A Conversation With Henry A. Kissinger

Thursday, June 25, 2020
Henry A. Kissinger waves

Chairman, Kissinger Associates, Inc.; Former U.S. Secretary of State


President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction, @RichardHaass

HAASS: Well, thank you and good afternoon to one and all. I hope people are well and keeping healthy and safe under these still extraordinary circumstances.

And speaking of extraordinary in a much more favorable way, we are fortunate and then some today to be welcoming Henry Kissinger to the Council on Foreign Relations. We’re going to have a conversation for about half an hour and then I will open it up to you. But fair warning, approximately 1,300 of you signed up for this meeting, which suggests that probably not all of you will get to ask the question you may have in mind. But we will do our best.

As the cliché goes, Henry is truly the individual who does not need an introduction. He was this country’s fifty-sixth secretary of state. He was the assistant to the president for national security affairs. He’s a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I would describe him as the preeminent scholar-practitioner of his era. There are great scholars. There are great practitioners. Henry Kissinger, I believe, again, is the greatest combination of the two in modern times.

I’ve left out one or two important and essential pieces of his background. He became a member of the institution in 1956. My math tells me he is—been a member for sixty-four years. He is one of the three longest-serving members of the Council at this time. And I want to thank him now for all the dues he paid over the years. He’s also contributed no fewer than eighteen articles to our magazine, to Foreign Affairs. And they are among the most important and influential of—in that magazine’s long and distinguished history.

So, Dr. Kissinger, again, I want to thank you for all your public service. I want to thank you for your involvement in this organization. And I want to thank you for agreeing to have a conversation with me here today.

I wanted to begin with the old saw that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And I’m curious what you find from history that helps you navigate, and analyze, and explain the current global situation. Is there any particular, whether in ancient times, modern times, in between, or conceivably none at all, that you find offers something of a compass?

KISSINGER: First of all, Richard, thank you for the introduction. People say I don’t need an introduction, as you did. But I love an introduction. (Laughter.) You did it in a very generous way.

Does history repeat itself? I don’t think history repeats itself in an exact way, but history’s made by human beings that face decisions about the future of their society, about their position in the world. And in that sense, the problems repeat themselves to some extent. And I have spent a fair amount of my time trying to understand the backgrounds of this society, the evolution of a society that makes the—makes the major historical events of the period. I don’t think statesmen are free usually to invent something entirely novel. They’re bound in some way by their history, by their upbringing, by their culture.

Of course, really great statesmen can transcend this, but they’re great only if they can make it permanent to some extent, if it doesn’t become a personal tour de force. So when I started in academic life, I started with Congress—I intended to write a book about—or, a series of books about the evolution of Europe from the Congress of Vienna to World War I, from the time it created in the national system to the time that it destroyed it without realizing it was doing so. I didn’t get very far. I wrote only one book on the Congress of Vienna. And I did a lot of research on the other phases. But I got drawn off into other activities in government, and also in other books than that particular historical period.

So now we are in a position that in some respects is unique and in some respects it’s comparable. What is comparable is when countries of a certain magnitude confront each other in an international system, how those issues get resolved or how their actions can be creative, and how the other societies that exist in the international system then align themselves and conduct their foreign policy. What is unique about our world is there has never been a global international system before a relatively recent period. A period really the last thirty years or so. And so actions in very distant parts of the world can have huge consequences in areas that usually were out of reach of each other. Secondly, the technology is a multiple. And the capacity for action and destruction is so great that some of the ground rules of the old system do not apply. So this seems, to me, to be the unique aspect of the current situation.

HAASS: Can I drill down on that? Because when you’ve written about order you’ve always emphasized two dimensions—legitimacy, certain consensus about the direction of change, the means of change, and obviously balance of power. If you were to write about it now would you add a third dimension to essentially take into account this—everything from dealing with viruses that break out in Wuhan, to climate change, to AI? Essentially, the global dimension of international relations that essentially has overcome distance. Would that force you to rethink or at least add a third dimension?

