The Middle East, Cold War, and Emerging Technologies: The Contributions of Henry Kissinger

Tuesday, March 19, 2024
Former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger speaking at the George W. Bush Presidential Center's 2019 Forum on Leadership
Lessons From History and Lessons From History Series

This symposium explores the trajectory of three critical foreign policy domains that Henry Kissinger, a longtime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, engaged with throughout his career in and out of government, and the lessons learned for U.S. foreign policy today.

Virtual Session I: Conflict in the Middle East

FROMAN: Good morning, everybody. Thank you for joining us. And we’ve got, in addition to the folks here, I think about a hundred people or so on Zoom. So thank you to our virtual audience as well. My name is Mike Froman. I’m president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

And it’s really a distinct honor to open up today’s symposium honoring Henry Kissinger. Everybody, of course, is deeply familiar with Kissinger’s career—former national security adviser, former secretary of state, sometimes both at the same time. Nobel laureate as well. Foremost practitioner-scholar in the field or, as Madeline Albright called him, a demigod. I think Kissinger’s only objection to that was the use of the word “demi” at the beginning. (Laughter.) Significant impact on opening to China, détente with Russia, SALT I and nonproliferation, shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East.

But more importantly for today’s purposes, he was born just two years after the foundation of the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s had a complicated seven-decade relationship with the Council, that left both very much better off. It was in 1955 that he was walking through Harvard Yard and Arthur Schlessinger pulled him aside and suggested he go down to New York and join a study group that was studying the implications of a new technology, known as nuclear weapons, on foreign policy. And that led to a really great working group with George Bundy, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Paul Nitze, David Rockefeller, Walter Bedell Smith. It produced an article in 1956 for Foreign Affairs and then, of course, a book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Unlike most of the other CFR books, that was a best seller. And the rest is history.

And Kissinger himself, as you saw from the video montage earlier, very much credited the Council with having a significant impact on his life. He said: The Council was a seminal shaping experience in my life. It introduced me to a world that seemed totally remote to me. Had I not wound up with the study group at the Council, I would have been a historian. And the Council was very much fortunate to have Kissinger among its ranks. He spoke or presided at over a hundred CFR meetings. He was the longest-serving member of the Council. He published nineteen articles in Foreign Affairs. And even just two months before his passing, he joined us in this room for a symposium on the Yom Kippur War and found time and energy to coauthor his final piece in Foreign Affairs, calling for U.S.-China cooperation in managing artificial intelligence.

It was a complicated relationship between Kissinger and the Council. He served on the board, he resigned his membership, he rejoined. There’s a lot of ups and downs in that relationship. Our erstwhile librarian found in the archives a memo from January 1985 called, “Kissinger Likes and Dislikes,” which I don’t know—I don’t know how many of these memos exist about members, but it was sort of seen as important to have a memo for staff to understand what he liked and disliked. He had just come out with two of his three volumes of his memoirs. And it says: He is gratified when others share his own feeling for their high quality. And he does not like to be referred to as an elder statesman. And—I love this one—items that bring the wrong kind of sparks are Harvard University, his accent, his weight. So those were three issues not to be raised, which to me just demonstrates not only was he a demigod, but he was also a very human person. And we saw that with great effects here at the Council.

His life really is one that gives us great hope. His story embodies the quintessential American dream—a refugee from Germany who fled Nazi persecution, who attended high school at night while working in the shaving brush factory by day to support his family. He was a soldier who was drafted into the U.S. Army. Went to Harvard on the G.I. Bill. And became the first naturalized citizen to become secretary of state. And it really underscores that U.S. power, U.S. leadership in the world is not just derived from its raw economic and military might, but also from its cultural inheritance as a country of immigrants and its capacity for fully realizing the potential of its people.

Now about today’s program, we have three sessions today on three topics very close to Kissinger’s heart, and all of which he contributed immensely to, and also very much relevant to the world today. Managing the conflict in the Middle East, navigating Cold War diplomacy, and emerging technologies. And following session three, for those of you who are here in person, we’ll have a lunch reception as well. And with that, it’s a great pleasure to turn this over for our first panel to the moderator, Lisa Anderson, professor emerita of international relations at Columbia University, and former president of American University in Cairo. Lisa.

ANDERSON: Thank you very much. And thank you all for joining us. I want to welcome you to the symposium, and particularly to our first session about conflict in the Middle East. As Mike just said, there are people with us in the room and over a hundred people attending by Zoom. And so I’ll try and manage questions, both virtual and in-person, when we come to the question period. At the moment, I just want to remind you that this meeting is on the record.

If only two words were associated with Henry Kissinger, at least in my circles, they would be “shuttle diplomacy.” In the aftermath of the ’73 Arab-Israeli war, Kissinger deployed his considerable personal charm and persuasive control of American carrots and sticks in a hectic thirty-three days of bouncing from capital to capital in the region, to secure what was in essence a new U.S.-led order in the region, persuading Egypt and Israel to begin the direct talks that ultimately led Sadat to abandon Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union and pave the way for the ’78 Camp David Accords. He’s often considered, as our colleague Martin Indyk put it, the master of the game. And as Martin shows in his book, Kissinger was really less interested in securing peace, although we often talk about peace process, than in stabilizing a regional order in which the United States would remain indispensable.

As we now watch successive American administrations trying and failing to pivot away from the Middle East, the wisdom of that sort of indispensability seems to be a little bit too edged. And with that, I think we have a fabulous group of people to sort of discuss what Kissinger did and what the legacy of that has been. Michael Doran, at the end of the stage here, is senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute. He served in the NSC in the George W. Bush administration, as a senior fellow at Brookings, and he’s taught at NYU and Princeton—which is where, as I recall, we first met.

Suzanne Maloney is on the screen behind us. She’s vice president and director for the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, where her research focuses on Iran and Persian Gulf policy. She’s advised both Democratic and Republican administrations on Iran policy, and once worked in government relations for ExxonMobil. Rob Danin, to my immediate left, is principal of Georgetown Global Strategies. He was a senior fellow for Middle East studies here at the Council, having served in a variety of senior positions in the State Department and the NSA working on the Arab-Israeli and broader levant issues. And was involved in the Quartet, those of you may remember that.

So with that, let me start with some questions in general. And I’m going to start with you, Mike, and a big-picture question. How did Kissinger’s legacy really sort of shaped subsequent regional politics, particularly American involvement? So we—most of us know, and I’ve just rehearsed a tiny little bit of what he did. How did that change the region in the ways that we would now recognize?

DORAN: Great. Thanks. But before I answer, can I just say one anecdote about Kissinger, the came to mind when I was—


DORAN: I think it was actually in this room, but it was here at CFR I was at a meeting, it must have been just after 9/11. And Kissinger was on the stage with someone from the New York Times. I no longer remember who. And the guy who introduced him said: Dr. Kissinger has written—introduced him and said, he’s written yet another memoir of the Vietnam era. And he said, apparently, he is going to keep rewriting it until he gets it right. And Kissinger—without skipping a beat, Kissinger said: No, Tom. I’m going to keep rewriting it until the New York Times gets it right. (Laughter.)

So I have to—I have to say that I’m an absolute, unabashed fan of Kissinger. I think we owe him an enormous amount. And basically, if I had to put it in one sentence about what we—what we owe Kissinger, it is the recognition that Israeli military power is an asset to American foreign policy. And not just recognizing that. He put together the strategy to use it to America’s advantage. And that’s in stark contrast to the approach of the United States from 1948, even before 1948, but from the origins of Zionism up until the ’67 war. The attitude of the American elite, which inherited—and Council on Foreign Relations was perfectly representative of that elite—the American elite inherited from the missionaries the belief that Zionism was driving the Arabs away from the United States. And that in order to pull the Arabs toward the United States in the Cold War, it was necessary to distance the United States from Israel.

You see it—the most representative—you can see this throughout the whole history, but the most representative example is in 1956 Israel took the Sinai, and Eisenhower—who was opposed to Nasser by this point, completely opposed to Nasser—forced Israel to withdraw without giving Israel any concession whatsoever. So instead of using it sort of as a shuttle diplomacy to put pressure on the Egyptians to make concessions to bring about a stable order, the emphasis was on driving Israel out in order to demonstrate to the—to our Arab allies, not just to Nasser, that we were not going to use Israel in this way to weaken Nasser. That strain of thought, that we have to distance ourselves from Israel in order to bring the Arabs toward us, it runs all the way—it exists still even today in our foreign policy. But it’s incredibly strong, up to Kissinger. And it was represented by William Rogers.

And the early Nixon administration is full of these fights between Rogers and Kissinger. Kissinger owes a—Kissinger owes a lot to Nixon. Nixon was really on—in this fight, Nixon was much more on Kissinger’s side than Rogers. He found it useful to have the two fighting with each other, but he was definitely conceptually on Kissinger’s side. And if I just—a couple more sentences about this. The key moment—I just discovered this. I wrote a large—a major article about Kissinger in the—in the fall. And I thought I was just going to say things that I already knew in the article when it—Mosaic Magazine asked me to do it. And then I went into the archives a little bit and I discovered things that I didn’t know. And the key thing that I discovered was the importance of the war of attrition in—for the understanding of the ’73 war.

I used to teach at the university. I used to teach the Arab-Israeli conflict. And I would—you know, one week we’d have 1967. In the next we’d have 1973. And I would just sort of wave at the war of attrition in 1970 as we went by. It’s actually a seminal event, because the war of attrition wasn’t—was really a Soviet-Israeli conflict, and it brought the United States into threat of war with the Soviet Union. And what Kissinger thought through was the role of Israeli military power not just in putting pressure on Nasser and pro-Soviet, rejectionist Arab powers, but also against the Soviet Union. And to bring the war of attrition to an end, Kissinger made Nixon—from the advice of Kissinger—made two major promises to Israel.

One of them is qualitative military edge. They didn’t call it that. They didn’t call it that until—it doesn’t get called like that in the American system till 1970—1980, sorry. But that’s basically what it is. We guaranteed—Nixon guaranteed Kissinger military capabilities that will be—that will be superior to any conceivable coalition against it. And the other thing that was really important—and I think it has direct relevance to what’s going on today—we will not negotiate with Arab states over—or with the Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanians, Palestinians, anyone, over the heads of the Israelis. We will support bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and their—and their antagonists. That’s Kissinger. This went totally against the State Department’s basic DNA. So we owe all of that to Kissinger—recognizing Israel as an asset, a qualitative military edge, a strategy for using Israeli military power, and the approach to bilateral negotiations.

ANDERSON: OK. Thank you. A lot of meat in there. We’ll come back to it, but I want to go now to Suzanne. And ask her, we’ve talked mostly—and one does mostly—talk about Kissinger’s role in the Arab-Israeli arena. But what of the Gulf? What of—particularly the American embrace of the shah at that period?

MALONEY: Thanks so much, Lisa. And thanks to the Council for including me in this conversation. I’m really looking forward to hearing all the views that are—that are voiced over the course of this. And I just wish I could be there with you in person.

And I thought your introduction really set the stage appropriately, which is to say that in the, you know, sort of wider debate in—especially today in Washington—Kissinger tends to be associated with peacemaking in the Middle East. But in fact, his key objective—and it’s the point that Martin illustrates so brilliantly in his book—is that he was trying to build a stable regional order for—to protect and advance U.S. interests in the region.

And I think that that is very much related to the way that he approached the shah of Iran during that period. The Nixon administration was not seeking to be overly engaged in the Middle East. It obviously had a number of other priorities at this point in time. And the Iranians presented themselves as a very useful and willing partner. And the shah, almost an overeager partner for American power in the region, at a time where the British were themselves drawing back from their longstanding military presence there.

And the Nixon administration invested heavily in the shah, and gave rise, I think, to his most really expansive ambitions for his own power in the region. And in a way that I think was a stabilizing factor at the time, but, you know, among—as we think about Kissinger’s legacy, I think we can judge this period as a missed opportunity. A missed opportunity, because it was this period of the early ’70s, during which time the shah became almost unhinged from reality in terms of his own ambitions for his country, both in terms of the military materiel that he was seeking from the United States as well as, of course, the way that he was trying to drive his economy to be larger than Germany by the turn of the century, was what he predicted.

Those were not realistic ambitions. And it was, I think, one of the long-term challenges that we faced with respect to Iran was that there was really no check from Washington. And that was a strategic decision on the part of Kissinger and the president at the time. They recognized that, in fact, Iran couldn’t absorb most of the equipment, the advanced aircraft, and other materiel that it was seeking from the United States. But, in fact, essentially gave an order to open the spigots to the shah. And that just fueled, I think, his, you know, sort of megalomania during this period in a way that contributed to a hardening of the political space within Iran.

And, you know, I think one of the fundamental legacies of this period was this was the one period in time in which pressure from the United States, which had in fact been a characteristic of all previous administrations, on Iran to open up internally essentially was entirely missing. And this was, I think, the one period in time in which the United States might have been able to coach some reform that would have, if not averted the Islamic Revolution in 1979, at least cushioned the impact of that in terms of where the bilateral relationship was.

Kissinger was also, of course, a major factor in the decision to admit the shah to the United States after he was deposed, for medical treatment—which itself helped lead to the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979. And that too I think is—you know, raises questions about what is it that such a great statesman, such as strategic genius, failed to appreciate about both the person of the shah and the condition of what had happened in Iran at this time? Kissinger was prone to describe the Islamic Republic as a country that needed to decide whether it was a country or a cause.

But in fact, as we’ve seen over the course of the past forty-five years, the Islamic Republic has been quite successful in advancing what it sees as its interests, which are, of course, inherently linked to its ideological ambitions and to the determination to try to upend the regional order that they see as inherently linked to the United States and to U.S. power in the region. And so, in effect, the Islamic Republic never really had to choose. And I think that one of the misdiagnoses of the staying power and, frankly, the threat posed by the—by the current regime in Iran is the sense that it was just an ephemeral phenomenon, that it was going to somehow revert to a more “normal country,” to use the expression that Kissinger often used with respect to Iran. And I think that that, in effect, has led us to undervalue the staying power and the danger that Iran poses to the region.

ANDERSON: Wow, lots to—lots there, too. This is going to be a nice long panel. But—(laughs)—before we get to reiterate some of this, Rob, how does the shadow, if you will, of Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy sort of shaped the dynamics of the U.S. role now? That really sort of set a standard or template for how the U.S. would operate. So talk a little bit about what that meant?

DANIN: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you for including me in this—in this auspicious event today. This is my first return to the CFR under its new president, Mike Froman. I have to say, I spent ten years here at CFR. And at the time, when I was a senior fellow, it used to irk me that they’d have these panels and, you know, the expertise of Council was not put on stage as much, and they’d bring in all these outside people. (Laughter.) But I have to say, upon reflection, I actually think it’s a really good policy. (Laughter.) So I encourage you, Mike, to continue it. You know, we learn with our age, right? You can put that in my file here. (Laughter.)

