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Diplomatic realism: Nixon, Kissinger, and Pakistan

Published on 27 June 2015
Updated on 03 April 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

Kissinger demanded that Nixon stand firm [in supporting Pakistan]. ‘If the outcome of this war is that Pakistan is swallowed up by India, China is destroyed, defeated, humiliated by the Soviet Union, it will be a change in the world balance of power of such magnitude’ that the United States’ security would be damaged for decades and maybe forever.

– Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan1

In the name of ‘realism’ and ‘balance of power’, Nixon and Kissinger justified US non-interference in the civil war, that broke out in East-Bengal (then part of Pakistan) in March 1971. In a few months, the insurgency and the ensuing repression caused over 250,000 direct deaths or more, systematic rape, widespread destruction, and religious cleansing leading to up to 10 million refugees in India’s West Bengal (90% of them Hindus).

In the second half of November 1971, India’s troops covertly invaded East Pakistan. Pakistan declared war on India. By the end of 1971, Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) had emerged as an independent state. Both Nixon and Kissinger took credit for bringing the crisis to a successful end.

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What is realism?

Realism is a school of international relations theory. Realism, as described by Jonathan Haslam, professor of history of international relations at the University of Cambridge, ‘is a spectrum of ideas which revolve around the four central propositions of Political Groupism, Egoism, International anarchy and Power politics. Theories of political realism originated through the works of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli, emerging as an International Relations based approach in the inter-war years of the XXth century’.

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588– 1679)
English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)

Henry Kissinger, national security advisor under US president Richard Nixon, has claimed the mantle of a practitioner of realism in international relations. He represents the school that argues for ‘power over principle’.

The documents and White House tapes on the events surrounding the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country at the end of 1971 have meanwhile been released. They allow us an unvarnished view of the practice of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s ‘realexistienden realism’. This is the first instance of witnessing the practice of realism up close: it is a bit like Big Brother watching from the sidelines.

Realism and East Pakistan 1947

I would like to highlight a few structural elements of Pakistan, as it emerged in 1947, that are relevant for the analysis:

1. India’s 1947 partition created Pakistan, consisting of two parts: West Pakistan and East Pakistan (147,570 km2 and 42 million people, or 56% of all Pakistan), separated by India. The two countries were 1,600 km apart, and, though united by a majority religion (Islam), had different cultures and levels of economic development. Commerce and cultural exchange were very limited.

The two parts had been differently affected by the partition (see Dilip Hiro’s The Longest August: The Unflinching Rivalry Between India and Pakistan). To my knowledge, there is no precedent for an independent country so structured. (Malaysia is also two halves separated by the South China Sea. The Malay kingdoms had a long history of commerce prior to becoming a British protectorates. See Anthony Reid’s Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680. Vol. 2: Expansion and Crisis).

2. The ‘geopolitical role’ of the two sides was structurally different. While West Pakistan might have had a strategic role to play in the Cold War, East Pakistan’s role, surrounded as it was by India, had practically none. Powers looking for advantage would naturally focus on West, rather than East Pakistan.

3. The environment – a river delta open on the Bay of Bengal – made East Pakistan prone to natural catastrophes. Thus, in November 1970, a hurricane devastated the region causing 200,000–500,000 or more deaths. The central government’s handling of the disaster was unanimously considered grossly inadequate.

These and many other factors made it unlikely that the two halves would be able to co-evolve harmoniously. Any ‘realist’ analysis of the situation would have concluded from the outset that the chances of sustained success were minimal. The twenty-year experience of East Bengal in the Union had reduced the chances significantly.

The conceptual limits of realism

From the outset, Kissinger argued the realist point that ‘no country should tell another one how to run itself’ (p. 31). China shared this attitude. Nixon and Kissinger stuck to this line throughout the bloody events that led to Bangladesh’s intervention.

The principle of non-interventionism goes back to the Westphalian compact and before. It never was geopolitical dogma:

1. From its outset, this norm conflicted with the parallel rule of ‘consent of the governed’. The struggle between these two principles marks US history. The loss of legitimacy by the UK drove American patriots to write the Declaration of Independence – a justification of secession. On the other hand, the US War of Secession was fought, at first, to preserve the Union. Foreign countries intervened (France in 1778) or abstained (UK during the Civil War) depending on the circumstances. Incidentally, president Wilson was acutely aware of this conflict of principles as he went about breaking up the Habsburg Empire at Versailles.

2. The norm also conflicted with the principle of ‘free trade’, which Western powers, including the USA, tried to impose on countries against their will. Free trade became a case for many a (colonial) war (e.g. the West–China Opium Wars, the opening up of Japan in 1853).

3. The norm also conflicted with the widespread practice of protecting religious and ethnic minorities in foreign countries. One only needs to recall the ‘consul system’ in the Balkans, or extraterritoriality of missionaries and their flock imposed on China.

