Numerous blunders in U.S. foreign policy are the result of failing to read others correctly, rather than mere errors in deploying American power. Several scholars now argue that understanding the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s desire for independence, and dealing with him as a nationalist, might have helped avert the long and painful Vietnam War. Instead of considering him a stooge of the Soviets or the Chinese, the U.S. could have placated Ho with support for an independent and unified Vietnam. Kissinger’s benign assessment of China’s ambitions could possibly (though not certainly) result in an error of judgment in the opposite direction. The Chinese might be dangling the prospect of cooperation only to ensure their gradual, unimpeded rise to the point where they might challenge U.S. global leadership. If that is the case, the U.S. would have to consider more assertive use of “power” than Kissinger advocates.
Kissinger cautions against pursuing “an essentially reactive and passive foreign policy.” But an active policy requires deep knowledge of other nations, which might not in all cases be present either within the U.S. government or even in American academia. The U.S. should surely not withdraw from regions “where we can only make things worse,” as Kissinger believes Obama has done. U.S. interests remain global and smart engagement, not withdrawal, is the real alternative to ill-considered intervention. Equally important is not acting on insufficient and flawed intelligence, or on presumptions of other nations’ intent that might be incorrect. Having the kind of grand strategy Kissinger advocates is only one part of being a global leader. Another significant element in successful foreign relations is a better understanding of on-the-ground realities in various parts of a complex world.
Nothing illustrates the difficulty of pursuing an active foreign policy without regard for local considerations better than America’s policy over the years toward the Indian subcontinent. As Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011, I witnessed first-hand Washington’s penchant for disregarding historic patterns of behavior while expecting cooperation from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or India.
In his book World Order, Kissinger describes India as “a fulcrum of twenty-first century order: an indispensable element, based on its geography, resources and tradition of sophisticated leadership, in the strategic and ideological evolution of the regions and the concepts of order at whose intersection it stands.” But in 1971, when Pakistan’s erstwhile eastern wing fought to become Bangladesh, Kissinger had scorned India as “a Soviet stooge, supported with Soviet arms” over its support for Bangladeshi independence.
Then, America’s strategic judgment had been clouded by India’s refusal to formally align itself with the United States in the Cold War; at the same time, Pakistan had been a U.S. ally since the 1950s, partly to acquire U.S. arms for its military competition with India. Yet Pakistan’s support for the U.S. anti-communist effort was sporadic and never involved the deployment of the conventional forces maintained with American funding. Pakistan turned down U.S. requests for its troops’ participation in wars in Korea and Vietnam, saying its forces would be free to assist America once Pakistan’s outstanding disputes with India were resolved. On the other hand, U.S. arming of Pakistan became the principal reason the India turned to the Soviet Union as a weapons supplier.