So, look, we really do live in the shadow of American foreign policy towards the Middle East, as created by Henry Kissinger. And it’s not just shuttle diplomacy, although it’s that too. The very idea of the so-called peace process was really a Kissingerian idea. And many of my colleagues in Washington use this as a term of opprobrium—oh, you peace processers, and dot-dot-dot. And this is used with scorn because, you know, they say: You’re always working towards peace but you never get there. And you have a failure—you know, A, you fail all the time. But at the same time, you ensure job security. And this is unfair, obviously. (Laughter.) Oh, and you dine out at nice hotels and restaurants all over the world in the pursuit of this process.

But the point was that, you know, the peace process, as Kissinger conceptualized it, was really that rather than come up with an all-encompassing formula that would solve the conflict, as if there was one single conflict, that this was a this was a conflict—or, a series of conflicts in the region between Israel and the Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians—that had to be managed, and had to be managed through incremental steps. And incrementalism really was the second hallmark of his approach. But the idea of the peace process was very much, you know, rooted in the idea of American interests. And this was a time of superpower competition in the region and in which, you know, the United States was trying to reconcile two sort of antagonistic worldviews, if you will.

And so the peace process was a way to reconcile the United States’s support—unabashed support for Israel, having recognized Israel eleven minutes after it was created in 1948 and stood by Israel throughout. And at the same time, maintain strong relationships with moderate or, what I call status quo, Arab states in the region. And at a time when these countries are at war, or at least not recognizing—there was no peace between Israel or any of its Arab neighbors—the way to reconcile the tension between support for Israel and support for the Arab world was the peace process. And so it was the grease that kept the wheel turning and allowed American diplomacy to be able to proceed both talking to the Israelis and talking to the Arabs.

And not put us in a—in a situation where we had to choose. But rather to say, no, it’s precisely because we have these relationships with both sides that makes us indispensable. And, in a sense, you can see that, you know, Secretary Blinken is about to go to the Middle East yet again.

ANDERSON: Wait, we’re going to be talking about that. (Laughs.)

DANIN: OK. But the point being that that very much is—you know, was created by Henry Kissinger. So you have the peace process, you have instrumentalism. You have the—and, if you will, the basis for American diplomacy is very much rooted in the Kissinger era, if you will. To this day, the reference points for the peace process are U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242, 338. And now there are a whole litany of further resolutions, but all of them—all of them are rooted in 242 and 338, and the concept of land for peace. And land for peace was the formula that Kissinger was pursuing back in his day. And it’s endured ever since as the cornerstone of America’s approach to this region.

ANDERSON: OK. The reason I interrupted Rob is because I’m going to invite them all to a sort of thought experiment. Which is, I think, we—if I may say so—have done a very nice job at sort of setting how the last fifty years have been shaped by the Kissinger era in the region, or at least the American foreign policy. But, you know, we’re fifty years later. If Kissinger were secretary of state or head of the National Security Council now, what would he be doing? Mike.

DORAN: He would be putting pressure—he would be using Israeli military power to put pressure on Iran. I don’t want to make a direct analogy. I do want to make a direct analogy, but with a caveat. So in his day it was—it was Soviet Union, Nasser’s Egypt, versus the United States and Israel. The United States, and its Arab allies, and Israel. And the Soviet Union was using the Arab-Israeli conflict as a wedge issue to cause tension, as Rob was describing, between our Arab allies and us. And as I mentioned, Kissinger understood the Israeli military power could be a—be valuable to us in that regard, in that contest, because it could put enough pressure on Egypt so that if Egypt wanted to escape from that pressure it had to come to the United States.

So the key was to—the key was to use Israeli military power as a lever to pull Egypt away from the Soviet Union. And not to—not to appease Egypt, but to punish it until it came to Washington. And that was the—that was the—that was—through all of his—through all of the different iterations of his policy, that was always the—always the key. That was the prize, pulling Egypt away from the Soviet Union.

I think Kissinger today would see the major contest in the Middle East as between the Iranian alliance system, backed by its great power allies, Russia and China. Certainly, there’s an alliance with Russia. There’s an alignment with China. And it’s undermining the American system. And he would read the war in Gaza not as a Palestinian-Israeli war, which is how the Biden administration is framing it, but he would see it as a contest between the United States and the Iranian alliance system. And he would want Israel to win it decisively, in order to demonstrate to all of our allies and to the world that we would not allow—we would not allow aggression from the Iranian system against us.

ANDERSON: Interesting point. OK.

Suzanne, what do you think he’d be doing?

MALONEY: I agree with Mike’s assessment, to some extent, but I also think that in addition to trying to build this alliance of moderate Arab states to—in alignment with Israel, very much along the lines of what the Biden administration is trying to do by continuing to drive toward a vision of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, I think that Kissinger and a Kissingerian approach to the current crisis would be looking beyond the region itself. Kissinger never made Middle East policy in a vacuum. It was always done with an eye toward the larger balance of power in the world. And my sense is that under the current set of circumstances, Kissinger would be looking to find a way to align U.S. policy to ensure that what we’re doing in the Middle East actually contributes to a better outcome in terms of the strategic competition with China, as well as with Russia. But he would also be looking, I think, to avoid treating those two very different countries as one joint problem, or even two sides of the same coin.

I don’t think that there is a lot to be gained at the current moment by trying to bring the Chinese into playing a more constructive role in the region. But in effect, we have to acknowledge that they are playing a destructive role in the region by effectively funding Iran—the Iranian economy, through the absorption of almost all of Iran’s current exports and production of crude oil. You know, really the lifeblood of the Iranian economy right now comes from China. And so I think a Kissingerian approach would be looking at that flow, recognizing that, you know, the Chinese have a have a tremendous economic and strategic interest to try to play both sides of the same coin. But also to demonstrate and bring the Chinese in, in a way that could unlock the current problem that we have. Which is that the conflict is only, I think, fueling the Iranian-backed alliance. The position of Iran is growing stronger as a result of the horrific humanitarian conditions in Gaza, and the outrage about the perpetuation of the conflict in Gaza. And he would be looking for a way to bring the conflict to at least a pause, in order to ensure that there was not a further empowerment of the worst actors in the region.

ANDERSON: OK. Thank you.

Sir, now you can talk about Blinken, if you want to. (Laughter.)

DANIN: No, I’d rather talk about Kissinger. (Laughs.)

Well, first of all, I think the first principle that the administration hasn’t embraced—you know, Kissinger, I think, always used as his point of departure the idea of order, and the primacy of stability. And in that sense, as a first principle, the administration, as it did immediately after the October 7 attack on Israel, moved the aircraft carrier—two aircraft carrier groups into the Eastern Mediterranean, as a way to deter both Iran and Hezbollah from further escalating the conflict. And I think that—you know, Kissinger’s first order of business would have been to prevent this from escalating further. In that sense, you know, he would see in the broader regional, you know, context, and—as Mike, you know, mentioned—and would have first sought to prevent escalation, and pursue stability at all costs.

In terms of the—you know, he would have also, you know, as he did after ’73, look for the opportunity. Not just to sort of prevent a return to the status quo ante, but to build upon it and seek a greater opportunity. And he saw the attack on Israel in ’73 as an opportunity to actually pivot it to a path that did result in peace with Egypt within the same decade. And I think the administration is also—sees an opportunity. And here, I slightly disagree with Mike, because I think the administration very much has made clear that it sees this not just as a(n) opportunity to fix Gaza. And there, I have some comments later, perhaps if there’s time.

But rather, to pivot it to a much larger, almost, you know, what some of the administration have told me, they call it either a Hail Mary, or a—you know, which is this grand deal that they’re seeking, which is to actually bring about an Israel-Saudi peace agreement that would entail or require some form of Israeli-Palestinian peace and creation of a Palestinian state. And, you know, as a third element, in doing so help build an alliance of Sunni Arab states allied with Israel against Iran. So I think in their mind they do have a larger strategic framework here in mind. And that’s why we’ve seen this focus on Palestinian statehood, you know, very early on, you know, coming from the administration, combined with this desire that I know, you know, I hear the White House is very keen to get a humanitarian pause in order to be able to pivot towards bringing about this larger breakthrough between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

I think where Kissinger would have diverged, perhaps, from this approach is he would have seen this as perhaps overreach in the sense of, you know, the administration has this concept of bringing—you know, creating this regional peace between—and breakthrough between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And this was being pursued before October 7. And the Saudis have made very clear that its requirements for such a breakthrough, you know, are quite large. They entail a security guarantee for Saudi Arabia that would require Senate confirmation. Something that the administration is leveraging to try to then put the Saudis on pressure to do before our election in order—because of the election math in the Senate. And we can get into that. But secondly, a peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

So the administration put itself on a very tight timeline. And I think that’s something Kissinger would never have done. In that sense, I think Kissinger, you know, while seeing the grand prize being peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia—Israel and Egypt, saw disengagement agreements and partial agreements as the stepping-stone there. And pursued, you know, a very clear approach of incrementalism. And I think here, I worry that the administration has not built into this approach kind of fall backs or Plan Bs or safety nets, should this very ambitious approach not bear fruit. So that’s the—you know, it is the Middle East. And, you know, my aphorism is that things are never quite as bad as you fear, but never as good as you hope.

ANDERSON: (Laughs.) OK. Well, thank you very much.

I have another round of questions, but I actually want to invite all of you to begin to pose your questions, and comments, and so forth. There’s quite a lot of meat here, as you’ve heard. And I think one of the things that is interesting in listening to this is the extent to which the patterns of American involvement really were set in the Kissinger era, and much of what we see now, you know, we sort of think this has always been the way it is. But it was actually quite a distinctive moment of thinking about process, thinking about incrementalism, thinking about the great-power context in which the region sat from the point of view of the United States, and so forth.

So let me invite questions and comments from the floor. Right here, yeah.

Q: First of all, let me say thank you to all of you and, Lisa, particularly for you, in laying out such a rich menu of issues to comment on.

But I’m going to return to an opening statement of yours that really struck a deep chord with me. And that was Kissinger’s understanding that the United States could leverage Israeli military capability and force to improve and stabilize our position and contribute to the more stable inner regional order. I think it’s a profoundly important point. But it leads me to a question. About, say, six months before October 7, I had the privilege of being with Dr. Kissinger. In a moment, just privately, he reflected about his own anguish over the future prospects of the state of Israel, and Israel’s ability to continue to survive under circumstances that were, and have been over recent years, unfolding.

And it struck me as I looked at the very point you made that the IDF’s inability to anticipate or to dominate effectively the battlefield, leaves a key lever of American policy adrift. And that, I find very alarming. And I think Kissinger—and I’m assuming a great deal, and you’re in a better position. I’m assuming that Kissinger would have seen the necessity to stop this war before—after Israel had scored an image of dominance on the battlefield, but short of carrying the battlefield to the edge, the total destruction of Hamas, and would have pushed hard to get us back to a period of pre-conflict stability among the parties. Am I wrong? Are you right?

DORAN: Well, of course I’m right. (Laughter.) But thanks, Frank. That’s a great question. And if I may, I’ll just say a couple words about ’73, and then answer the question about the present.

One of the, I think, Kissinger’s greatest failures was he basically ordered—he and Nixon—ordered Golda Meir, and this is after the war of attrition, not to preempt the Egyptians. And so we often think of the ’73 war as the Israelis being surprised and the failure of their early warning system. Their early warning system did fail, but they did have advanced warning. They had many hours before the—before the attack when they knew the attack was coming. And they had to decide what to do. And Moshe Dayan was chief of staff, and Golda Meir, they ordered the—they ordered the IDF not to carry out any preemptive strikes against the Egyptians or the—or the Syrians.

But they did so under the assumption—and this assumption was working all through the first days of the war by Kissinger—that Israel was going to win, win decisively, and win quickly, along the lines of the ’67—the ’67 war. The Egyptians used what we now call an A2/AD strategy against the Israelis in Sinai, anti-access, area denial. Using the advanced SAM systems, they managed to counterbalance Israeli air dominance with antiaircraft batteries. And they also studied the Israeli tactics very carefully and they knew when the Israeli counterattack would come. They had antitank missiles that they—that they developed—the use of which they developed, that counteracted the Israeli counterattack.

The Israelis didn’t see this coming. And this is—this accounts for the big setback at the beginning of the ’73 war. And the Americans didn’t see it coming. ’73 was an American intelligence failure as much as an Israeli intelligence failure, just as October 7 was an American intelligence failure just as much as an Israeli. And, of course, the Israelis bear the brunt of it, but we also failed in that regard.

These questions—I was listening to, you know, Rob and Suzanne’s difference of perspective on the Biden administration. And brought to mind some aspects of Kissinger. There are policies that administrations can follow that structurally look the same, but they’re actually quite different. Kissinger supported the Geneva conference, bringing the Soviet Union and all the parties to sit around a table to talk about a comprehensive peace. But the goal of the—the goal of the exercise was to—was to throw a nice little shiny ball into the corner that the Russians would go run after, while he took the Egyptians over into this corner and worked on the bilateral relations with the—with the Egyptians. When Carter pursued the Kissinger policy of the Geneva conference, he actually wanted the Soviets in the room. He thought that this is the way—this is the way to get things done.

This is the difference between what I think is a Kissinger policy today and a Biden policy. Biden wants the Iranians in the room. Biden wants the Chinese in the room. This is not—this is not an analysis on my part. We can see it. Jake Sullivan went to talk to the Chinese to ask the Chinese to ask the Iranians to ask the Houthis to stop—to stop attacking international shipping. From a Kissinger point of view, for the national security adviser to go to the Chinese like that publicly is to say to our allies: Why don’t you just cut out—to the Saudis, the Emiratis, and everybody else—why don’t you just cut out the middleman? Just go direct to Beijing. Because the real answer to the Iranian problem is not with the United States, it’s with the Chinese.

Kissinger, whether he would have gone for a ceasefire now or to continue the war, his emphasis would have been on forcing the regional actors to come to the United States to get what they wanted. And he would have seen Israeli military power as an advantage there. Rob mentioned the two carrier groups to send—and Biden saying “don’t” to Iran and Hezbollah. But the “don’t” was actually a tripartite “don’t.” It was to Iran, Hezbollah, and to the Israelis, because Gallant, the defense minister, had put together a plan to go after Hezbollah. His argument was this could become a one-two punch. It could become a jab from Gaza and then an uppercut from Lebanon, where our real threat is. Our real threat is Lebanon.

Today, Amos Hochstein is running this mediation between the—between the Israelis and the—and Hezbollah, basically Tehran really, in which he’s calling for territorial concessions from the Israelis in return for—territorial concessions from the Israelis and massive investment by the international community in south Lebanon, which means building up Hezbollah economically. Territorial concessions from Israel, in return for the—for Hezbollah to move seven and ten kilometers, its Radwan Forces. Not all Hezbollah forces, but Radwan Forces, the shock troops, back up north of the of the Litani.

