What Defines Good Foreign Policy? Don’t ask Henry Kissinger

Tajwar Khandaker, Recent Graduate with a BA in International Relations USC, Foreign Policy, International Affairs, United States

Five years ago, I made the unfortunate mistake of entering college as a biology major. After a year and a half of sleepless study nights and failed chemistry exams, I switched course and pursued International Relations instead. I’d been obsessed with history since I was a child, and the prospect of working to shape it through foreign policy felt like a natural fit, one I couldn’t believe took so long to figure out. It felt like the ultimate opportunity to engage in public service, to serve not only those around me but to contribute to the betterment of life across the globe. I signed up for my first IR classes eagerly, enthusiastic to learn the art of statesmanship. On the first day of my first class, we were assigned our core reading for the course, a nearly 1000-page title named “Diplomacy,” written by none other than former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. 

I immediately tensed at the invocation of the old man’s name. I knew who Henry Kissinger was and had since I was perhaps 7 years old. In my home growing up, the man’s name was never uttered without an accompanying curse, courtesy of my parents. As Bengalis, my mother and father had a deeply rooted distaste for the former statesman, borne not only of historic qualms but of personal experiences. 

My parents were born in 1969 and 1970 in what was then East-Pakistan, the far portion of the Muslim- majority Pakistani state established after the partition of British India. Though the people of East Pakistan shared a religion with their Western counterparts, they were culturally and historically distinct, maintaining an entirely different primary language. As the West Pakistani government tightened its grip over the East, it suppressed the local populace, stymying the use of the Bengali language and cracking down on the secular politics of the region by invalidating election results and arresting leaders. A revolution ensued, and a genocide of the local Bengali population occurred at the hands of the Pakistani military, killing somewhere between 500,000 and 3,000,000 Bengalis. 

Despite international condemnation of Pakistan’s actions, the United States remained firmly in its corner, driven by Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy ambitions. The pair was hellbent on achieving a successful rapprochement of America’s relationship with China and as a result, decided to  foster close ties with Beijing’s close ally, Pakistan. Early on, Nixon and Kissinger egged Pakistani Prime Minister Yahya Khan forward in his offensive, assuring that his army would be able to hold down the Bengalis with their pure military might. Throughout the conflict, even as atrocities accumulated, the United States continued to help sustain the Pakistani war effort by supplying ammunition, facilitating the distribution of arms, and eventually, moving the American Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal. 

For all their efforts, the Americans were largely unsuccessful. Pakistan was defeated, and on December 16, 1971, a newly independent Bangladesh declared victory. However, even after the fact, Kissinger and Nixon continued working against the young nation, withholding 2.2 million tons of food aid during a famine that would eventually kill well over a million Bengalis. Kissinger would go on to publicly refer to Bangladesh as a “basket case” and at one point, reportedly wondered out loud, “Why should we give a damn about Bangladesh?”

In the eyes of Kissinger and Nixon, they’d secured a grand victory for the United States on the global chessboard by successfully reopening relations with China; the price paid by Bangladesh was necessary collateral. It was one move in a thousand made during their time in office, just another small step towards what they viewed as the necessary advance of the United States globally.

To the people of Bangladesh, however, it was everything. It was a brutal war that claimed the lives of over a million, razed hundreds of villages from existence, and led to the systematic rape of perhaps more than half a million women. Two powerful men 8,000 miles away wielded their authority as public servants to spring these horrors into existence, perpetuating them as long as it suited their goals. The visceral hatred my father and so many others hold for them will never fade — how could it? Hardly a single Bengali person lived through that era without losing people near and dear to them — the scars of that violence still linger and manifest, as they will for perpetuity. 

When I was assigned Kissinger’s book, it reminded me of the ugliest truth of foreign policy: what we define as “good foreign policy” has few qualifications beyond the immediately defined gains for the United States. There is no denying the man’s intellect and strategic prowess. Kissinger used his deep understanding of the behavior of states to execute a wide-reaching set of goals for America without accounting for the harm globally. I am sure he feels as though he was a successful statesman, and plenty of Americans would agree. And yet, Kissinger was ostensibly a mass murderer. The millions collectively killed both directly and indirectly by his interventions across Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, and Bangladesh — just to name a few — should be at the center of any discussion about him rather than being relegated to an unfortunate footnote. 

A more holistic and responsible definition of “good foreign policy” is to understand it as a form of global public service, yet historically, we have repeatedly miscalculated the worldwide implications of foreign policy decisions. Americans are selectively engaged with atrocities abroad; that’s what happens when consequences of our actions unfold oceans away from us while we remain safe in our homes. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to the United States approach to foreign policy from a self-interested position by definition. However, in its unparalleled brashness abroad, America often misinterprets the long term consequences, harming its own self interest in the long run. The debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq within our own lifetimes serve as proof. It is critical to remember that what governments do overseas will always matter far more to the people there than at home. Forgetting that reality is how countries like the United States chronically underestimate the long-term consequences of its own actions abroad. The hundreds of millions across the world who feel betrayed by this country are living proof.

Despite the darkness of America’s history in Bangladesh, my parents did eventually move to this country and have me here. As a result, I’ve grown up an American, afforded all the rights, privileges, and shared history that comes with that distinction. I am in the unique position of being a citizen of the nation that could have gotten my parents killed as toddlers. It’s a bit grim admittedly, but I can’t deny that I find some solace in that truth. Foreign policy, like all policy, is reflective of the people who make it. For generations, America has been written and executed by a relatively small circle of people with similar views and backgrounds — we’ve seen the results play out in the same patterns for decades. However, America is made of too many kinds of people for such a narrow-minded approach to foreign policy. If the key to successful international activity is better understanding our counterparts abroad, there is no better inherent advantage than the wealth of cultures, experiences, and ideas among the American people.

After I read “Diplomacy,” it became clear to me that “success” in foreign policy was a relative term. Strategic considerations do not exist in a vacuum; the moral and psychological costs of action do matter over the long arm of history. The experiences of the past shape how individuals and communities respond to circumstances of the future, and that reality carries more weight than policy makers often seem to accept. My own history as a Bengali-American will inevitably paint the way I view foreign intervention, and it’s precisely for that reason that I strive to dedicate my own life to public service by working on American foreign policy. There are ways of making our interactions with the rest of the world better  from the ground level up, and those are worth pursuing. That process has to begin with understanding the other better. There are millions of Americans whose perspectives stretch beyond that of our own country. Those perspectives are going to be essential in ensuring that American foreign policy of the future is better than that of its past. 

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change. 

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