KISSINGER: Well, we are living—the pandemic is imposing on us a universal world order. It has never happened before that every part of the world was affected in a parallel way by events outside their direct control. And also, that the leaders of countries and the peoples of countries have to deal with issues of preserving themselves, but at the same time they can’t preserve themselves in this area without a solution that affects everybody. That is an absolutely unique problem. But it’s now being dealt with on a purely national basis. But we’ll be forced to look at the broader view by its internal dynamic.

HAASS: So I wanted to build then about something you said about countries and statesmen having to deal with the culture of their countries. The United States has a culture, to some extent, a strategic culture for most of its history of a version of isolationism. Recently, we’ve added to it a version of unilateralism. What you’ve just said is in some ways at odds with both of those, because implicit or even explicit in what you said, if we’ve got to be involved in the world then we can’t do it ourselves. Do you think American strategic culture and our politics is capable of doing that?

KISSINGER: The classic strategic culture will not be able to deal with it. We cannot—at least, will not be able to deal with every aspect of it as a purely American effort. And so—but the American exceptionalism has produced great efforts. But the period after the end of the Second World War, the period of economic rehabilitation in many parts of the world, a certain sense of responsibility for what goes on, except we have now to understand the limit of our capabilities at the same time that we carry out our historic mission.

We cannot simply retreat into American unilateralism and declare a purely American vision, because we cannot impose it on the world. But at the same time, we cannot—we have to combine a sense of international responsibility with a recognition that creativity now requires an understanding of partners that will be needed in carrying it out.

HAASS: If I were going to respond to what you just said, I would say I agree. And it’s hard to imagine something more at odds with an American foreign policy that we’re seeing, which seems to be following a pattern of what you might call serial withdrawal from international collective efforts, most recently in the realm of global health. So it leads to the question of whether—you just made the argument about how the United States needs to work with others, with partners in the world. What happens to the world if the United States continues to opt out? Can there now, at this moment in history, be a world order without the United States actively participating?

KISSINGER: No. There cannot be a world order—or, something that can be correctly called a world order. What will happen if the United States opts out from around the world? Will we be strong enough to preserve ourselves in our territorial image and maybe in our hemisphere? Our influence on events will diminish. And over a period of time in which history is judged we will be isolated and become, to some extent, irrelevant.

Now, as long as we were protected by two great oceans we could say that it’s not only of primary concern to us, but at a moment when so many key decisions can only be done on a global basis, and when restraints that are necessary can only be achieved on a global basis, the compete isolation of America would be historic disaster, not necessarily in the very short run. So I don’t think anybody advocates it to that extreme. The argument, as I understand it on that side is that America is so influential that it can make its own decisions and others will be obliged to follow it. In some respects, that may be true and in some respects it may have to be done. But it cannot be a mode of long-term operation.

HAASS: I’d like to—thank you. I’d like to turn to one of those others, perhaps the most significant other in this era, which is China. And obviously your career is intimately connected to the emergence of the modern U.S.-Chinese relationship. What now? When you look at China, to what extent do you wake up and look at it and say: This is not the China I thought I knew. This is different. This is not the China of Zhou Enlai, or Deng Xiaoping. But this is a China not just with different capabilities, but with grander ambitions. To what extent has it forced you to rethink your take on China?

KISSINGER: When I reflect on my experience, and to a way America’s experience, with China, I see three phases. When the Nixon administration opened to China, and I paid my first visit, our goal was the isolation of the Soviet Union. We thought at the time that the threat to universal order was represented by the Soviet Union. And in fact, I believe that what triggered the Chinese to accept our overtures was the fear of Soviet divisions that were lined up at their northern border. At that time, China was a developing country with a very small economic capability. And the idea of a potential threat from China was not very prevalent.

In 1976, our trade with China was smaller than our trade with Honduras. So from the period that we opened to, let us say, the advent of Deng—approximately fifteen years or so—it was based purely on the mutual interests of both countries to contain the Soviet Union. Then after Mao’s death and after some turbulence, Deng became the principal leader of China. And he understood that China needed to alter its domestic practices, especially in the economic field, if it wanted to maintain a position in the world. And he started on a process of reform, which we supported.