That’s not a Kissinger idea at all. At all. Because what he’s doing—what the—what the Biden administration is doing is they are using America—allowing Iran to use American policy to restrain Israel so that Hezbollah can then—can launch these attacks right across the border with impunity, knowing full well that the United States is going to come down like gangbusters on the Israelis if they escalate against Hezbollah.

ANDERSON: OK. (Laughs.)

DORAN: So we can see—we can see we can see elements that will—I’m ending right here with this sentence. We can see elements that you could say Kissinger might engage in, but he would do it within a totally different frame.

ANDERSON: Rob, do you have a quick intervention?

DANIN: Well, relatively quick. (Laughter.) Relative to Mike.

Look, just to say, I think Kissinger would have been very clear from the onset in working with the Israelis to try to identify clear and attainable political objectives for the—for what Israel was doing. I think he would have appreciated the need for Israel to reestablish its deterrence and, in that sense, you know, would have wanted some definition of victory that would be attainable. You know, and from the onset Israel identified eradicating Hamas as its goal—one of its war aims, along with returning the hostages. And I think very early on, Kissinger would have wanted to leverage that into something more definable. And I think we’re kind of nearing that now, in a sense. And exactly why I think the administration yesterday invited Israeli strategists to come to Washington, because we’re now—it’s centered around this issue about Rafah. And I can talk about that now or wait till the next round, but—

ANDERSON: Yeah, but quickly though, because we have other questions.

DANIN: You know, I mean, the issue now has become should the Israelis go into Rafah for now? In many ways, this is a proxy debate about something larger. It’s really about what is—what constitutes victory? What is the Israeli definition of victory, which has been very ill-defined. And the American definition has also been ill-defined. In my conversations with Israeli officials, I think it now—you know, the debate, when it comes down to Rafah, has to do with the fact that there are still these four battalions there. Eighteen of twenty-four of Hamas’ battalions have been destroyed. Four are in Rafah. And implicit in it is the Israelis saying: If we get those four battalions, then we’ll have—you know, mission accomplished. That’s what Netanyahu is saying.

What others in the Israeli establishment are actually saying is, no, what’s really important—and I think this is where Kissinger would have gone—is we really need to secure the Rafah border. And it’s the flow of weapons and the tunnels that need to be brought in. And there the focus of diplomacy therefore should be on bringing the Egyptians in as a partner to securing the Rafah border. I think that would have been—if you will, the strategic objective then is to then secure Rafah and be able to declare that border closed. And that, along with some deal over the hostages, would be victory.

The other thing the Israelis are trying to do, and they talk about it too much and aren’t doing enough of it, is actually decapitate the Hamas leadership. You know, in talking to the Israeli leadership I’ve asked them repeatedly: Why do you keep talking about killing Sinwar? Either do it or don’t do it, but don’t talk about it and not do it because, in a sense, they’ve created a litmus test for themselves that they have failed to achieve until they do so.

ANDERSON: OK. In fairness, Suzanne, do you have any comment or—quickly, because, again, we have other questions? But—

MALONEY: I’ll be very quick. And I won’t—I will leave Rafah to Rob’s good analysis just now. But I do think that Mike unfairly characterized the diplomacy in the north as sort of the opposite of what Kissinger would do. And I think if there’s any Kissingerian in the Biden administration, it is absolutely Amos Hochstein. Because what he’s trying to do is to manage what could be a crisis which distracts Israel from actually finishing the job in Gaza, in terms of actually taking out the senior leadership of Hamas and eliminating the most dangerous elements of Hamas’s arsenal, by creating another front. And Hochstein, I don’t think, has any illusions about, you know, sort of a long-term peace process. He’s certainly not negotiating to give economic benefits to an ally of Iran. What he’s trying to do is to mitigate the prospects of an escalation, to create the basis for a more stable outcome for a Lebanese government to actually control its own territory, and to eliminate some of the causes of what has enabled Hezbollah to be as effective as it has been over the course of the past forty-plus years in terms of establishing itself as a peer competitor to the Israeli military.

So I think that, you know, the—it’s the one place where I think there may be a little bit of optimism, I think the Biden administration was exactly right to try to preclude the opening of a second front by the Israelis because, as we’ve seen, the war has gone on longer and been far more difficult for the Israelis to accomplish their initial objectives. If they had tried to multiply it times two, I think we would be in a much, much worse position for the Israelis at this point.

ANDERSON: OK. Thank you. We have a question online.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Peter Galbraith.

Q: Thank you.

Kissinger also had his critics. And perhaps the biggest criticism is that he had a cynical, maybe casual, disregard for the devastating human consequences of his actions. Obviously, critics cite Cambodia, East Timor, and the Kurds. And, of course, with regard to the Kurds having supported the shah in his actions in support of the Barzanis and the Iraqi Kurds. He then agreed to their betrayal, and dismissed it with a famous statement, “covert action is not missionary work.” And so my question, I think it’s really directed to Suzanne, is did he ever consider the human consequences of his actions with regard to the Kurds?

MALONEY: Peter, I suspect you know the answer to that question better than I do. But I’m not aware of any repentance on the part of Dr. Kissinger for the human impact of his policies, in a number of different areas. And it’s why his legacy, in many ways, is contentious and very much debated. I do think that, you know, the decision to effectively abandon the Kurds and to enable the shah to use this as a bargaining chip in order to get—extract what he was, in fact, looking for from the Iraqis, which was control over the Shatt al-Arab, obviously came back to haunt both the Iranians themselves, under the guise of the Islamic Republic, and the region itself, with the devastating eight-year war.

So I don’t think it’s a particular historical episode which bodes well or speaks well of Kissinger’s legacy. And it’s why, you know, my initial remarks were focused on the failure on the part of Kissinger to appreciate the danger of investing so heavily in an ally whose judgment was questionable, and some of whose actions were not, in fact, contributing to the stability of an American-led order in the region, but were very much aimed at undermining it.

ANDERSON: OK. Thank you. You have any thoughts on that?

DORAN: One sentence, just on—A, Kissinger is a product of World War II. And I think it’s—I think it’s wrong to say he’s not concerned about the human consequences. But he’s focused on great powers and order. And he thinks that disorder is going to be far more damaging to human beings than order. That’s a moral argument. It doesn’t—he doesn’t—he doesn’t make it as a moral argument, but there’s a moral argument underlining all of it.

ANDERSON: Thank you. Any questions, thoughts? We have another one online.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Gregory Gause.

Q: I hope that the panel could react to a couple of my thoughts on this, because it seems to me that the Kissingerian framework really hasn’t guided American policy in the twenty-first century in the region. I doubt Kissinger would have been in favor of regime change anywhere in the Middle East, because of his interest in stability. And whether it was the Iraq War or early enthusiasm for the Arab Spring, American policy was kind of very supportive of regime change. I’m not sure Kissinger would have been behind that. Secondly, Kissinger—and this is related—was a—was a state-to-state guy. And with the collapse of authority in so much of the of the Middle East, domestic political authority, nonstate actors have become so much more important. And I’m not sure Kissinger would have had a framework for dealing with that.

And third, I think Mike is absolutely wrong about Kissinger and China. Kissinger never saw China as a competitor the way he saw the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He was always pretty soft on China. I think he probably would have been urging administrations to bring China in and, despite the outreach on the Houthis that the Biden administration made, I think that for the most part American foreign policy is—sees China as a competitor in the Middle East. And that includes the Biden administration’s effort to bring Saudi Arabia in, mostly to, I think, not just make peace with Israel, but also move it away from China. Thanks.

ANDERSON: OK. Nice meaty questions. Mike, we’ll start with you.

DORAN: Thanks. I think that the—his point that Kissinger would be softer on China is 100 percent correct. I think that’s where my own analogy between the world of the 1970s in the world today—where it becomes weaker, weak, and hard to understand exactly how Kissinger would think about it. But Kissinger would be thinking certainly about American primacy. And the threat to the American order that Russia, China, and Iran—especially Iran—represent. I think the focus would be on Iran. How he would work with—I think there probably would be some Kissingerian play to engage China to our advantage on Iran. I don’t know exactly what it would be. But it’s not going to be in a direct analogy to the Soviet Union.

But there’s another issue here too which is worth thinking about. And that is, Kissinger on the Soviet Union at the time, in the ’70s, was highly controversial on the right. I went—I did an event like this with Kissinger about a decade ago. And I had to meet him ahead of time to talk about what we were going to do. And I thought we were just going to talk about, you know, I’ll ask you this question, that question. And but he thought—because I’d worked for Elliott Abrams in the White House—he thought I was a neocon. And we’re a half-hour into discussing the plan for the evening and we haven’t got to it at all. And he’s talking to me about throw weights of missiles—nuclear missiles, and how Norman Podhoretz never understood it, he didn’t understand anything. He was obsessed with the neocon critique on him.

And he wanted to prove that—the problem that Kissinger had is that he’s the greatest statesman of the second half of the 20th century, but he had nothing to do with the greatest event of the second half of the 20th century, namely the fall of the Soviet Union. So he’s trying to write détente into it. But I think he has a—he has a case. Détente, which was seen on the right as being soft on the Soviet Union, was a framework for managing the conflict. That’s—I think that’s how we saw it at the time. The Biden administration is telling us with, say, normalization of Saudi Arabia and Israel, that this is their framework for managing competition with Iran. But it’s not true.

This is a—this is a domestic political—it’s, again, a shiny ball to throw in the corner so the pro-Israel community says, oh, normalization with Saudi Arabia. They actually want to put together a coalition against Iran. They don’t. And you can prove that by looking at the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. They forced Saudi Arabia to make peace and give money to the Houthis. That’s the—so you can’t have peace with the Houthis at the expense of Saudi Arabia policy on the one hand, and work with the U.S.—and work with Israel and Saudi Arabia on a coalition against Iran on the other.

The idea is to have normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and then sit the two of them down and shut up while the United States negotiates regional order with the Iranians directly. That’s the vision that they have. And that’s profoundly non-Kissingerian.

ANDERSON: OK. Suzanne, what do you think about anti-regime change, for example?

MALONEY: Well, I’m intrigued by Mike’s suggestion that somehow the Biden administration is angling, can’t wait to get back to the negotiating table with the Iranians. I think that may have once been the posture. I don’t think it was the posture for quite a long time before October 7. And I don’t think it’s the posture today. I think that there is—you know, with respect to Kissinger’s position on regime change, I think that he was a realist. And the, you know, sort of illusions that guided the decision to invade Iraq, and the outcome that that led to, were very much in contradiction to the way that he would have approached, and did approach, the region. Deal with the devil you know rather than unleash the devils that you don’t.

And I think that that is probably what animated some of his concerns about his conversation with Mike, and the legacy of the Bush administration. Which, of course, is precisely what has empowered Iran to the extent that it has. Iran in 2003 was under pressure from the international community because of the newly disclosed revelations about its secret nuclear program. And, you know, what it gained from the debacle of the U.S. intervention in Iraq will be very, very difficult to undo, if at all possible at any point in time. It now has strategic depth. It has an array of both state and nonstate actors that it collaborates with in order to try to advance its own vision of regional order.

And I think that, you know, any Kissingerian understanding of the situation that we’re in today would be intent on ensuring that Iran is not able to once again use conditions of violence, and chaos, and disruption to its own benefit, to strengthen its allies and its partners and to undermine those legitimate governments that are—that are within the region. So I think that, you know, one of the challenges that we have today is that, as Mike said, the, you know, sort of approach to Saudi Arabia and trying to create this normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel is very much driven by concerns about Chinese encroachment. And that is part of the way that it will and has been sold to the American domestic political debate.

But ultimately, it is very much consistent with exactly the sort of posture that that Kissinger and others have been advocating for quite some time, to ensure that there is an alignment between the moderate states of the region that are committed to preserving the existing regional order. That would include both Israel and Saudi Arabia. And so I think in many ways what the Biden administration is trying to accomplish here is to preserve some element of a regional framework that can help defend the order, even as it comes under increasing pressure from Iran.

ANDERSON: Thank you. Rob, the ’73 war was between states. The current conflict we described as Israel-Hamas. How would—how do we think about that? How would Kissinger think? How much is the way Kissinger thought about the world shaping the way we’re thinking about the world, even if it doesn’t actually fit very well?

DANIN: Well, look, I think the initial question that Greg asked about nonstate actors—Greg Gause—is spot on. I mean, we—you know, the danger of any arguing about history and comparison is that, you know, context has changed. We no longer are in the Cold War, whereas Kissinger—for Kissinger, the Cold War was the first, you know, defining element of the international framework in which he was operating. You know, I think just one thing I wanted to relate to that hasn’t come up in this conversation, and it has to do with even what Mike said about sort of, you know, the constraint on Israel to not preempt against Lebanon early on in October. You know, first of all, that was an Israeli decision, ultimately, not to go after Lebanon. You know, it’s true the chief of staff of the army and the minister of defense wanted to go to go to Lebanon. When I saw the chief—the minister of defense still talks about that.

But, you know, there was an important—it was an Israeli decision not to. And I think time has actually illustrated one very important point. One thing we’ve seen, and it is that what has been essential for Israel, in order to carry out the conduct of this war has been American support. And one element of that support has to do with just the mere, you know, flow of weapons to Israel. And I think in retrospect, it’s very clear that Israel would not have had the weaponry or supplies in order to pursue a war with Hezbollah at this time, even with assured American supplies. And recall, Kissinger was not, you know, averse to using the tap—the weapons—the flow of weapons to Israel, and turning it off, and actually seeing Israelis, you know, bleed on the battlefield as a necessary cost for larger strategic objective.

So he was not agnostic or fearful of using, you know, these tools, or regime change for that matter. He didn’t use it in the Middle East, but he did support regime change elsewhere in the world. So, you know, these are—these tools, lest we deify Kissinger into someone he wasn’t, you know, he was not averse to any of those. But the weapons supply, you know, even had the tap been open, we’ve seen that our industrial base is really under challenge to be able to supply what’s necessary both for Israel to pursue this war and the other thing that we haven’t talked about, which is the war that’s taking place in Europe.

And I think Kissinger would have very much have seen what’s happening in Israel and the war with Hezbollah—Hamas, rather—in the larger context, also of the war with Ukraine. And here, what’s the connection? There is a connection. One is the fact that we don’t have the ability to keep up in terms of supplying Ukraine and Israel, notwithstanding the question about our willingness to fund it. But assume away our congressional dysfunction. Even if there was the will to supply both, it’s not clear how long we can do that. And there needs—that needs to be addressed, as the administration has addressed—or mentioned.

But the larger—or, the other point has been the relative change in the strategic orientation of the region as a result of the Ukrainian war. And namely here, and I’d be curious—you know, this is falls into Suzanne’s wheelhouse—but the fact that Iran has become a major arms supplier to the Russians when it comes to the use of drones technology and missile technology. And so here I think he would have identified the Iranian—the increased importance of Iran as a supplier to Russia in its ambitions in Ukraine as important and critical, and all the more reason to have to deal with Iran.

