Foreign Policy Values

Being a physicist and an academic, my opinion on foreign policy is rather inadequate for a serious discourse as my knowledge is only limited to the realm of the intelligent observer. Yet, when a distinguished foreign policy authority such as Krishnan Srinivasan asks me to subscribe to his website, I consider it a privilege. For this reason, I am happy to insert my ideas with humility and  some trepidation in venturing into this unchartered domain.

My views will be limited to American foreign policy as experienced during my doctoral (1969 – 1973) and postdoctoral (1973 – 1975) research days, in New York and Pittsburgh. Two watershed events: the Vietnam War and Watergate, provide the backdrop to my analysis of Values in Foreign Policy–the title of the forthcoming edited by Srinivasan and others. A chapter in that book by William J. Antholis defines ‘America First’ by “multilateralism, engagement, promoting democracy and …….. intervention, to protect these values”. This quotation helps focus my analysis.

The year of my arrival in New York in 1969 saw the emergence of a new President: Richard M. Nixon, in the aftermath of the tragic assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and a tumultuous Democratic Party convention in Chicago, in 1968. Nixon was earlier Vice-President to Dwight D. Eisenhower who felt, to quote Antholis: “America’s global responsibility justified intervening in the affairs of other nations”. Nixon was trying to extricate the U. S. from the futility of the Vietnam War, started by Eisenhower and continued by the Cold War-stricken John F. Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon, and his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger, tried to placate China vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. This saw Kissinger make a secret trip to China under the cloak of a visit to the American ally Pakistan. Indeed Pakistan played the good host in facilitating the clandestine overture to China. Ironically, this Machiavellian policy of using Pakistan as a conduit for ping-pong diplomacy led to a new international engagement with Pakistan that personally affected me. I am referring to the war in East Pakistan which embroiled India and led to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. Being a Bengali whose parents were uprooted from East Bengal during the Partition of India, I was deeply affected by the plight of ten million hapless refugees who had to flee the terror unleashed by the repressive West Pakistan army. I was shocked to see the champion of democracy, the U.S.A., sending its seventh fleet through the Strait of Malacca to the Bay of Bengal in order to ‘teach a lesson’ to a democratic India!

I had wondered to myself: Is this an example of the much prophesied doctrine of ‘intervention in order to protect democracy’? But, whose democracy? – Pakistan’s, which was run by an army general who had ruthlessly quashed the democratically elected party of the Awami League, in recent elections in Pakistan? It dawned on me that the U.S.A. had embraced Pakistan as a part of their multilateralism in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization so that the communists could be put under check! As a young man I was baffled by this duplicity in American foreign policy; in order to safeguard democracy they ended by promoting dictators — in Pakistan, Iran and Chile — by orchestrating the ouster of the elected leader Allende. As an Indian, I was pained; was this action a natural outcome of what John Foster Dulles, in the post-McCarthy era, had termed the Nehruvian non-alignment as “immoral”? Post-independence India had surely leaned on the Soviet Bloc for defence and industrial developments but was that a good enough moral reason for siding with Pakistan in the Bangladesh crisis?

A contrary (and positive) manifestation of democratic values unfolded when, during 1972–73, the Watergate trials took place. Again, an Antholis quote is pertinent while describing Watergate: “While the President is the dominant player in setting US policy he cannot simply act alone”. I witnessed the underlying meaning of the just-quoted sentence. The Senate Committee proceedings were shown on television and were led by a Democrat senator in the chair, and had equal representation from both Democratic and Republican parties. Nixon had to finally resign from the presidency to avoid impeachment.

I had never experienced such an event in my own country that stood out as an epitome of democratic values. This reinforced my faith in democracy and America providing leadership in this direction. A disconcerting thought, however, crept in mind – is it one policy for protecting internal democratic values, and another when it comes to foreign policy? Does domestic trespassing get controlled by US laws while there is no such check on international transgression? The unilateral intervention by George Bush Jr. in Iraq comes to mind which seems to negate the earlier-quoted Antholis dictum that “…..the President cannot act alone…..”

I have presented a narrow glimpse of the policy practised by the world’s most powerful democracy by way of two momentous episodes of history. The discussion has left me in a quandary – is foreign policy dictated purely by narrow domestic interests with very little regard for human values? As a theoretical physicist I attach ‘value’ to democratically imbibing ideas that are conflicting but based on facts, and putting them together in a coherent whole. Is that scientific approach relevant when it comes to foreign policy?

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