We, I mean, as a nation, because of the interesting things about the Sino-American relationship is that for about fifty years it was essentially bipartisan. There was no huge difference between the parties on that issue. Then after Tiananmen Square, what is identified with the Tiananmen Square, upheaval in China and, above all, its entry into the World Trade Organization, China developed a technological development much more rapid than anybody had anticipated. And in the process, used some methods that were not acceptable to the international system, but which were not in themselves threatening.

And then finally we came into the modern period, in which the evolution of Chinese technology was that the Chinese—China had a capability. It was developing rapidly of being a potentially dominant country. So we were turned back to the fundamental problem of world order, which is—which we haven’t had to face historically very often, whether—what is the American attitude towards a country that develops a capacity that is inherently threatening, in the sense that there is a certain equivalence of power.

How do we manage this relationship? And I think the deeper question we face today is can we achieve a pattern of coexistence in the technological environment? Or is it destined to a series of confrontations, which history teaches us will sooner or later lead to a total—to a total confrontation? Now, is the present Chinese regime similar to the previous regimes that we have experienced? There always is a tendency in American thinking about foreign policy, that the whole world is destined to evolve the way we did because the human experience in America has been so fulfilling.

And so there’s an instinct or was an instinct—(inaudible)—Deng, whom I—to whom I have very high regard. But still, that was the evolution of a different instinct. He was involved in the agricultural upheavals in China in the early Mao period, which had great strain on the—to put it kindly—on the people who underwent it. So part of what he was doing was calculation of the necessities in China in the world balance power. And he developed—there was a sentence in which he said: Hide your capabilities. Do not boast. This is partly a tactical not a moral statement.

So that China, as it developed, would become stronger and to some extent more assertive should not have surprised us. But certainly for those of us who dealt with the earlier China period, this present China has greater capacities and uses them. So the question becomes, for many, can we change the nature of that government or should we expect to find a way to coexist with them, recognizing that in part they follow historic Chinese traditions in which China was the preeminent country in Asia. And how this relationship can evolve, I am—I don’t think it is in our capacity or our—or wise for us to try to transform a society of the magnitude of China by affecting its internal evolution. The only way we can affect its internal—external and internal evolution is by performance, but also by the ability to deal with them in a creative way.

HAASS: Would a creative way include America finding a way to join what—the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the successor organization? Would that be the sort of—would that be potentially one element of it?

KISSINGER: The Trans-Pacific Partnership was negotiated in previous administrations. I think in several preceding administrations. It was not the creation of one administration. I think the outcome of our relationship should be a concept of transpacific destiny in which we all participate. So I was—I did not favor the pulling of the Trans-Pacific economic Partnership.

HAASS: What about—let me ask you two other questions about dealing with China. Given the recent clash between India and China, what about trying to bring about, as several administrations have done, a closer strategic relationship between New Delhi and Washington? Between the United States and India?

KISSINGER: India is a large and important country. And the collapse of India under foreign pressure would be a disaster for world order. So we have an interest in an India that fulfills its own destiny. I don’t think it’s a good idea to involve ourselves in a formal strategic relationship which will be bound to seem aimed at China. But what we can certainly expect is that all countries that deal with India, including China, recognize that we have an interest in India’s wellbeing and that we can achieve these objectives without a military structure, but with an understanding of the essence of the problem.

HAASS: Let me ask one other question on China, which gets perhaps at the thorniest question, which is Taiwan. In the negotiations you had it was done with very creative strategic ambiguity. And the question that’s beginning to be asked in conversations is whether that is still an adequate approach for the next forty years, as it’s worked for the last forty years, or whether the United States needs to begin to find ways to add a little bit of clarity as to what it would find unacceptable in terms of the mainland’s behavior towards Taiwan. Or where do you come out on that?

KISSINGER: These are all explosive questions you’re asking me, as you recognize. And you probably, from your own experience in government, know there’s some questions about which we should be clear but which it is not wise to formalize. So let me answer your question this way. When I took our first trip to China, the relationship with regard to Taiwan was as follows: There had been 162 meetings between Americans and Chinese diplomats on the issue of Taiwan. The negotiation went as follows: The Chinese said there could be no progress until we agreed that Taiwan should be turned over to China.