And one final note on this. I mean, something that’s been lost here in a lot of the debate. You know, prior to October 7 the debate, especially in Israel but more largely about Iran, was focused almost entirely on the Iranian nuclear program. And now when you talk to Israeli officials and American officials—(laughs)—it’s gone. What the October 7—one of the many things that October 7 did was it shined a light on to what was not being paid attention to. And so while we were all focusing on the Iranian nuclear program, what was not being given sufficient weight was Iran’s support for proxies and their ability to project power into Israel, both—not only from Lebanon, but, by extension, from the south with Hamas.

And that, as Israeli officials describe it, Hamas in what it did on October 7, the model it employed—infiltrating Israel, taking hundreds of hostages—this was a what they call a page of the Hezbollah playbook. That’s what Israel—Hezbollah had did in 2006, by kidnapping some soldiers in 2006. And it’s what Hezbollah would do now, which is part of the reason that you have a hundred thousand Israelis who cannot go back to northern Israel, as well as another hundred thousand Israelis who can’t go back to southern Israel. And so this idea that you have these nonstate actors—I’m circling towards your question—but the fact that you have these nonstate actors—Hamas in the south, Hezbollah in the north—that can hold Israel hostage as a country, prevent Israelis from living in their own territory, or returning into their homes right now, think Kissinger would have appreciated that that’s unacceptable, unsustainable, and would have—so that would be one point.

And secondly, would have seen the Iranian role, and the shifting importance of Iran—not just as a nuclear threshold state, but as a, you know, supplier of these, you know, regional proxy groups, and as well as its missile and drone technology. You know, I think we have even more—what we recognize now is that Iran is even that much more formidable in in many ways as a state, and as a country that’s able to project power not only in the region but, by extension, even through alliances with Russia, into Europe.

ANDERSON: So in a sense, the nonstate actors are state actors at a distance. They are—he would trace that back to Iran?

DANIN: Very much so.


DANIN: I mean, they are not controlled and directed. They are franchises that are sort of sent off and understand what their role is.

ANDERSON: Suzanne, I’m going to give you the last word, because we’re coming to the end. But, please.

MALONEY: Well, I endorse everything that Rob has just had to say. I think that, you know, this challenge that we’ve had with our own policy toward Iran—to either almost exclusively focus on the nuclear issue to the detriment of appreciating the threat posed by the militia and proxy forces that Iran has built up across the region, or the reverse, which is today to be focused intensively on questions of the capabilities of the Houthis without much conversation about the fact that Iran now has enough fissile material for at least three nuclear weapons—that we haven’t found a framework for managing the problem of Iran in anything like a sustainable fashion. And, you know, as Rob says, it’s not simply within the region, but it is its capacity to align itself with other great powers and to fuel extraterritorial wars far beyond Iran’s prior reach and engagement.

And so I think, you know, in many ways, this—you know, probably in a way that Mike will also appreciate, I think it’s fitting that, you know, we’re kind of wrapping up with the conundrum of Iran, because it was an issue that Henry Kissinger spent an awful lot of time on. Since 1979, a lot of time thinking and opining about. But yet, it’s one in which I think we have still no clear solution that will enable us to ensure that Iran can’t pose a threat to its neighbors, that it can’t pose a threat to its own people, and that it is not arming itself in a way that could threaten the survival of the world.

So I look forward to another future conversation on this topic. (Laughs.) And really grateful to be part of this one.

ANDERSON: Well, thank you very much. Thank you both for joining this session. I think we could go on and take up the whole day, but we’re not actually permitted to do that. I will note that the video and transcript of this symposium will be posted on the Council website. And please join us in fifteen minutes for “Cold War Diplomacy: The Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam.” Thank you very much. (Applause.)


Virtual Session II: Cold War Diplomacy—The Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam

NAFTALI: Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here today.

We have an excellent panel. You will see their bios in the materials you were given so I will not be mentioning again their great accomplishments, although I want to underline the fact that Carolyn’s prize-winning book is called Fire and Rain. In the biography you will see it has an old title that was not as good as the current title which is the prize-winning title.

I’ve asked each of the panelists to start with a few minutes of reflections on some of the key themes that they would like to develop over the course of our conversation and I will begin with Ambassador Lord.

LORD: Thank you, Tim.

I think the best way to survey the Kissinger-Nixon years is for everybody to read my book—(laughter)—Kissinger on Kissinger. K.T. McFarland, who became deputy national security adviser under Trump, and I interviewed Henry, and we drilled down in depth precisely on the three issues we’re focusing on today—China, Soviet Union, and Vietnam—as well as the Middle East, which you heard about in the previous panel.

So if everybody buys the book you will double my sales, I think—everybody in this room—and perhaps if we had a different title I would have sold more. Tom Brokaw saw the press release on the book. He was very excited. He read it on his iPhone and it was somewhat truncated; he couldn’t get the whole thing. But he was very excited when he saw I was coming out with a book which was entitled Kissinger on Kissing. (Laughter.) Perhaps if we’d used that we’d have more sales. But let’s get to the subject.

I think I will now kiss the Kissinger years, if you will, although I had some disagreements, of course. I think to fully appreciate the record, say, from ’69 to ’77 you have to recall the landscape that Nixon and Kissinger inherited.

There was a war that had been going on for five years, five hundred thousand American troops and twenty-five thousand more on the way, several hundred American soldiers being killed every day, demonstrations about this and other issues in the U.S., riots over racial issues and another problems, three assassinations, a president who had resigned, overseas no contact with one-fifth of the world’s people, a troubled tense relationship with a nuclear superpower which had just invaded Czechoslovakia, and in the Middle East losing influence to the Soviets and their use of arms for influence in the region, and a world thinking that we were bogged down in our diplomacy because of the Vietnam quagmire and a demoralized American public. So that’s what they inherited.

Very briefly, we’ll get into all these subjects in greater depth. Kissinger—I keep mentioning Nixon because it’s a combination—focused on the three communist powers in the beginning—China, Soviet Union, and Vietnam—as we’re talking about now and the key was the opening of China, and I would argue that the secret trip in ’71 to China announcing Nixon’s subsequent visit was a hinge point for everything that happened afterwards.

But, again, doing this rather breathlessly, our objectives in opening then were to talk to one-fifth of the world’s people; to have greater stability in Asia; and not have the Soviet Union be the only spokesperson for the communist world; to nudge Moscow toward better relations; to get help on ending the Vietnam War; to lift the morale of the American people, which are clearly going to be disillusioned by whatever outcome in Vietnam, which is bound not to be World War II Fifth Avenue parades but a(n) ambiguous outcome; and to show the world that we could still act dramatically on the world stage. We achieved all those objectives—we’ll get into detail. The Chinese achieved their two main objectives, balancing against the polar bear—the Soviet threatening to the north, and they just had border clashes in the summer of ’69—and breaking out of their diplomatic isolation. They had only one ambassador abroad. They achieved their objectives. And the two sides agreed to kick the Taiwan issue down the road for later resolution. Chairman Mao, in a meeting I was at secretly, told Nixon this can wait a hundred years. And so by having a unique communiqué in which each side stated its differences, the few areas of agreement, including hegemony against Moscow, stood out as being more credible, and we were not unnerving our allies or confusing our public.

With the Soviet Union, we pursued a policy of détente. In Emmanuel Kant’s phrasing, essentially, you have to defend freedom, but you have to also deal with your adversaries because if you’re not surviving neither are your ideals. So a combination of sticks and carrots—firmness, pushing back. And the greatest definition recently of détente I would recommend Niall Ferguson in your next panel. He may be on Zoom right now. Does a very good job of explaining it. I know because I spent countless hours trying to help define it while we were there.

But as a result of the China opening right after July ’71 trip was announced the Russians, who had been holding out on a summit, didn’t want it. It would cause trouble in our submarine base in Cuba, which we got rid of, and then the Middle East and Europe immediately agreed to a summit. Their ambassador flew out to San Clemente and proposed it after they had been dragging their feet. We made immediate progress on Berlin negotiations and on arms control and had a successful summit.

And then, thirdly, Vietnam, of course, was a much murkier outcome. We’ll get into that. The basic strategy here was to project the two extremes of all-out assault on North Vietnam and immediately withdraw, which nobody was proposing at the time and which would have been impossible without overthrowing the Saigon government, a position that Hanoi held to until the fall of ’72.

And, thus, the strategy was turning the conflict as best we could over to the Vietnamese themselves and within nine months half of their five hundred thousand troops were withdrawn by aiding and training them and in the meantime negotiating secretly to try to reach an honorable settlement. I would argue it gave South Vietnam a decent opportunity, not a cynical, decent interval. We’ll get back into that. But it was undercut by the Congress and U.S. domestic actions.

So that was the three major initiatives. They all came within eighteen months in 1972, and I was very privileged to be part of all three of them.

I’ll just end up by saying some of that remains today; some of it, of course, overtaken after fifty years. But the China approach, the “One China” principle, which—and the “One China” policy, which four or five people in the world understand, has served for fifty years to allow us to go ahead with bumps in the road, obviously, and ups and downs with China.

Meanwhile, Taiwan, thanks primarily to its own efforts and our security umbrella, has flourished as an economic power and as a democracy and has maintained its own autonomy. With the Soviets that’s a much more difficult inheritance today, but some form of mix is probably still needed in terms of firmness and trying to carve out some stability.

So I think there’s been lasting effects but if you look at the record in ’69 to ’71—to ’77 I think it holds up well. There was some slowing down in momentum, obviously, after Watergate—congressional reaction to executive overreach.

Kissinger managed to keep the Soviet and China policies in place even though it didn’t gain much momentum, went ahead with tremendous diplomacy—overlooked—in southern Africa in which we focused on majority rule for the first time. And he held the country together during a constitutional crisis as the most respected person here and around the world.

I’ll leave it at that and we can get into more depth on some of these issues.

NAFTALI: Thank you, Winston.

Professor Carolyn Eisenberg?

EISENBERG: Thank you. And thank you to the Council for inviting me to participate.

You know, back then if you asked most—back then being 1969, 1970—you asked those people why is the United States in Vietnam, and why do we have soldiers there dying every day, what explains this, and probably, you know, most people would say, well, we have to do it because of the Russians, or we have—rather do it—we have to do it because of the Chinese. And if you pushed it a little bit farther: What about that? Well, so then there was the stupid answer of because they’ll be in San Francisco if we don’t stop them. And then there was the more sophisticated answer, which was American credibility; that we have to show them that we’re strong, otherwise they are going to take advantage of us. So that was really for folks that supported the war. Mostly it was because of the fear of the communist superpowers that was involved.

And so by 1971-72 there are these dramatic breakthroughs which Winston just talked about in terms of relations with the Soviets and with the Chinese, and for a lot of people at the time it was very difficult to understand, like, why are our boys over there dying and now here’s Nixon, you know, having toasts in Beijing and apparently later having a fine old time in Moscow. You know, how do we explain these things coming together so, like, a paradox, and Nixon himself was very aware that this might seem a little odd to many people.

But, you know, as a historian I was wondering about that, too. I wanted to know how things fit together and I remember when I—that was really one of my major questions when I started my book project about a hundred years ago and I remember having this conversation with Joan Hoff-Wilson, a presidential historian. She said, don’t do it because there’s going to be no records; you’re never going to see what’s going on there.

Well, that wasn’t true because those records became available—the transcripts of negotiations, memos back and forth—and not only the U.S. side but unexpectedly the Russian side, that those documents became available and translated. And so you could also see what the Dobrynin was saying or, you know, to the people back in Moscow and so forth. So it really became possible to know more.

But when I finally looked at these documents, thousands of them, and also about the war itself I was very surprised at what I found, really. So I want to just say—well, one thing is that I think it’s a fair point that both Nixon and Kissinger came into their positions thinking that they wanted to improve relations with the Russians and the Chinese.

So that was a goal. They wanted things to be more stable. They thought that the opening to China would be a good idea. So these were things they began with.

But as you move right along in their administration I want to just touch very briefly on the actual circumstances under which these things happened and I would argue—and I think we have a disagreement—that their Vietnam policy was a disaster, that essentially, yes, it was true that they were taking troops out over time. That was, by the way, over Kissinger’s dead body. He didn’t want to do that and Laird prevailed on the president because—for political reasons.

But they were getting absolutely nowhere in their policy, and then in 1971—in early ’71 they have a complete disaster in Lam Son 719, which is something a lot of people somehow got lost in the shuffle. But it was very big. This was a huge fiasco, and this was an operation that was planned in which large numbers of South Vietnamese troops were supposed to go into Laos, stay there for two months, and the reasoning for that was because that would make it impossible for North Vietnam to send troops down into the south.

It would be basically blocking it, and the goal there was to prevent another offensive either in ’71 or ’72 at a time when Richard Nixon would be up for reelection. So this was the plan at this point that American troops were not going to be on the ground but American airpower would be. And so it was also seen not just as a practical thing but as a real test of how well South Vietnamese could carry on if they didn’t have U.S. ground troops.

And it’s a total failure, although for a while it’s difficult for Nixon and Kissinger to even know that it’s a total failure. Reporters are saying one thing. They never listened to them. They’re listening to the military. There’s a lot of lying, which is habitual for the whole time of people making up things.

But in the end it’s an obvious disgrace because these South Vietnamese troops come fleeing out of Laos, right. There are those pictures. Some of you who are older may remember those pictures of South Vietnamese troops, you know, clinging to these American helicopters.

And so this is a dramatic demonstration of the bankruptcy of their Vietnam policy, and Nixon in particular is quite worried about—and when Nixon worries Kissinger worries—and they’re really struggling with how to deal with that. And just as they’re in the most miserable moment they get this message from the Chinese that they would welcome an American emissary to come to China.

And Kissinger is overjoyed. He can’t believe his good luck that this is happening right now and he says to Nixon: We can do this. We’re going to get this horrible story off the front pages for a while. This will be so much bigger.

So I really want to emphasize that this is not little, that when those conversations, first, in Beijing take place and then later in Moscow—and probably can’t get to that right now—that a very powerful motivation of those talks is that they really want—minimally they want it to be successful so there could be summits, right. That is critical. And the Russians certainly understand this as well when Kissinger is engaging in negotiations with them.

They want two things. They want a summit with both in 1972 because that’s when Nixon will be, you know, up for reelection and they want to show that Nixon is a peacemaker. Like he said, “Call me a man of peace,” the most ridiculous thing in the world. But that’s what they’re trying to present.

So they want a summit, and then in their ongoing interactions with China and with Russia they are continually pressing them for help with the North Vietnamese. And initially they’re a little slow pressing it because when Kissinger is on his first trip and meeting the Chinese for the first time, you know, he can’t just be as open as he will become.

