to enhance their exports and Islamic solidarity funding. The major goal of Muslim countries’ political and economic engineering was to construct a strong and sovereign visionary order for the Muslim world in particular, and developing countries in general.

Extending Reconciliatory Efforts towards Soviet Leadership

After the tragic mishap of 1971, misconceptions arose amongst the delicate relations between Pakistan and USSR. Bhutto, being well versed on subjects of international relations and diplomacy, took to Moscow in 1972 and negotiated favorable conditions for enhancing the association between both states. Bhutto was able to persuade the Soviet leadership into investing in Pakistan to bring more economic stimulus to both countries which ultimately resulted in Pakistan’s reduced reliance on the US.

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The trade volume grew exponentially and at the same time, Pakistan decided to depart from CENTO and SEATO. This withdrawal was critical when it comes to describing the link between the two states. The key point of bilateral growth between Pakistan and the USSR was Bhutto’s program of nationalization and tilt toward socialism. Numerous commercial agreements were inked between the two states in hopes of bringing mutual socioeconomic benefit and exchange of expertise in various developing departments of Pakistan.

Attempts to Find Middle Ground with the US

Initially, pleasantries in the form of economic and military aid were exchanged between Pakistan and US, but Bhutto was quick to notice that the US would not, under any circumstances, withhold its backing for India. This hampered the diplomatic ties between the two states and Pakistan’s pursuit of nuclear potential.

Richard Nixon and Bhutto
US President Richard Nixon and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 1973

President Jimmy Carter of the United States did not agree with Bhutto’s socialist economic theories and intensified sanctions against Pakistan in 1976-77. Furthermore, the friendly foreign policy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto towards the USSR irritated the US when he was tasked with providing a bridge to the USSR for access to warm water, which the US never desired at any cost. When Pakistan sought normal relations with the USSR during the Cold War, the US calculated that it might have lost an ally.

Even after being threatened explicitly by the US against desiring nuclear power, hope for reconciliation was resumed when Bhutto visited Washington in 1975 and managed to negotiate the lifting of an embargo and the strict sanctions that had adhered to Pakistan. Once again, Bhutto’s marvelous spectacle of diplomacy manifested itself diligently during a critical period.


Through his foreign policy, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto aspired to give a better road map for Pakistan with a favorable face in the international community, as well as to convert the one-sided dependency with a broad level of diverse involvement across states from the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Emphasizing the global balance of power, he asserted that injustice breeds violence and is a major hindrance to peace. Unfortunately, the diverse nature of misunderstandings between the great powers, India’s hegemonic behavior, and the biases of the West towards India did not allow him to handle his diplomatic channels and maintain a balanced futuristic perspective. Bhutto’s efforts are commendable and the framework which he had portrayed significantly changed the orientation of Pakistan. Without a doubt, the paradigm shift during Bhutto’s era was a prominent one.

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