The Blood Telegram
November 15, 2013
I am currently reading The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Forgotten Genocide, which is about the “birth” of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. Archie Blood was a US foreign service officer serving in Bangladesh who approved a telegram dissenting from US policy supporting West Pakistan and its dictator who was waging genocide on the Bengalis in East Pakistan. Nixon and Kissinger, who are described as “realists,” even as capable, competent, and shrewd “realists,” continued to support West Pakistan even after it became clear that a genocide was underway.
Of course, as realists Nixon and Kissinger are thought to have based their foreign policy on calculation, that is, hard-headed calculations of US interests, both short and long term. Hence, it is thought and they thought that they were not blinded by less concrete considerations, such as a revulsion to deadly violence and by moral concerns.
But here’s the thing: Their calculations – and those of other “realists” – often fail, as they did in Pakistan as its unity could not be and was not maintained, which was the goal of the Nixon/Kissinger policy, as well as of the West Pakistanis. So today there is a Bangladesh and a Pakistan, the result that Nixon/Kissinger sought to avoid and calculated they could avoid – just as they calculated that they could avoid the reunification of Vietnam under a communist government with the proper application of their “realism.”
Now, as this happens with some frequency to “realists,” we should ask, What is motivating or controlling these “realists?” as “calculation” seems to have limited explanatory power. Some say: “ Well, perhaps it is racism that skews their vision.” This could be the case but seems an explanation both too general and too specific. A very few might say that “sin” explains their behavior but, again, this seems both too general and too specific.
So the question recurs: What could “calculation” be hiding or obscuring? It seems hard to say and an answer would seem to require an understanding of the soul or psyche that would explain or reveal that which “calculation” hides or obscures. What passion is driving these “realists” who are so labeled and who like to think of themselves in these terms?
Whatever it might be – or whatever combination it might be – it seems clear that “realism” is liberating. That is, to practice a “realistic” foreign policy is to liberate oneself from certain constraints, such as considerations of justice, humanity, or sin. [I can hear the chuckling now: “You want to talk about foreign policy in terms of justice, humanity, or sin? Really? That’s funny.”]
So perhaps realists seek not the calculated use of power so much as they seek the liberated use of power, which would help explain why their calculations are so often miscalculations. They want to wield power freely and, hence, their “calculations” are actually rationalizations. It also helps to explain why the realists always want more power, either by way of technology or by way of institutions. The freest use of power requires the creation of the greatest power(s) available, technologically or politically, and preferably both.
But doesn’t this seem quite dangerous: The greatest power used with the least restraint? Or to put this question differently: Isn’t it quite delusional, quite unrealistic to think that such a combination will work out well? “Realism,” ala’ Nixon and Kissinger, et. al., is actually extremism and more than a wee bit dangerous. Just ask the Bengalis. Or ask Machiavelli, who was the original “realist” and knew what he was doing.