We replied we would deal with the future of China—of Taiwan only after China gave us an assurance of peaceful message. This was almost like a religious litany. The negotiation began with that exchange and ended with that exchange. So what was attempted, starting with the visit of Nixon to China, was this: China—Mao, in his meeting with Nixon, on a day in which he was the deathly ill and told that he could not—if he spent more than thirty minutes the doctors wouldn’t guarantee. He actually spent forty-five minutes. And what he said about—he said—and Taiwan was really the only issue of substance that he discussed. He said: Taiwan is a group of rebels which we do not want now. We can wait for them a hundred years. Which meant that we should look at it in the long term.

We said, not in that conversation but in the subsequent communique, that the Chinese people assert that there is only one China, including Taiwan. The United States does not reject that proposition. So what both sides were doing was creating space for the existence of an autonomous China. And there were a series of related understandings of how the autonomy of China could be compatible with the basic statements that had been—

HAASS: The autonomy of Taiwan?

KISSINGER: Of Taiwan. Yes, the autonomy of Taiwan could be maintained. In a certainly symbolic sense that the president of Taiwan will not be coming to Washington as a head of government, a series of things like that.

I do not think it is a good idea to unilaterally make these series of pronouncement of what we understand by the autonomy of China, of Taiwan. But we have made it clear that would resist challenges to the independence of Taiwan during this period of existing understandings. So both sides have to find a way, if that is possible, to fulfill their own necessities. We should not make unnecessary challenges. The Chinese should not make military threats. And how to operate within this depends on the skill of governments on both sides.

HAASS: Fair enough. Let me ask one last question and then I’ll open it up to our members. Let me move a thousand miles away, which is to Europe and Russia. Was it inevitable that U.S.-Russian relations, in your point of view, would turn out to be as problematic as they have, some thirty years after the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union? Do you think there’s something about Russian political culture that brings about their alienation from the, quote/unquote, “West”? Do you think NATO enlargement or other policies bear some of the responsibility? How do you look at what’s happened over the last thirty years in Russia’s relationship both with Europe and the United States?

KISSINGER: Russia is a very special country in the sense that they extended from the Pacific to the center of Europe hundreds of years before it was technically possible to run a country of that magnitude. They got to that extent at the beginning of the eighteenth century. So Russia has always had a certain unique—has had a unique aspect to itself. It encompassed large areas. It had a government of extraordinary powers in the czar, but who was considered also by the population as a sort of a mediator between the infinite and themselves. And so Dostoevsky is a better guide to an understanding of Russia than a comparison of Russia with European dictators or people who were operating from a more limited base and a more restricted philosophy.

So to the integration of Russia into a global system, it was always problematical. But Russia started more wars, many wars, but it also protected the European equilibrium against Germany, against France, against Sweden in the 18th century. So that special role of Russia needs some recognition—this historical role of Russia. And to get back to your key question, when the borders of Europe moved west—east from the Elbe River, it was likely that a point would be reached where that movement clashed with the history of Russia.

I strongly favored the collapse of the satellite empire. I strongly favored the expansion of NATO up to the point where it clashed with historic Russian perceptions, which was at the border of Ukraine and Georgia. Or course, we had an interest in their independence, but I thought we could have achieved it by means by which Austria, for example, and Finland maintained their independence in contact with Russia. And so that the expansion of NATO beyond its present context seemed to me an unwise measure.

What that meant, if you could take Ukraine as an example, the problem of the Ukraine is, in my view, of the—if the eastern border of NATO is the eastern border of Ukraine, then Russia will feel threatened. If the western border of Russia is the border of Europe, that’s unacceptable to Europe. So the question is whether one could build a relationship with the Ukraine similar to, say, Finland’s, with Western Europe or Austria, in which it was not part of a military system but in which it was understood that it was an essential part of the world in which the West lived, and therefore could not be accepted of military pressure from the other side. That seemed to be the issue. But many close friends of mine, like Condi Rice, had a different view. And I think it was a mistake, but a very understandable one.

HAASS: OK. Why don’t—Laura, why don’t we open it up to questions from our members? Just to remind people that this is a not-for-attribution meeting. And just remind people exactly what it is they have to do to join the queue.

STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Q: I’d like to ask you about the fact that today, even though our polity is deeply divided on foreign policy issues, there does seem to be a consensus about withdrawing military forces from the Middle East. And I’m wondering how you would reshape America’s role in the region, given the reality of this retrenchment—military retrenchment form the region. What is the appropriate way for the United States now to play a role? Is it of being the balancer—the offshore balancer? How would you establish a new equilibrium, with the United States playing a different role to the one that it’s played up till now?

KISSINGER: Well, we always, with respect to any region including especially the Middle East, we have to answer the question to ourselves: What is it that we will not permit? And secondly, what is it we’re trying to achieve? Then what are our capabilities? Our capabilities include a military force, but they also include a relationship within societies in the region who may or may not support us. So if we have objectives that are unique to ourselves, we will need forces underground to help implement them, or we have to alter our objectives to something we can achieve together with the possible allies. And they don’t have to be formal allies. With those countries that will support us. So what one really has to ask oneself, subject by subject, what we’re trying to achieve.

I think we have said to ourselves: We will not try to influence the domestic evolution of countries in the region by military force. So therefore we need a constellation by which to maintain it with perhaps the ultimate use of force but not the immediate use of force. In that sense the withdrawal of American forces raises the threshold for us—for effective intervention that implies the use of military force. And so if, for example, there are pressures from Libya on Egypt, these questions have to be answered by ourselves if we try to develop a long-range policy.

HAASS: Laura, why don’t we get another question.

Q: Dr. Kissinger, as you know, numerous studies have shown that most Americans are uninterested and ill-informed about global affairs. And, Richard, I would quickly note that that does not include members of the Council on Foreign Relations. But given that fact, how can a U.S. presidential administration gain legitimacy for its foreign policy grand strategy without oversimplifying the complexities and realities of international relations?

KISSINGER: It’s a big challenge. I believe that, first of all, some administration—I mean, an American administration needs to explain to the American public what its long-range views are, and to keep at this explanation. Secondly, to ask itself the questions that I’ve put to the previous—to the previous query that was put here. What are our fundamental interests? What are our means to achieve it? And what kind of world order do we want? And we have to explain that and carry it out consistently. The temptation, of course, in every single case is to give a simplified answer that is simplified on two levels. One on what is achievable and second what is sustainable.

And our big American challenge now is that this consensus, which has never fully existed, has now disintegrated. And so both parties really have to begin to understand that it in foreign policy, which is the role of each country in the world, over a longer period than any one administration, it is absolutely imperative to have a view in which everybody can believe and can sustain. But it’s not a party view.

HAASS: OK. Laura.

Q: I just want to follow up on your last question or your last comment, which is basically that foreign policy used to stop at the water’s edge. And now we have a polarization of our domestic American politics that is affecting our foreign policy. How do we get around that? How do we achieve a bipartisan consensus? Is there a way to get back to what I would call the good old days?

KISSINGER: Well, it depends. I don’t have an answer to that question. It’s tormented me in all of my life, both in my writings and when I came into government in the Vietnam War. So how to achieve this is the great challenge that is—that is before us. But right now we seem, to me, to be dividing ourselves on domestic issues even more violently than we have on foreign policy issues. And I don’t think a society can be great if it doesn’t believe in itself, it doesn’t have a core conviction of what its imperatives are which creates a framework which can then discuss the practical issues. So I can say—I will only answer you by saying this is a very profound question. And it is at the heart of our crisis. And if it isn’t solved, the many practical questions we are discussing here will only feed on themselves. It’s an absolute imperative that we can give a concrete answer to this.

I’ve had the honor of starting my kind of career at the Council on Foreign Relations. And I didn’t expect that we would have such a large audience. I thought it would be a friendly conversation. I just want to say to everybody that we won’t agree with each other on every point, but we have to find some kind of interpretation of what we want to achieve in the world, and it’s related to our domestic position, and can’t be separated from it. And so I can only affirm your question.

HAASS: Thank you. Laura, we still have time for maybe one more.

Q: If I were a new administration—we have an election in November—if I were a new administration I think I would call Henry Kissinger and say: Henry, you’ve said there are all kinds of transnational issues—climate change, nuclear weapons, et cetera, pandemics—that are an immense threat. None of us can deal with it by ourselves. The international institutions are not functioning very well. What can we do to try to create greater international cooperation, if you want to use that word, coalescence, cooperation around these issues? So it’s a great threat to all of us, but none of us can deal with it by ourselves.