4. Finally, the principle went against what I would call the ‘savage exception’ (aka ‘white man’s burden’). The conflict was thrashed out first at Valladolid in 1550/51, where Juan Ginés de Sepulveda insisted that ‘to uproot crimes that offend nature’, the Indians should be punished. Discipline meant to reduce them to slavery or serfdom as Catholic theology and natural law foresaw. All of later colonialism finds justification in this view of cultural supremacy.

To conclude, non-interventionism is far from being a self-evident and undisputed high principle. There is no indication from the record that Nixon and Kissinger went beyond the dogmatic application.

The geopolitical role of Pakistan

American Cold War policy, as it emerged after WWII, was hamstrung by contradictory ideologies:

  • The ‘friend/foe’ approach, denying the possibility of ‘non-alignment’, particularly for countries emerging from colonial rule. Many American politicians saw non-alignment as crypto-communism. Many emergent countries made recourse to central planning as an instrument of economic development. This economic policy choice reinforced suspicions. Much of the difficulties the USA had with India can be traced to the US refusal to grant India, and other emergent countries, a substantively sovereign status.
  • The ‘domino theory’, then popular among US politicians, denied countries agency and saw them inevitably swept up in a foreign-led or -inspired revolutionary cyclone.
  • The mutable definition of ‘containment’ in dealing with the Soviet Union and its proxies. Conceived by Kennan as a political approach, containment became subsequently militarised. Avoiding military confrontations after the costly Korean War, the Eisenhower administration used covert means to foster its perceived geopolitical goals, as Stephen Kinzer wrote in The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War. As of 1960, US administrations chose overt interventions.

In practice, Pakistan was a member of both CENTO and SEATO. These military alliances weakly linked both ends of the Western containment belt around the Soviet Union. (West) Pakistan’s signal role was spying on the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Communist bloc. There is little indication that (West) Pakistan had significant weight in the ‘balance of power’ between the blocs2 except as a spying and staging post close to the Soviet Union3.

AP PHOTO/FILE President Richard Nixon meets with foreign affairs adviser Henry Kissinger in his White House office in Washington, D.C., in 1973.
US president Richard Nixon and US national security advisor Henry Kissinger, 1973

The strategic role of Pakistan in the region

South Asia is a geographical expression. Whether it is a political region is less clear. India’s size predestines it to be its pivot. There are few other countries such as Pakistan, Ceylon, and Myanmar. At the time, none had the political potential to challenge or even influence India.

The China card

Nixon and Kissinger justified the support of the Pakistani government retrospectively: Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan at the time was personally involved in helping the US establish a ‘secret’ channel toward China.

China was no ‘sleeping beauty’ surreptitiously awakened by the gallant US prince. Since 1969, its relations with the Soviet Union had soured, and American steps were under way toward a rapprochement with China. China had furthermore engineered ping-pong diplomacy just as the civil war in Pakistan started. Nixon and Kissinger seem to have chosen Pakistan as a conduit for secret contacts, mostly in order to ‘cut out’ the US State Department and take personal credit for the inevitable.

Realism embedded

People carry out policies, and the principals’ personalities much color their choices. Nixon’s long-standing fondness for Yahya Khan and his visceral hate of Nehru and her daughter Indira Gandhi were critical in shaping US reaction to the emerging civil war and beyond.

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President of Pakistan Agha Yahya Khan and US president Richard Nixon, 1970

Nixon’s worldview was one of simple right/wrong, or like/dislike categories, allowing for little subtlety and differentiation.4 Nixon’s tended to personalise policy, and foreign policy in particular: enemies surrounded him (at home even more than abroad), against which he fought single-handedly. The record shows that Kissinger supported and even encouraged him in this worldview. The Blood Telegram details the ways in which Nixon knowingly broke the law in the context of the Pakistan civil war.

Kissinger too saw himself as the ‘lone cowboy’5, calmly and cold-bloodedly developing the realist case. The record does not support Kissinger’s contention that he did so – even Nixon considered him too emotional and wondered whether Kissinger needed ‘psychiatric care’ (p. 272).

Practicing realism, however, demands enormous, detailed, and sustained work. Only collective efforts will bring all the determinants of power under one hat. Personal and personalised policies would seem to be at the other end from practicing realism.

The brief and incomplete sketch shows that there was much scope for realism in handling the Pakistan civil war. There is no record of a deliberate, dispassionate weighing of options to maintain the balance of power or even improve America’s position in it.

From ‘balance of power’ to ‘psychological balance of power

The Pakistan civil war entered the international scene in a back-handed way – as a refugee problem of unprecedented scale. Had the USA taken the lead, it might have remained a refugee issue foremost. It did not, and the rest of the world failed in turn.