But over time in his exchanges with both of those powers that becomes a bigger and bigger message is that they want help getting themselves out of a war that is failing, and I can’t emphasize that enough. It is a failed policy which Henry Kissinger has never taken responsibility for in which twenty thousand Americans died, another hundred thousand wounded, maybe 2 million Asians killed for a policy that’s ultimately absurd.

And so when I looked at these transcripts—and I’m not just talking about one meeting because I read through almost every meeting with the Russians and with the Chinese—a lot of it is exactly the opposite of what you would say, which is their need for help getting them out. And when you see Dobrynin’s communications back to Moscow over a long time, that’s really what he—you know, what he’s emphasizing is the desperation of the Nixon people to get that help.

And to me the real lesson of it is that a lot of these claims about American credibility, you know, you can always say that about almost anything. You know, now we have Biden saying it about things, too. You can always say it but in point of fact those are empty claims and they often conceal a tragic waste of human life.

Thank you.

NAFTALI: Professor—thank you very much, Carolyn.

Professor Jeremi Suri?

SURI: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here and I want to begin where Michael Froman started earlier today.

The Council on Foreign Relations was created in the 1920s because it was concerned that Americans didn’t understand or care about diplomacy enough. As a historian, one of the striking elements of Kissinger’s career is how he makes diplomacy sexy, how he makes diplomacy important to Americans.

It is one of the least American traditions we have. We are late to create a Foreign Service. We don’t create a Foreign Service till after the U.S. Civil War. We have even at the start of World War I a very poorly prepared Foreign Service for the world we’re in.

That’s why this institution exists and it’s extraordinary how the Cold War and the combination of Kissinger’s personality, for better and for worse—and we’ve heard two sides of that story, which won’t be resolved here, I’m sure—how he makes diplomacy and the use of power as a negotiator, as a representative of the United States, as a nonmilitary actor and a noneconomic actor, how he makes that so central to the ways Americans think about foreign policy. It’s one of the biggest shifts that occurs during the Cold War.

And I think there are four lessons—I have four minutes—so four lessons that come from this and these lessons can be inflected in positive and negative directions. But they are why as a historian I care about Henry Kissinger.

Why I wrote a book about him years ago, why I interviewed him about twelve to fifteen times, why he and I had this strange relationship is because I think he cared about how historians viewed him. He cared deeply about that, and I think his presence is unavoidable if you’re a historian of America in the last century or so and we’re only beginning to grapple with that.

So first lesson. Kissinger defined diplomacy as the pursuit of national interest, not the pursuit of ideals. Woodrow Wilson was, in that sense, his alternative perspective that he saw himself arguing against. For Kissinger there were three things that mattered—the nation, the nation, and the nation, those three things—and I argue in my book—and I think it’s right because I made the argument, of course—that he comes to view the United States as having a moral quality—an inherent moral quality that is non-falsifiable. It’s ontological and, of course, his background is actually studying with Carl Friedrich and William Elliott, who were more philosophers than they were international relations theorists.

He sees the United States as a savior nation, or, as Madeleine Albright, another immigrant of Jewish background, later argued the United States is an indispensable nation, and what serves the interests of the United States, whether it matches with American ideals or not, whether it matches with our preferences or not, is what’s most important and this explains, for example, one of the most striking moments for me, someone writing about Kissinger’s World War II experience and his Jewish background, which I think are significant—he and I spent a lot of time talking about that—what’s striking to me is how he encourages Nixon not to focus on Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union.

This is, of course, his big difference of opinion. Win dealt with this for a long time with Senator Henry Jackson from Washington and the Jackson-Vanik amendment, of course, is passed as a response to this.

But Kissinger’s view was that even as a fellow Jew who cared about Jews around the world, cared deeply, that it wasn’t the purpose of the United States to save Jews. It was the purpose of the United States to push forth with détente that would serve the larger interests of a world order and the United States.

And this is significant. This is significant in thinking about how he views diplomacy. Diplomacy was about national interests, not ideals, for Henry Kissinger.

Second, diplomacy was about personal relationships more than formulas and data. I keep reminding my economist colleagues of this, that to have an Excel spreadsheet filled with lots of data is not to be conducting diplomacy. That’s to be having an academic seminar.

Diplomacy was about personal relationships Kissinger developed through his career, starting in World War II in counterintelligence as a recent immigrant to the United States, through his time at Harvard, through his time as Nelson Rockefeller’s do-it-all assistant, through his time as NSC advisor and secretary of state and through his time after he was in office.

He was out of office for almost fifty years and remained influential through all of those fifty years by managing personal relationships with powerful people as Jews have for the last thousand years.

Kissinger was never elected to an office. He was never in an accountable public office in the way in which an elected figure would be in a democracy. But he was someone who appealed to powerful people, managed personal relationships within the United States and outside of the United States. The shuttle diplomacy that came up earlier is a classic example of that, the relationship he builds with Anwar Sadat as well as Yitzhak Rabin as well as Hafez al-Assad.

But even more significant—and Win and Carolyn have referred to this—his relationship with Soviet and Chinese leaders, right? The management of personal relations I can say also, having dealt with him a little bit, there was a charming quality this man had and an ability of figuring out what it was you wanted him to say, how he could say that, and then move you to the position he wanted to be in. Tim knows this better than anything.

Kissinger was a master at writing memos to the president. The president always had three options but there was really only one option and that was Henry’s option. He was a very talented memo writer in getting powerful people to do what he wanted them to do thinking they were doing it for themselves. I try to teach my students to do the same.

Third element, linkage. Kissinger understood as only an intellectual would that complexity can be your friend. Complexity can be your friend. When you have a dyadic relationship of two actors who are at each other’s throats, Democrats and Republicans, it is often very helpful to have a third, a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth actor, that multipolarity—and here he differed from Cold War conventional wisdom—multipolarity gave more advantages to the United States than bipolarity.

A bipolar world, U.S.-Soviet, is simple. A multipolar world gives you more flexibility. That’s why he thrived at times in the Middle East. That’s why he didn’t thrive in Vietnam because this was not really a multipolar conflict. Civil wars aren’t, right?

Final point, and I think this might be the most important, Kissinger understood throughout his career what Clausewitz teaches all of us, that all diplomacy, all war, is politics. It’s all politics. He did not believe in making grand strategy in an isolated ivory tower. Too many people run grand strategy programs thinking that’s what it’s about.

Grand strategy—for Kissinger strategy was all about politics. You had to sell what you were doing to people whether you were in a democracy or not and, in fact, one of his great insights was that even dictators, even the Assads and the Maos, had to sell what they were doing in their societies and that gave us an advantage in working with them, giving them things they could use to sell a particular policy.

Kissinger saw domestic politics is at the center of all foreign policy and here I agree a hundred percent with what both Carolyn and Win have written in their books, which you should also read in addition to mine, which is that if you read Kissinger’s memos they’re often about politics. They’re often about advising the president or others how to talk about an issue at home, how to deal with Congress.

That’s not separate from policy. That’s at the center of foreign policy. Kissinger teaches us that diplomacy matters. He teaches us the power of diplomacy. But he’s also a warning because of the mistakes he made as well as his successes—the big mistakes he made. He teaches us to be wary of diplomatic masters of the game.

I don’t think we want diplomatic masters of the game. We want a vibrant State Department, which today is underfunded—it should be funded better—filled with better trained diplomats who are able to do more of this work not as individuals but as a larger institution. I think that’s one of the lessons we take from Kissinger’s career.

Thank you.

NAFTALI: Thank you very much, Jeremi.

I’d like to ask the panel about the role of force.

LORD: Could I respond to Carolyn first?

NAFTALI: Oh, you can if you’d like. Sure.

LORD: A respectful debate here because—before we lose sight of it. Is that OK?

NAFTALI: Go ahead.

LORD: First, I agree with almost everything you said about Henry including that the president always wanted options. We usually said one option is unconditional surrender, another option is nuclear war, and a third option is continue present policy. That was basically our approach.

SURI: Very helpful, Win. Yeah. (Laughter.)

LORD: But one correction I will make on Jews coming out of the Soviet Union. Henry, obviously, cared deeply about them. He felt it was more effective to do it privately than legislation in Moscow’s face.

Now, sometimes Henry went overboard in this and I would disagree with him on this. But in this particular case he got many more Jews out secretly before Jackson-Vanik and when Jackson-Vanik was enacted their numbers went way down. So for him it was not caring; it was a matter of what’s the most effective mechanism.

Now, again, I don’t want to take too much time here and we have respectful disagreement but I’m, obviously, biased because I—and I don’t say this for self-promotion but to say that I’m aware of the agonizing choices that leaders have to make.

Kissinger had to balance the president, the bureaucracy, the Congress, the media, international actors, pressures from all sides, and you often have to make choices based on imperfect knowledge and with no good choices available.

So I would just appeal to people who have not served in government to understand when you’re in government you’re facing tremendous agonizing dilemmas. I saw this firsthand. I was in every single meeting with the Vietnamese, the Chinese, every major trip with the Russians as well and the Middle East shuttles, and I wrote some of the memos that you were mentioning.

I was a co-drafter of the Shanghai communiqué and the Vietnam peace agreement. So I’m, obviously, biased and I can, obviously, be wrong. But it’s not based on knowledge and with a sensibility of the tough choices you have to make.

NAFTALI: Ambassador, can we—let’s let Carolyn respond.

LORD: Yeah. No, I didn’t get to her but, yeah, I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll let you go on.

EISENBERG: Yeah. I used to be on panels with Jeremi and we could argue with each other.

You know, I think when you’re describing this, I mean, first of all, I think this word complexity, which is a big favorite of Kissinger’s, often actually is in the service of obscuring some fairly simple thing.

You’re asking American troops to risk their lives and to die, and his one screen—he hardly ever wanted to hear about what was happening on the ground in these places; that all sorts of other people and inputs and position papers, but his extreme disinterest in what was happening, for example, in Laos to actual people, or what was happening in Cambodia to actual people, or to our own soldiers. I have looked at more Kissinger documents than any normal person should forever, and—(laughter)—no, really—(laughter)—but you know, the lack—the sense in which he is closed off from the consequences of the decisions he makes is actually stunning.

You know, so, for example, he can’t learn from journalists who are there. He likes the journalists that aren’t there who are his friends. He calls them up. He tells them he’s agonizing. But when he has to see something in the newspapers that describe what happened in a Cambodian village when those U.S. troops were in there to him that’s all propaganda. He doesn’t want to be bothered with that, and that, I think, is his most fundamental flaw and that of Richard Nixon—the not caring, the insensitivity to the suffering that their policies caused.

LORD: I’ll come back later. I’ll just—

SURI: I’d like to—

LORD: But to say that Henry did not care is just an outrage.

SURI: Well—

LORD: I was with him every day and I know what he cared about. But go ahead.

NAFTALI: Let’s talk about the dilemmas of presiding over a controversial subject. (Laughter.)

Let’s talk about the dilemmas of establishing a structure of peace. Let’s take the concept that President Nixon talked a lot about even more than Henry Kissinger while using force, because this is—this is one of the dilemmas. And one of the—I think one of the insights that you—one gets from studying the record that you helped create, Ambassador Lord, is the number of times that Henry Kissinger was the one pushing Richard Nixon to use force, which seems surprising to have that come from a student of history and someone who is committed to diplomacy.

And so I wondered how the three of you tried to figure out whether through a taxonomy, through narrative, or through experience how Secretary Kissinger thought about force and its—and the need to use it. Was it—was he thinking in terms of just threats in order to maintain American credibility or, indeed, did he feel it necessary to shed blood at times?

SURI: Yeah. So, I mean, I’ll start on that. I think it’s the right question to ask, Tim, and I think we also have to recognize that he believed that this was one of the areas he had particular knowledge because of his experience during the war and the work he had done here and elsewhere thinking about nuclear weapons.

One of the big dilemmas in the Cold War is how do you use force without risking a nuclear war, right? How do you do that? And I think Kissinger thought about it in two ways, right? He believed that the United States had to use enough force to deter others from doing things they could otherwise get away with.

The term that was used in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s that’s sort of fallen out of favor now, right, salami tactics, right—that the other side would take small actions, right, such as the Chinese shelling Quemoy-Matsu and later moving on Taiwan, such as North Korea invading South Korea, right—that they would take actions which they thought they could get away with because we would be afraid to respond fully.

So we had to use enough force to deter bad behavior but not so much force that we ended up in a nuclear war, and managing that, calibrating that, almost all of his writing was about that. Of the nineteen articles in Foreign Affairs that he wrote about ten, I think, by my count were about that. His Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy book was about that, too. So the calibration of power, right? The calibration of power.

And then the second point that I think was implied in your question is then the management of that with diplomacy. Kissinger believed that you use force and you negotiate at the same time. One is not an alternative to the other, and one of the big mistakes Americans continue to make is to assume that you’re either at war where you don’t conduct diplomacy or you’re at peace where you conduct diplomacy.

In fact, you are doing both at the same time, and whether one agrees with his policies on Vietnam or not—we’re not going to have agreement between my two colleagues here on that—there’s no doubt in his eyes what he’s doing is using force and trying to negotiate, using force to actually help his negotiating position, and the difference between my colleagues will be whether they think it actually worked or not in that matter.

LORD: Well, I think that was a superb rundown. I have no, really, disagreements. I would just add a couple of quick points.

Actually the cases where Nixon was much more interested in using force than Henry he wanted to—he pushed for bombing North Vietnam and Henry actually restrained him that time. Now—

SURI: Except in 1972.

LORD: Well, that’s what I’m about to get to. Until we got to ’72, when there was a mass invasion by the North Vietnamese, and then they both agreed to respond to that and to make sure that Vietnamization could succeed, if possible, with our—with our help. And in fact, the combination of blunting the North Vietnamese offensive, and then the North Vietnamese finally agreeing to our peace structure in October ’72 because they’re worried about Nixon getting reelected, that would about the settlement. So I—but I basically would echo what he said about the calibration between power and diplomacy.

EISENBERG: If I could come back and sort of refocus us a little bit, you know, exactly on the Vietnam situation and what happened.

I mean, first of all, I think it’s very important to remember that within the administration—within the Nixon administration that it was Kissinger who most of the time was the person that was advocating the use of force. I mean, that there are moments when that’s not true. There are moments when Richard Nixon, you know, really would like to just obliterate everybody.

But in general that’s true and one of the things that that means concretely—I don’t—it’s hard to explain everything in four minutes—is that one of the policies of the Nixon administration that characterize the whole four years was the removal of American troops, that that was something that was pushed by Melvin Laird, that for Nixon to continue even pursuing the war he had to keep taking troops out.

And so in actuality by the time that you’re in November of 1972 there was maybe, what, 20,000 troops there, most of them not combat troops. That was the policy that Kissinger opposed from the outset and I think there’s a reason—there are a number of reasons why that was true.