KISSINGER: When you are a new administration there are certain things you have to do right away because they are there. So you can’t say: I’ll wait until I’ve changed everything. But I would try to call in some of the most thoughtful people I could find to discuss this question. These are philosophical issues. Then I would pick the most urgent of the topics that now confront us. And I consider among the most urgent to establish a relationship with China that permits both sides to evolve without confrontation, and to do that explicitly by a dialogue that is carefully prepared, and in which all sides understand the limits beyond which pressures become—get out of control. None of the leaders who started World War I would have done so if they had understood its implications or its consequences even two years down the road. We have to be sure we understand the implications of permanent crisis.

But I’m not talking of a Sino-American control of the international system. It has to start with that, but then we need to do the same thing vis-à-vis India and especially vis-à-vis Europe. Europe has been the center of our historic evolution ideologically. And the world in which we—in which Europe keeps an autonomous role as maneuvering between Asia and America would be a totally different constellation than one in which Europe and America remain related, and related not just in formal speeches but in a conceptual understanding of what they’re trying to achieve, which is the direction in which I would suggest to a president, recognizing that he has so many daily problems that it’s hard to keep focused on the long-range ones.

HAASS: Henry, you mentioned Europe. Do you—when you look at what’s going on there, do you feel that the so-called European project that began with the coal and steel community, now has continued through the union, do you feel that it is—it’s essentially robust? That despite Brexit, despite divisions, that when you see what’s going on in terms of the European Central Bank, the commission, France and Germany, that the European project and essentially the peace that has come to Europe, do you feel of all—that it’s on the list of things you don’t have to worry about?

KISSINGER: I think the European project on the topics that you mentioned is making substantial progress. But for Europe to fulfill its role it also must have a historical and strategic view. It must understand what strategic role it will play on the many issues that you’ve been discussing here. And in that respect Europe has made much less progress. NATO was created against a Russian attack. That is no longer the overwhelming danger, the overwhelming issue. So the question is how we can create a structure that operates without the formality of the NATO system, but including the countries that are really relevant to the issues in a meaningful way. Which is the way the English—if you look at the way England protected the access to India, it did not do so with a formal military arrangement, but with a kind of a political arrangement that permitted them to adjust its response to challenges. So it’s a question of mental attitude. But I consider a strategic and historic relationship with Europe central to the nature of the society we will be.

HAASS: Henry, you’ve been such a good friend over the years to me personally and the Council. I want to help you sell a book or two today. So imagine we have some young people on this conversation. What book of yours should they be reading first? What would you—I know it’s asking you to choose among your children—but what book would you recommend?

KISSINGER: Of my books?

HAASS: Yes, sir.

KISSINGER: I would recommend Diplomacy, which I wrote about twenty years ago, and World Order which is really the more—a shorter evolution of the same set of concepts.

HAASS: You’ll notice by the way that Dr. Kissinger did not mention the book I always point out, which is his first. And he gets upset with me because—(laughs)—he’s basically—

KISSINGER: It’s a good book. But it’s (pressing ?) to say that your best book was your first book.

HAASS: (Laughs.) Speaking of books then, tell us about your next one. What are you writing now?

KISSINGER: I’m actually working on two projects. I’m writing a book on statesmanship in which I analyze statesmen that I have either known or studied over a period of time, that is nearly finished. And I’m working on another book which is out of my usual field, which is the impact of artificial intelligence on human consciousness, because the world in which we live is not just technically different, it’s also conceptually different from any previous one. And I’m doing that together with Eric Schmidt and Dan Huttenlocher, who can give the scientific background to some of my historic reflections.

HAASS: Well, we look forward to inviting you back to discuss either or both of those books. I want to thank you, again, for your involvement with us for more than half a century. We take more than a little pride as an organization that we had something to do with that project about nuclear weapons and foreign policy back in the ’50s. And really want to thank you for your time, and your insights, and generosity today.

So, Dr. Kissinger, again thank you for so much. And to everyone else, be safe and be well, given everything that we are dealing with. So thank you. Thank you, again.


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