Sunday July 21, 2024

What makes the US exceptional?

By S Qaisar Shareef
June 09, 2023

Late last month Henry Kissinger celebrated his 100th birthday. Kissinger of course served as US national security adviser and secretary of state under presidents Nixon and Ford.It is said nobody alive has more experience of international affairs. He played key roles in important global events – the Vietnam war, the Israeli-Arab war in the 1970s, and the opening up to China when the US brought the communist regime out of the shadows and onto the global stage; just to cite a few examples.

Even today Mr Kissinger remains a widely respected – and reviled – figure in the world of geopolitics. Many senior American presidents, politicians, and presidential candidates of both parties have sought his advice as they devised their approaches to global affairs.During his active years in diplomacy Mr Kissinger became known for his pursuit of what has come to be called ‘realpolitik’, defined as a realistic and pragmatic approach to conducting diplomatic affairs and more broadly relations with other nations.

As we look deeper into the approach espoused by Mr Kissinger, he appears to be saying the US should have a flexible approach to dealing with other nations based on its own real interests as opposed to pursuing relations based on closely held principles.In his own time, he is known to have abandoned allies once they were no longer needed in the pursuit of US goals. In other words, realpolitik is essentially another way of describing an approach where principles and long held values matter less than pursuit of short or midterm gains.

He is also known to have said that the US needs to deal with countries as they are and not as we would like them to be. This can sound reasonable until we peel the layers to get to the core of it. One must ask if abandoning one-time allies when they are no longer useful, is really progressing the long-term goals of America.In a recent interview with The Economist magazine, Mr Kissinger talks about how to avoid a Third World War. Despite his advanced age, his mind appears to be sharp as ever. Most of his comments are about how to manage the rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and China. He wisely says the fate of humanity depends on whether America and China can get along. Leadership in both countries would do well to heed this advice.

Mr Kissinger’s adherence to realpolitik comes into sharper focus when he discusses India under Prime Minister Modi. He believes the pursuit of moral principles in dealing with India would require overriding US interests.

While there is no evidence that US administrations - current or the previous one - are giving up any US economic or security interests in their dealings with the Modi administration, Mr. Kissinger cautions that dealing with India will be a test of whether the US can be pragmatic in the matter.

To put it bluntly, Kissinger is urging the US administration to look the other way when it comes to taking notice of serious human rights violations against religious minorities in India. In fact, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) , a body set up by the US government to monitor minority religious rights across the world, has recommended that India be declared a Country of Particular Concern due to its systematic violations of minority religious freedoms. So far, the US Department of State has ignored the recommendation of the USCIRF.It doesn’t appear Mr Kissinger needs to worry about the US not being pragmatic in dealing with India. Concerns about India’s treatment of 200 million Indian Muslims, and tens of millions of Christians are being overridden by other wider US interests. PM Modi is expected to receive a high-profile welcome to the White House and even address a joint session of Congress, an honor bestowed on very few foreign leaders.

The question then becomes: how is it that we should continue to think of America as an ‘exceptional’ nation, as is believed by many, if not most Americans? If dealings with other nations are to be conducted based solely on practical self-interest, then what would be exceptional about America, other than the size of its economy and the strength of its military?

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.