On July 6, Kissinger voiced to PM Gandhi that ‘the US had no ideas at this moment’ about how to get the refugees to return home’ (p. 166). During the same visit, officials warned Kissinger: ‘India did not want to go to war, but it did not know how not go to war’ (p. 163).

At one point, the Pakistan civil war became part of the Cold War. Kissinger – in India on the way to his secret meeting with Zhou Enlai in Beijing – assured foreign minister Swaran Singh that the USA ‘would take the gravest view of any unprovoked aggression against India’ (p. 165). In Beijing, he was taken aback by ‘the Chines leadership’s venomous, seething hostility to India and readiness to support Pakistan’ (p. 172).

As prospects of war between India and Pakistan strengthened, India was looking for expediencies (p. 222), shoring up its international position. It signed a Treaty of ‘Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation’ with the Soviet Union on August 8 1971. It was a ‘gaseous’ agreement. Concomitantly, the Soviet wished that India avoid war with Pakistan (p. 220).

When undeclared war did break out in the second half of November, Kissinger compared India’s actions to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Lithuania in 1941. (p. 263) He asserted that India aimed at regional domination.

On December 4, he framed the now declared war in Cold War terms: ‘Here we have Indian-Soviet collusion, raping a friend of ours.’ And to Nixon: ‘If we collapse now, the Soviets won’t respect us for it; the Chinese will despise us’ (p. 271).

The crisis was ‘a big watershed’ and ‘our Rhineland’ (p. 299). It was a doomsday vision of a solitary USA isolated against a Soviet-dominated world.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and US President Richard Nixon
Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and US president Richard Nixon

Kissinger’s proposal was:

  1. To allow Iran and Jordan illegally to send squadrons of US aircraft to Pakistan
  2. To deploy a US aircraft carrier group in the Bay of Bengal
  3. Asking China to mass its troops on the Indian border (p. 291)

One is immediately struck by the gap between aims and means. The airplanes were few. The carrier group would most likely arrive too late, and no plan existed for more than showing the flag. Winter prevented China from deploying troops across the Himalayas – had it wanted to do so.6

On December 12, Kissinger reveals his real purpose: ‘To prevent a complete collapse of the world’s psychological balance of power‘ (p. 299). We have Cold War brinkmanship, involving the ‘decision to risk war in the triangular Soviet-Chinese-American relationship’ (p. 305). And he concluded: ‘Without acting, we face certain disaster; with brinkmanship, they confronted a high possibility of disaster, but at least we are coming off like men. And that helps us with the Chinese’ (p. 306).

Nixon concluded: ‘Look, these people [India] are savages. We cannot have a stable world if we allow one member of the UN to cannibalize another. […] That’s what the sons of bitches are up to’ (p. 318). The would-be hegemon was railing against the emergence of a multipolar world.

We are far from power as we are from principle – we are in the murky realm of perceptions.


In the end, the Soviet Union reassured the USA that India would not break up West Pakistan. China did not move troops. East Pakistan surrendered on December 16, and a cease-fire was declared in the West the morning after. India had followed its 1965 precedent and avoided invading West Pakistan.

Within a few years, both India first, and then Pakistan, successfully pursued the nuclear option. In hindsight, US brinkmanship may have had the unintended consequence of triggering a regional nuclear arms race. Whether it will spill over into the Middle East (the Islamic bomb) is still ahead of us.


1. References to page numbers refer to this book, unless otherwise indicated.

2. To accomplish the UK/USA mutual defense strategy, in November 1965, the UK purchased the Chagos Archipelago, which includes Diego Garcia, from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius for £3 million to create the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), with the intent of ultimately closing the plantations to provide the uninhabited British territory from which the USA would conduct its military activities in the region.

3. Badaber Air Force Base near Peshawar was an excellent location because of its proximity to Soviet central Asia. This enabled the monitoring of missile test sites, key infrastructure and communications. A U2 spying plane took off from Badaber in 1960 and flew over the Soviet Union until it was brought down in Sverdlowsk.

4. Kissinger often bragged around Washington that he was the only thing standing between a madman president and atomic annihilation: ‘If the President had its way, we’d have a nuclear war every week’ (p. 306).

5. Oriana Fallaci, an Italian journalist, interviewed Henry Kissinger in 1972, when she described him thus: ‘This too famous, too important, too lucky man, whom they call Superman, Superstar, Superkraut […] this incredible, inexplicable, unbearable personage.’ He later called the interview, where he characterised himself as a lone cowboy riding on a horse into town, ‘the most disastrous I ever had with any member of the press’.

6. Dilip Hiro states that 100 trucks a day, loaded with arms and goods, flowed through the Kunjera Pass from China’s Kashgar. I’m puzzled, for at that time the pass would likely to be closed, and such a supply train could not have been improvised. In particular, the roads around the Taklamakan Desert (which is 1,000 km long) were insufficient.

This blog post was first published on DeepDip.

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