But maybe the most important is really from almost the beginning Kissinger had a very dim view of the South Vietnamese. Somewhere in 1971 he says to Nixon, let’s face it; Thiệu is a dope. And, you know, so that’s one sentence in a moment of irritation.

But that attitude towards South Vietnam was present from the—really, from the outset both of the fighting ability of ARVN and also of the political leadership in Saigon. And why I think that’s significant is that there’s a certain sense in which he never believed in Vietnamization and he didn’t so clearly even believe that the government of South Vietnam could survive, and I think what’s very striking about that is that given that pessimism about what was the likely result of all of this, of all this destruction and fighting and suffering, that it was likely that it wasn’t going to work and that that ought to be something that would partly shape your decision if you think it’s likely not going to work.

So I think, you know, that—I mean, and this, again, goes back to the casualness with which he advocated for it. I mean, it’s really striking when you look at the record in the administration on Cambodia and the invasion of Cambodia, which he was an advocate for.

It was not true of Secretary Rogers and Laird but he was a big fan of that. But I look at that record and would be very hard pressed to find anything in that record that shows any concern about what happens in a Cambodian village when U.S. troops come in there.

And, again, to the extent that there are American reporters who are describing what’s happening there he thinks they’re enemies; there’s nothing to learn from them. He doesn’t want to hear about that.

So, you know, I think that whole attitude is what’s striking. And then, again, the other—flip of it is the extent to which in seeking, almost beseeching at times, the Russians and the Chinese for help with this mess, that it actually belies the rationalization that we were doing all this for American credibility; we’re doing all this to avoid a worse outcome in terms of great-power politics. I don’t think it’s true.

LORD: I mean, I—I’m going to have to answer this. I’m sorry.

EISENBERG: It’s OK. (Laughs.)

LORD: I don’t know—I don’t even know where to begin and how to express myself.

NAFTALI: Well, the beauty of this is that many of these debates are in your work. But if you want to make a few points, Winston, let’s do it.

LORD: I do. I just can’t let this sort of lay on the table here. I mean, it’s—

NAFTALI: Well, the beauty—

LORD: First of all, the point being that we didn’t think they could survive, we were not naïve about Hanoi’s intentions, but we thought for four reasons that the peace agreement that we reached had a chance for a decent opportunity for the South Vietnamese, and it could not have been achieved any earlier. From the very beginning of the administration, it wasn’t just a matter of whether we could just withdraw; they insist that we overthrow the Saigon government at the same time. And it’s only in October ’72 when they agreed to a settlement which we outlined as early as the spring of 1970.

We felt that the combination of low-level violations of a ceasefire, which would be policed by international supervision and infiltration not allowed, could be handled by the South Vietnamese with economic and military assistance; that a major invasion we could respond with airpower; that with aid being extended to North Vietnam and other countries, this would encourage them to at least wait out and see whether they could wait for the long term rather than overthrowing the agreement; and to get the Chinese and Russians to help police the agreement. We thought these four things would work. We were not naïve. They didn’t work. We made some miscalculations. So you could say they were bad judgments, but not cynicism.

And then, finally, on the Cambodia and Laos business, I mean, take Cambodia. North Vietnamese troops were occupying Cambodia for four years, and to say we spread the war when they were there for four years violating sovereignty? Nixon wanted to bomb the North. Kissinger said, let’s bomb along the trails instead. And the fact is that you—and talk about agonizing choices. If you have North Vietnamese coming into South Vietnam killing four hundred American soldiers a week and South Vietnamese, and then retreating back into safe havens—they were in unpopulated areas, very few Cambodians. The bombing was five miles along the border at the most, and it did reduce casualties. So these are the kind of agonizing choices.

And they fully briefed about twenty-five members of Congress. Sihanouk did not want us to make it public because he—but he tolerated and encouraged it because he didn’t want to show that he was allowing bombing even though it was unpopulated areas. And the North Vietnamese didn’t even make it public because they knew they were occupying another country.

So there’s a million things I’d like to say, but I’ll stop at that.

NAFTALI: Do you think—how well do you think Henry Kissinger’s understanding of the structure of peace worked in the Global South, which was then called the third world? One gets a sense from Kissinger’s memoirs that he recognizes he had a hard time actually understanding—he wouldn’t have used the term Global South—but understanding the fact that countries in the developing world had agency, actually had choices that they could make outside of the—outside of bipolarity.

SURI: So I think it’s a great question. I think one of the lessons from Kissinger’s career and, quite frankly, one of the lessons from the Cold War is the United States does better in certain regions than others and that has to do with the breadth of our understanding, our experience, and our own national interests.

So when I teach and write about Kissinger I emphasize both the positives and the negatives, and one could argue he does a remarkably good job at managing relations most of the time in Europe and in Asia and he does a remarkably bad job in other areas, and that’s not to condemn him or to valorize him. It’s to show the limitations of a particular intellect and the limitations of the American institutional structure for foreign policy.

I think if you look at Nixon and Kissinger policy in Chile, for example, or in Angola—

NAFTALI: Angola.

SURI: Right, or in East Timor, it’s very hard to defend those policies, right? In the case of Chile I think it echoes a lot of what Carolyn’s talking about with regard to Vietnam. There is a callousness in the discussions about what to do in Chile.

There’s an ignorance of the long history of civil-military relations. Chile, until the coup that we helped to support, had a long tradition of civilian control over the military. We destroyed that. We helped to destroy that by supporting a coup there, right? And the communist threat there was really not that significant. In fact, the socialist government was on its way down anyway.

But I would argue that if you look at Europe and you look at managing relations with China and the creation of an incredibly creative “One China, two government” policy you see a lot of creativity. You see a lot of insight. You see a lot of very effective use of diplomacy and force to promote U.S. interests and I would make that argument even to some extent in the Middle East.

And so what do we take from this, Tim? I think we take from the fact that the United States is really not as globally capable as it often thinks it is, that there are limits to our power, and that we should be very careful particularly in those regions that we don’t understand quite as well. I wish we had learned that lesson before the war in Iraq.

NAFTALI: Thank you, Jeremi. And at this time I would like to invite members and guests in New York and on Zoom to join our conversation. I believe we have 150 people on Zoom watching today’s panel.

A reminder that this meeting is on the record, and I will take our first question from here in New York. Yes?

Q: Hi. Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, longtime journalist.

Professor Suri, my question is for you. In your opening remarks you seem to suggest in your conversations with Kissinger that he acknowledged mistakes. Did I misunderstand you? Did he acknowledge mistakes and, if yes, what were they?

SURI: So I think he did. Generally, they were mistakes in the ways he felt he had explained his policies. So he felt that what he was doing especially in terms of intentions and efforts he felt deserved to be vindicated in all cases. But he did acknowledge—and I talk about this a little bit in my book—he did acknowledge that at times they didn’t do a good job explaining his policies.

Now, that’s different from taking ownership over—for instance, the criticism I just voiced about U.S. policy in Chile he never accepted that. He never accepted that. So substantively very little admission of mistake, if any, but stylistically quite a bit.

And the other thing I’ll say is my impression from spending time with him was he had his own doubts. He was afraid to voice them. But I think he was actually haunted by the mistakes he himself recognized he had made.

NAFTALI: If I may. He does in his memoirs admit that he didn’t understand that Havana had its own foreign policy and one gets the sense that he was rethinking the U.S. commitment to Angola, which was not a place of strategic interest at the time. We had just gotten thrown out of Vietnam and Henry Kissinger hyperventilated over the threat to U.S. credibility because the Soviets and, largely, the Cubans were supporting the MPLA in Angola. And I think in his writings he admits error. In public often he didn’t do that.

Another question from New York.

Q: Maryum Saifee with the State Department. Thank you so much for this panel reflecting on Kissinger’s legacy.

I came a little late so I don’t know if this was addressed but I’d be curious if the panelists could discuss Bangladesh, you know, and the legacy of Kissinger there. You know, at the State Department the architect of the Dissent cable, Archer Blood, tried to sound the alarm bells of a genocide unfolding and his career was, largely, destroyed afterwards.

So I’d be curious to think about sort of the role of Kissinger in terms of the, as you mentioned, overall positive in Asia but I don’t know about Bangladesh. I’d be curious.

LORD: I didn’t quite hear the question.

NAFTALI: The question was about Henry Kissinger’s role in the Indo-Pakistani war, which, of course, leads to the foundation of Bangladesh and the deaths.

SURI: Yeah. I think it’s a very fair criticism. When I referred to Asia I was thinking more of East Asia, not South Asia, and my family is from India, actually originally from Pakistan but really from India after the partition. So this is also a personal issue for me, and I think it—many of the criticisms that have been voiced of U.S. policy in that region are accurate.

Kissinger had a somewhat cynical view of the role that Pakistan would play as serving U.S. interests. He and Nixon both had a very strong aversion to Indira Gandhi. I will say that reading many of the accounts of their meetings with Indira Gandhi it’s shameful the language they use.

This is not the place to get into a discussion of gender and foreign policy but it’s very strongly there. They used words that we wouldn’t use in this space here repeatedly to refer to her. There’s a sense that the Indians are seeking to become a regional power of their own which would challenge U.S. power.

I mean, India has a very strong and very legitimate anti-imperial sentiment and it does view the United States often as an intervener. My own family members refer to us that way there.

So there was, I think, a very anti-Indian attitude and a callousness toward the effects on the ground that this would have, and then there was an effort to shut down Blood’s telegram and to close off the Dissent channel.

So it is not—there’s nothing really good to say about that at all and it’s another case of where I think Kissinger was too powerful and acting with too little knowledge. He should have been listening to Blood and other area experts within the State Department. I hope we’ve learned that lesson.

NAFTALI: Would you like to say—


LORD: Let me just say, since—oh, go ahead, please.

EISENBERG: Well, right. I mean, I think—(laughs)—if we were here all day, what we would probably find out is that we’re seeing a totally different person. And it’s true you saw him in person and I just, like, read more transcripts than anybody should ever have, plus the fact of all his telephone calls, which even you didn’t hear, right, which I don’t know if folks understand that these transcripts of thousands of phone calls have also became publicly available.

And I’m making this sort of general point that although he himself liked to project as this brilliant person with complex ideas about everything and supreme rationalist he’s very emotional and one of the aspects of his emotion is the extent to which he is personally invested in the relationship with China, right—that this is almost like he owns that relationship.

And so when he’s approaching the question of Bangladesh he’s seeing it from that vantage point is it good for our relationship with China or is it bad for our relationship, and I would argue that when you listen to him and when you see what he says that that emotional need overshadows, again, the humanitarian crisis, you know, that’s taking place.

LORD: Just a quick comment. I agree with the criticisms on the whole on the Bangladesh policy. I mean, I’m not going to defend Henry on every single issue. I think he and Nixon should have been much more outraged with what was going on in Bangladesh.

I will say—and I wasn’t involved in this particular policy—I will say they had two rationales and having said the rationales I still think they should have been more concerned about the Bangladesh issue.

Number one, Pakistan had served as our opening to China—the secret channel—and we owed Pakistan for that and we wanted to demonstrate to them and to China, its close friend, that we could be counted upon to stick by a friend. So there was the preservation of—and you point out the China aspect. I think that’s correct.

The other one is that they did have some reports and intelligence that the Indians might be moving against west Pakistan and there was a concern, and so part of the pushback on the Indians was concern about that.

But I don’t think that means that that was a great policy. I agree with most of the criticism.

NAFTALI: We have a question from our virtual audience.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Fred Hochberg.

Q: Thank you so much. This has been really excellent.

How much of all of this was about anti-communism and pro-capitalism? It just feels like so much of our policy in the twentieth century was shaped and distorted by a virulent anti-communist and pro-capitalist. Supporting people was mentioned in Vietnam but were not really good people, or in many other countries as long as they were anti-communist that mattered. How much of that factored into Kissinger’s thinking?

NAFTALI: Who would like to take that?

SURI: So, I mean—so, Fred, my argument is that that’s actually at the center of Kissinger’s thinking and it actually situates him in time, right. What do we do as historians, right? We look at how people reflect the time they’re in.

As someone who grew up in the shadow of fascism Kissinger, along with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carl Friedrich, Hannah Arendt, and others believed that communism was a form of red fascism, that it was another form of totalitarianism and it had to be resisted and contained at all costs.

Now, that raises the question how then do you pursue détente and openings with two communist countries, the Soviet Union and China. Kissinger’s view was that opening relations with them was another form of containment. It was not actually giving up on what was an anti-communist perspective and I think in retrospect, at least what I try to get across to young students today and future diplomats, is that anti-communism served a purpose. But it also became an obsession. It became an extreme black and white view of the world that often led the United States, particularly in regions outside of the center of Cold War conflict, to misunderstand conflict.

I don’t think there’s a historian now who wouldn’t say that the war in Vietnam was really not about communism versus capitalism. But that’s how we saw it, and seeing it that way led us to make many of the mistakes that I think Carolyn’s talking about.

EISENBERG: Can I come in on this?

NAFTALI: Sure. Of course.

EISENBERG: You know, I want to agree with that generalization of this being anti-communist except for two exceptions, that is, Russia and China, and in both of those relationships and, again, you know, I said at the outset—and I brought all these quotes that there’s no time to read—but, you know, it’s partly what absolutely startled me when I started to read the record, and I’m including in that not just the conversations but then what gets said back to Nixon.

He is so driven in those last two years of the Nixon administration to have those relationships work that he’s actually willing to overlook all sorts of things. I mean, even from the very beginning one of the things that he does is he makes it clear to Dobrynin—this is early—that wants Dobrynin to understand that the United States accepts the division of Europe, right. That’s, like, right out there and, you know, it’s in print, and he tells him this over and over again, you know, if we have a better relationship make—you know, you should be clear we have no problem with what the situation is in Eastern Europe.

And he actually goes so far as to tell Dobrynin that, you know, you may hear from time to time the president say something bad about the situation in Eastern Europe; pay it no attention. He’s dealing with a bunch of constituents in the Midwest and he has to conciliate them.

But over and over again—and you see it with the Chinese. He’s enamored of China. And it’s—you know, one point that he—he has a second meeting with Mao. I don’t know if—Winston, were you at that second meeting?

LORD: I was in all five meetings.

EISENBERG: Right. So the second meeting, you know, when he’s really falling all over himself. I mean, Mao says, why do you talk so much? (Laughs.) I mean, and Kissinger, oh, because it’s so important we understand one another, whatever. I’m reading this ridiculous exchange and I’m thinking, OK, well, you could say that’s just him being diplomatic, right? But when he writes to Nixon about this meeting, he’s—like, it’s euphoria. And he said, this is one of the giants of the twentieth century and he is wise and he takes our views more important than anything else. And this man—this is my favorite line—he said, and Mao is such a powerful personality. He’s not even fat, right? It’s all muscle.

And so, I mean, you know, again, I understand I’m probably driving Winston Lord crazy because everything is about how complex he is and his elaborate, you know, scenarios that he has through this and that.

But I think when you look at those meetings and similarly the transcripts of the meetings with Brezhnev in Russia and certainly his conversations with Dobrynin, you know, there’s a certain amount you could write off because he’s being a diplomat. He doesn’t want to infuriate them, right?

But there’s also a sense in which those relationships have become defining for his importance in the administration and that overshadows his ordinary anti-communist sentiment that comes in on many other issues but not really with Russia or China and I think, to me, that was—I didn’t start with that preconception but, you know, thousands of pages later it’s very difficult to escape that impression.

SURI: Tim, can I just say one thing about that? Because I think it’s relevant for thinking about his legacy.

I agree with Carolyn on China. I don’t agree on Russia. I think on Russia his view is that the relationship that he’s building with Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., and Leonid Brezhnev and the acceptance of the division of Europe is actually to contain communism.

But I think with China I think Carolyn is absolutely right. It struck me—and I’d love to hear Winston’s view of this—there was a sense that Kissinger had that China was this great civilization. He had disdain for Russia, and he talks about this in his memoir, right.

He talks in his memoir about when you go to Russia they’re constantly—in Soviet Union they’re constantly asking you, are you pleased? Are you comfortable? Where in China they never ask you. They just assume you’ve come to the great civilization.

This is his characterization. I’m not saying it’s accurate. His view is that China was a great civilization. He saw the world in civilizational terms. He believed there was a great North American civilization, there was a great German civilization, a great Chinese civilization, a great Persian civilization, and maybe even a great Egyptian civilization.

And so there is—I think Carolyn is right—there is this obsession with connecting to this greatness of China and a skepticism he has about whether Mao was really communist, which seems strange. In retrospect I think that American idealized view of China goes back a lot earlier than Kissinger and continues to some extent to this—to today and I think it’s a relevant connection of that history to where we are today.

LORD: I would just pivot quickly on the point about dealing with China and the Middle Kingdom’s self-confidence. One of Henry’s best traits was his ability to negotiate with different cultures and different countries. So with China, yes, Middle Kingdom confidence. So they took the long view and Henry could negotiate in terms of each other’s basic position.

Soviet Union paranoid because they’d been subject to so many invasions so they would haggle like rug merchants. The Vietnamese allergic to compromise so they would use talks as a weapon and try to wear us down.

Israel, surrounded by hostile forces, study every agreement with Talmudic fervor. In the shuttles with Sadat and Israel Golda Meier would ask for, say, ten requests. Henry would go get nine out of ten from Sadat and Golda Meier would beat him up on the one he didn’t get.

So my point here is that yes, I think he appreciated different cultures including China the way you mentioned but he adapted, saying negotiating styles were a result of their history and that was one of the genius insights and adaptability that Henry had.

SURI: I would say that it’s important to keep in mind that Kissinger abhorred doctrinaire thinking, and so the kind of inflexible John Foster Dulles approach to the world divided between us and them was a kind of thinking he abhorred. He felt that it was anathema for those who were engaged in shaping the world and diplomacy.

We’ve all—everyone has mentioned the role of domestic policy. I’d just throw out there that this would get him into trouble, that one of Kissinger’s great concerns, I would argue, was extremism and the far right, actually, in the United States, and it is the fact that he was not a doctrinaire anti-communist, in fact, willing to meet with adversaries which would undermine some of his political capital of which he had a lot and then would have very little for a while and would feed the rise of Reaganism, which he saw as a repudiation of the structure of peace that he and Nixon were trying to build.

EISENBERG: Can I come back in for one second?

In a rare moment Jeremi and I agree—(laughs)—that, you know, in terms of his affect about Russia versus China, right, I mean, he—you know, he had a lot of negative things to say about Russian culture and how they carried on. But there’s certain sentences that stand out to me from reading his record and one of them is that right in maybe December of 1972, like, right about that time he’s negotiating with the North Vietnamese and he gets this message from Al Haig, who’s back in Washington talking to Dobrynin.

Al Haig says to him, Henry, the Russians are going to bat for us, right. I mean, it was such an extraordinary thing. What is he talking about? Because, again, Kissinger was counting on the Russians to pressure the North Vietnamese and one of the things that is the most extraordinary about this period is in those final sets of negotiations with North Vietnam one of Kissinger’s concerns was that nobody in the State Department should know what was being said.

And so you literally have a paradoxical situation in which Dobrynin is actually being given more access to the written record of what’s happening in Paris than the secretary of state. And that’s not just about personalities; it is central to Kissinger’s belief that Russia is going to make Hanoi accept the terms that he is finally offering.

And, again, I think what is startling about that is that for the millions of Americans who have always seen Vietnam as important because Russia is a danger this is an absolute reversal of what those priorities are.

LORD: One quick point on this. Actually, Nixon put more stake in Russia helping us in Vietnam than Henry did. They both wanted both countries to help. But I personally drafted a cable where Henry was trying to get an arms control agreement with—in Moscow. Nixon said, no, no, let’s slow it down—we’ve got to get more help on Vietnam, and Henry said this is as much as they’re going to do.

So it wasn’t Henry over eager on Russia. It was more Nixon. That was, after all, his secret plan to end the war from the very beginning.

NAFTALI: So there was a limit to linkage?

LORD: That’s right.

NAFTALI: Is there another question from the floor here? Yes, sir, in New York.

Q: Norman Grossman (sp) and two questions.

One is on the question of anti-communism—oh, I’m sorry. Thank you.

On the question of anti-communism I’ve never been clear whether Nixon was leading Kissinger or Kissinger was leading Nixon. But when Nixon came in he certainly was elected as an anti-communist and everything I can recall is the whole idea of domino theory was just a mantra, and I didn’t know whether the ability to settle was because Kissinger was pulling Nixon away from that or not.

And then the second question somewhat related to that is with China I find it interesting that Kissinger was questioning whether Mao was actually a communist or not because it’s worth remembering that the last trip he made in his life was to China to meet with Xi—

SURI: Right.

Q: —and he was arguing there that Xi was not a communist trying to go back to Mao but, rather, just reflecting Chinese Confucianism, and I just wonder if that’s something that’s worth recognizing.

Thank you.

LORD: Well, Kissinger and Nixon were very similar in their strategic outlook. I don’t think there’s much daylight between them on almost any of the issues we’re talking about. One slight difference is that I think Nixon put more weight on Moscow helping on Vietnam than Henry, although Henry would have welcomed it.

So I think on the general feeling of strategy I think they were in close agreement. They were concerned about stability and I think what I would like to really emphasize here is that it’s very easy to go over transcripts, pick out anecdotes.

By the way, you’ve read the transcripts. I read—I wrote most of them. But to pick out anecdotes and individual comments of different situations and attack and nitpick as opposed to the overall record, which I tried to set out at the very beginning.

So I think it’s very difficult to deal with pinpricks and when you lose sight of the overall situation which existed at the end of the Nixon-Kissinger era as opposed to the beginning.

SURI: Can I answer that? Do we have time to—

NAFTALI: We have a minute. Go ahead. But I want to get some more questions.

SURI: So—oh, I’m sorry. So I do think there’s one big difference between Nixon and Kissinger. I think Nixon thought in terms of large labels, large strategic visions. Kissinger was an operational guy, too, and that’s part of what Carolyn and Winston are getting at.

In terms of China, I think even though Kissinger acknowledged—of course, he knew the history of the Great Leap Forward and things of that—he believed that both Mao, Xi Jinping, and most of the leaders in between were great Chinese leaders before they were communists. He never said that about Soviet leaders.

NAFTALI: I would say that the opening of China was Nixon’s idea and it actually came from De Gaulle. If anything, think of Nixon as a Gaullist if you want to understand how Nixon looked at the world with—

LORD: They both—Nixon emphasized China being part of the international system for stability, as he wrote in Foreign Affairs.

NAFTALI: In—I was going to say, Foreign

LORD: But Kissinger saw the balance of power aspect. He talked to the East Europeans when he was out of office and they said that Moscow was scared stiff if we opened with China. So they each came in with slightly different emphasis but you can’t give either one total credit for the opening.

NAFTALI: I would give more to Nixon. Yes, we have another question from outside in the virtual world.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Peter Galbraith.

Q: First, I want to thank you for an absolutely terrific panel and a great discussion.

Second, I want to say I—you know, I sympathize with what Winston Lord says about those of us who are in government—you’re faced with the real choices—and I’ve spent part of my career in government dealing with some of the issues that I think underscore Professor Eisenberg’s comment about the casual indifference of Nixon to—of Kissinger to the consequences—East Timor, the Kurds, Cambodia, and actually also East Pakistan.

But my question is a big one. We are now discussing the sale of F-16 aircraft to the very same communist regime in Vietnam that we fought, and the question is was there anything worthwhile from the American war in Vietnam, a war that Nixon and Kissinger prolonged for four years at such a high cost? Was there anything that was useful for all that sacrifice?

EISENBERG: I can be brief.

NAFTALI: Go ahead.

EISENBERG: None. Nothing worthwhile.

LORD: Look, it was a big defeat, there’s no way around it. The one thing you could say is that it bought some time for particularly Southeast Asian nations. The dominos did not fall. But that’s a minor plus versus the terrible loss and devastation.

I would just point out if you want to talk about this just remember what Nixon and Kissinger inherited and to the fact that there was no way to bring this thing to a close with a decent outcome until the North Vietnamese stopped on their insistence, which they maintained in every meeting I was in, that we not only had to withdraw—we were willing to withdraw unilaterally, have a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners, and international supervision from the spring of 1970 on, and they always insisted we overthrow the government at the same time.

And if you think that’s something easy to do and we just throw away ten years of sacrifice and American credibility one is welcome to that opinion, particularly because of the terrible costs of Vietnam. But I’m saying it’s an example of the terrible agonizing choices you make.

NAFTALI: We have time for one more question here in New York if there’s a question in New York. No. We have one more in the virtual world. Please go ahead.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the last question from Shahin Berenji.

Q: Can everyone hear me?

NAFTALI: Mmm hmm. Indeed.

Q: OK, great. Great panel. I really enjoyed hearing everyone speak.

With reference to U.S. policy towards the Middle East at this time there seems to be quite a paradox. U.S., of course, wants to achieve some sort of stability in the Middle East to prevent the outbreak of another Arab-Israeli war after ’73.

NAFTALI: We are a group that’s very interested in foreign affairs but this is a panel about Cold War diplomacy. Have you a question about Henry Kissinger and Cold War diplomacy?

Q: Yeah. Yeah. I’m getting to the question about Cold War diplomacy. The question—so, first off, the question is about the paradox in U.S. policy. It’s that there’s a stability in the—U.S. is trying to build stability, prevent the outbreak of another Middle East war after the ’73 war but this comes at the expense of trying to expand U.S. influence in the Middle East, and Kissinger—at the same time that we celebrate step by step diplomacy as a major success he—does it come at a sacrifice of a more comprehensive agreement on the Arab-Israeli conflict because Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy—

NAFTALI: Sir—sir—sir, this panel—the previous panel was on the Middle East. This panel is not—

Q: We’re talking about Kissinger’s legacy, though, right?

SURI: Tim, let me give a quick answer to that.

NAFTALI: Go ahead. Yes, sir.

SURI: Yeah. So I think it’s a good question, Shahin, right, and I think Kissinger consistently opposed what he thought was a—what people called a comprehensive peace because he thought that would make it impossible for the United States to maneuver between the different actors. He opposed a comprehensive peace at the end of his life, too.

What he did—what he thought he was doing and I think he did with some success was to exclude the Soviet Union as a major actor from the Middle East and increase American influence through—we talked about this some on the earlier panel—through Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

And I think that had negative effects particularly in isolating the Palestinians and in some respects it brought the United States front and center as an enemy of actors who felt excluded.

But that’s what we know now. That’s not how it was seen at the time. The big success as it was seen at the time in the ’70s was that it was excluding the Soviet Union and building a new source of order around key actors in the region.

LORD: And also Israel-Egypt relations, which have lasted until this day.

SURI: Right. Right.

NAFTALI: Thank you both.

I want to thank all of you for joining this session and I want to thank in particular Carolyn, Winston, and Jeremi. I’m Tim Naftali, your moderator, and this has been a remarkable and spirited conversation.

Please note that the video and transcript of this symposium will be posted on the Council on Foreign Relations website, and please join us for Session Three which will begin in fifteen minutes, “Emerging Technologies—From the Nuclear Age to AI.”

Thank you all again. (Applause.)


Virtual Session III: Emerging Technologies—From the Nuclear Age to AI

ROHLFING: OK, good morning all. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Symposium, “The Middle East, Cold War, and Emerging Technologies: The Contributions of Henry Kissinger.” This session is titled “Emerging Technologies—From the Nuclear Age to AI.” I’m Joan Rohlfing, president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and I will be presiding today over today’s discussion.

So let me introduce the speakers. First of all, with me here, Samm Sacks, senior fellow of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, and senior fellow, future security at New America. Also, on Zoom, we have Dr. Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School; he is also a CFR member. And Niall—Dr. Niall Ferguson, Milbank family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the author of Kissinger: The Idealist, covering the years 1923 to 1968.

It's wonderful to see both of you, if virtually. So I want to start this morning by talking a little bit about Dr. Kissinger and his work in the emerging technologies space. In his lifetime, Dr. Kissinger experienced several technological revolutions, two of which—nuclear and AI—posed potentially existential risks to humanity. His life’s work included important work regard the implications of these technologies for U.S. and global security.

We want to probe his thinking today, his framing of existential risks in emerging technology, and I would say, AI in particular. What lessons should we take from Dr. Kissinger’s work in the nuclear domain that have relevance and applicability to managing the increasingly complex challenge of AI and emerging tech. What were his recommendations regarding how to safeguard AI?

Let me say a word, too, about definitions. Many of us are increasingly using artificial intelligence—that term—to kind of connote a very broad range of emerging technologies, in part because AI intersects with so many other emerging technologies. So I’m—today, when I say AI, I use that in a very inclusive way. I think AI in and of itself is a worthy discussion for, frankly, a multi-day symposium, but when I say AI today, I don’t want our speakers to limit their thinking narrowly to artificial intelligence, but also to share their thoughts about how it intersects with other enabling capabilities of AI and other technologies.

So I’ll also note that three of the four of us on stage had personal relationships with Dr. Kissinger, in some case over some—I think in all cases probably over a multi-decadal period. So it’s a privilege and an honor to be able to engage this discussion today.

So I want to start our session with a very short lightning round—same question—to each of our three panelists about AI. And I’ll just—I’ll start by observing over the last year we’ve seen a lot of change in the AI space. This has suddenly kind of come into focus for many people who heard about AI for a long time but who haven’t had any kind of direct engagement with it. But over the past year and couple of months alone, we’ve seen the public release of ChatGPT. A lot of us have interacted with that, that gives us kind of a palpable feel for the technology. We’ve seen the publication of an open letter, organized by the Center for AI Safety, that urged mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war. And we continue to see a wide-ranging debate between camps that believe that AI should be allowed to develop without constraints to those that believe the work on AI should be terminated until such time as we have a plan in place to prevent an extinction event. So we’ve got kind of both sides of that spectrum.

I’m curious where our panelists are in their thinking about this technology, and Samm, I’m going to start with you here on stage. Do you believe—and so lightning round, I’m just looking for a sentence from each of you—do you believe AI poses an existential threat to humanity?

SACKS: No, if we don’t let it.

ROHLFING: OK. Graham, let’s go to you next.

ALLISON: I would say no one knows. There’s been a genre of fiction that is essentially dystopian about the ways in which ultimately AI either subordinates human beings or eliminates them. But I’m a congenital optimist, so I would say it’s conceivable, but no one knows. It’s certainly enough to worry about, but again, no one knows. And I’m ultimately optimistic.

ROHLFING: I’m glad to hear that. I’m going to be looking for signs of optimism in this discussion today. (Laughter.) There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic.

Niall, same question to you—is AI an existential threat?

FERGUSON: Probably not, but AGI probably would be, and that’s a really important distinction. If Sam Altman is successful—he only needs $7 trillion to create artificial general intelligence—we’ll have created aliens in our own midst that are more intelligent than us. And if you ask the other species on this planet that are less intelligent than us how it has gone for them, I think you’ll get a pretty gloomy verdict.

So I’m of the view that AGI is the thing that we need to worry about; not AI itself.

ROHLFING: Thank you. All right, that’s a good scene setter. Let’s dig into some of that, and Graham, I want to give the first kind of main or larger question to you.

In October last year—so really just a month before Dr. Kissinger passed away—you co-authored a piece with Dr. Kissinger entitled, The Path to AI Arms Control: America and China Must Work Together to Avert Catastrophe. Your article acknowledged the extraordinary challenges associated with safeguarding the awesome potential of AI, and then draws from lessons learned in the nuclear era to inform how humanity might approach the management of AI.

So both you and Dr. Kissinger urged engagement with China at both track-one and the track-two level, and you also observed that there is a narrow window of opportunity right now, given how quickly this technology is moving to influence the space.

I’m curious, Graham, why do you think we should be optimistic that this kind of government-to-government engagement is a viable path forward given, you know, the strong competition between the U.S. and China; the dysfunction, frankly, in our own government right now; and the fact that AI is largely—AI innovation is largely—in fact, almost exclusively—in the hands of the private sector. Can you give us some reasons for optimism on this approach?

ALLISON: Well, you’ve certainly framed the issue well, and it’s an interesting—I appreciate your referring to that article because, as Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, the editor of Foreign Affairs, will remember, it went through about twenty cycles of writing and revision, and Henry didn’t like this, and back and forth. So the idea that somebody who is a hundred years old was completely seized with this issue and thinking actively about it, that should be an inspiration enough.

But to your point in framing it, I’d make four points very briefly. First, seventy-eight, seventy-eight, and nine—if you can identify the questions to which each of those is an answer, you will have the big picture about the international security scene today—the international security order—and grounds for optimism. Seventy-eight years is how many years have passed since the last great power war. Seventy-eight years is also the number of years since nuclear weapons were used in war. And nine is the number of nuclear weapon states. Each of one of these, if you had made a bet about it in 1950, you would have got a thousand-to-one odds against it. But these have been remarkable accomplishments and a testimony, I think, to both strategic imagination, statecraft, and stick-to-it-iveness. And actually, Henry was part of this story, both in the thinking about it and the doing. So seventy-eight , seventy-eight, and nine.

Secondly—and the article, in the introduction, it explains more about that. Secondly, as the article notes, he recommends beginning with initial conversations, starting with the two leaders, and then with trusted agents of them in a track-one group, and then in track-two groups. It turned out, in the case of the nuclear weapons and the Cold War, to be a very productive—surprisingly productive way for two deadly adversaries nonetheless to come to have a common vocabulary, to understand how each other saw the potentially existential danger, to find even arenas of common interest. So I would say of looking at that history, what we had urged in an article was what actually happened at San Francisco, and Xi and Biden began a serious conversation. And actually I’m going off to China tomorrow to continue that effort.

So point three, a big takeaway from the nuclear story was the fact that two adversaries, each of whom was seriously determined to bury the other, could nonetheless find some islands of common interest. So while each would have liked to be a nuclear monopolist, duopoly was a lot better than having many nuclear weapon states. And so they agreed on what ultimately became the non-proliferation regime and the nine nuclear weapons. Each of them was clear that it would be a disaster if the other nuclear weapons were used accidentally or in an unauthorized fashion. So there was shared interest in the central authority monopolizing control of the nuclear weapons., and ultimately even as—Joan, you remember as you’re familiar with its history, discussions of permissive action links, or electronic locks, or other ways of doing this. So I think from this story I find, again, possibilities. Right now, as the article argues, there are two AI superpowers. They may find a common interest in not having AI—especially general AI—spread widely, and they have currently a near monopoly over the best compute that’s required even for training large language models.

And finally, obviously, as you’ve pointed out in your framing, the differences between AI and nuclear are probably larger than the similarities. Certainly, this is not—and it would be a mistake to argue this is just a second rerun of the movie we already saw. Nonetheless, the fact that for results that would have been given a thousand-to-one odds—back again I go to my seventy-eight, seventy-eight, nine—even longer odds seventy-five years ago. In fact, we have managed somehow to survive and to deal with, through human imagination, leaves me ultimately optimistic.

ROHLFING: Well, I’m glad to hear the note of optimism again, Graham, but I want to press on that a little bit. And by the way, I do think it’s important, though, that we acknowledge that we’ve had seventy-eight years of non-use of nuclear weapons. That is an absolutely extraordinary fact, and as Dr. Kissinger and his co-authors pointed out in the book they wrote—this is the book he co-authored with Eric Schmidt and Dan Huttenlocher—the fact that we have had nuclear non-use, we can’t assume that that’s going to continue indefinitely. In fact, to quote from—I have it here—to quote from his book, he says, “nuclear non-use is not an inherently permanent achievement. It is a condition that must be secured by each successive generation of leaders.”

And I think that’s really important because I think many of us can argue we have taken our eye off the ball with respect to nuclear issues, and the hard-fought architecture that we built to safeguard ourselves and the world from nuclear use is being systematically dismantled. So we’re in an extraordinarily dangerous period.

But just to pick up on Graham’s comment about the importance of the two AI superpowers engaging each other, Samm, I’d like to turn to you. What about that, right? How optimistic are you that that’s, A, feasible, and how do we—how do we go about safeguarding and regulating AI technology? Do you think it’s conceivable that the two states will see that there is an existential common interest here as opposed to a field for—you know, yet another field for competition?

SACKS: There’s a fundamental question here, which is: How do we coexist with a technology-enabled authoritarian power? We know that the Chinese government has used technologies like AI for all sorts of things that we are not comfortable with; from surveillance and tracking of dissidents, detention of Uyghurs, cyber—AI cyber-enabled weapons; like the list goes on.

And yet we have to co-exist, and actually at Yale earlier this year we had a delegation come in from China to talk about AI, and we were looking at the White House voluntary commitments around AI. And someone on the U.S. side waved around the document and said, of these voluntary White House commitments—and they have to do with things like safety, transparency, broad use of weapons of mass destruction—what here would the Chinese government or Chinese companies not be willing to sign on to? And someone from the Chinese side said, we would sign on to that except for the fact that it came from the White House. So if you strip out that, there’s a lot of substance here.

There’s also some other and-yets. The U.K. government, for example, last fall, held the AI Safety Summit, and they recognized that if we are setting global norms and standards around AI, but we do not have time at the table, there are limits to how effective any of those norms or standards are going to be.

There were also a host of reasons why using connectivity with China in these emerging technologies is also dangerous from a national security perspective. We don’t want to lost insight and visibility into what cutting-edge work is happening in China—and the list goes on.

So how do we do this? How do we action—to Graham’s point that Xi and Biden met in California and paved the way for a bilateral discussion on AI—what do we do? I have a couple of ideas just to sort of throw out there. Open AI, for example, has begun to do some work on confidence building, which means hotlines, communications, sharing information about AI incidents, accidents, potentials for escalation—but confidence-building measures that can be done without enhancing the capabilities of the other, without revealing underlying IP or model architecture. So that’s something. And I think particularly in the area of AI safety, being able to do this would be important.

In the military realm, the Chinese government has not officially endorsed no human—maintaining human control over automated weapons, but I know from discussions with Chinese colleagues and experts that this is something that is very much top of mind. I think that there is space for private discussion and in some—for example, Graham, when you are in Beijing next week—what does human control mean? Does it just mean who touches the button at the end, or does it mean the use of AI all along, from the intelligence analytics that go into that targeting package, for example? I think there’s a lot of robust discussion that can happen there, and thinking about what is acceptable in the military realm.

Now are we ever going to take, roll back our export controls on advanced chips? Probably not. And so I think if the Chinese side goes into those discussions hoping that, as a starter, we’re going to lift those export controls—and they’re dreaming, that’s a fantasy—is China going to stop using AI for surveillance and all matter of censorship? No. So I think if we can focus on some very concrete areas where we need to communicate, we’re going to—that’s the—that’s the way to do it, and it has to be done because this is a dangerous world if we cannot figure out how to co-exist.

ROHLFING: Thank you. If I could just follow that up with you, I’m wondering—because I know you’ve also done a lot of work on data, and looking at Chinese accessing U.S. data, and obviously in addition to the hardware, the compute power, the algorithm data is a really big part of AI. How important is data to AI competition, and how is the U.S. doing at protecting its data?

SACKS: Sure. So data is one of the key inputs of AI—data and cloud, along with the computation and the talent. Oftentimes we hear the analogy data is the new oil. I think that’s been largely debunked. Data is not a zero-sum commodity, it’s not a finite resource. I can have it and you can have it. It’s in the combination and the aggregation of data that it’s powerful, particularly if input to AI systems.

I think that China has a significant data disadvantage, in part because they rely on homogenous data sets collected mostly from inside of China, but that’s changing. It’s the diversity of data, being able to access it from outside. And so this question of Chinese firms collecting data, U.S. firms collecting data—not just in each other’s countries, but increasingly around the world—is going to be a key one in terms of AI competition.

How is the U.S. doing? So earlier last month, the Biden administration unveiled a sweeping executive order which, for the first time, restrict data—American’s data from flowing to other countries. We’ve never done anything like this before. We now have a new legal regime set up that will be managed by the Department of Justice to limit countries of concern from accessing American’s data. That rulemaking process is ongoing right now.

Look, I think that it is addressing some very legitimate national security concerns. Access to data on the open commercial market is something that is, frankly, a Wild West, and this is a new risk frontier. And it’s really important to begin to understand to whom data is flowing, how is that data being used and accessed.

I think that there are some pros and cons to this particular executive action—you know, beginning to have a due diligence for data brokers. Data brokers are unregulated; let’s start regulating data brokers is a really important first step. The executive action also talks about putting in place stricter security requirements for certain kinds of data flows, so the use of privacy-enhancing technologies. This is great. And if we then began again thinking about protecting the data, not just who it’s going to, is going to be really important.

I think there’s going to be some limits to it. This action only affects data sales to foreign actors, so really the U.S. data broker market remains unregulated. And I think it’s very—for a sophisticated cyber actor like China, if they just mask as a U.S. purchaser, they can still access the data, right? So I think we’re going to need to do some real thoughtful commenting on these rules to make sure that they are effective, and U.S. policymakers are very much thinking about this question of who is accessing data, where is it flowing—because it is going to be so central to AI competition.

ROHLFING: Yeah, thank you. If we have time I want to circle back on the data issue because I think there are some really important national security implications of it. It’s such an important issue.

But let’s continue with kind of the framing of the challenge here, and Niall, I want to go to you next. You’ve written this wonderful biography of Dr. Kissinger, volume one of what I understand is going to be a two-volume series. And the first volume is entitled, The Idealist, which is counterintuitive to many people who didn’t work with or know Dr. Kissinger well. And you identify how Dr. Kissinger’s idealism informs his perspectives on questions of civilizational consequence, such as limited nuclear war, and later in his life, nuclear disarmament.

I’ll just mention one example of that in the book that Dr. Kissinger co-authored with Eric Schmidt and Dan Huttenlocher, The Age of AI. There’s a chapter on security, which I assume Dr. K. had a pretty substantial hand in, and the author suggests that humans must be in the loop or in control of AI actions that have potentially lethal effects. And they go on to say that this is important because it, quote, “ensures moral agency and accountability.” And there are many such places throughout the book where there is an explicit link between our values, ethics, what’s moral, as we think not only about AI, but also about various questions related to nuclear weapons. And that same chapter of The Age of AI ends with the statement that, quote, “in the era of AI, the enduring quest for national advantage must be informed by an ethic of human preservation.”

So I’m wondering, Niall, how should we think about AI capabilities serving American values? You know, we’re mindful that at the same time we’re talking about how we safeguard this technology, there is this incredible drive to compete in this space. There are people saying that this should not be regulated at all; in fact, there’s a whole kind of philosophical community that is emerging that calls themselves effective accelerationists, and they basically are arguing that we should be moving full speed ahead on the acceleration of technology, that it’s—this technology itself is going to lead to prosperity and security in the long run.

So I guess the question is: Is technical superiority sufficient for durable American victory?

FERGUSON: Nearly not, Joan, and here I’m going to try to channel how Dr. Kissinger thought about these issues. I think that’s my role as his biographer at an event like this, which I’m very glad is happening, by the way. Not enough attention, I think, has been paid in the wider public to Dr. Kissinger’s contribution in this particular area.

I think one needs to begin to understand the young Kissinger, whom I think it was right to call an idealist in Germany. Remember the central problem of mid-twentieth century history is why the most technologically advanced country—which was Germany in the 1920s—produced the Third Reich, Hitler’s dictatorship, and the Holocaust. The perversion of science and technology by the Nazi regime is an extraordinary warning to all of us not to assume that technical superiority is sufficient. Friedrich Meinecke wrote brilliantly about this in The German Catastrophe.

So Henry brought from his German youth a sense that new technologies could be used for ill as much as for good, and possibly more for ill. He wrote about nuclear weapons early in his career, publishing Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy in 1957. The argument of that book? That there should be limited nuclear war, at least as an option, to avoid the nightmare of total nuclear war.

Going back to Graham’s earlier point, thinking probabilistically in 1957, Dr. Kissinger, along with most experts, thought that Armageddon was quite likely, and you needed therefore to have some lower level limited nuclear war option if superpower conflicts weren’t at some point inevitably to produce World War III.

It’s interesting that in the 1960s he turned his attention briefly to the question of how computers would affect government. We don’t think much about that because I don’t think he ever published on it. But I found a wonderful paper on the subject, asking would in fact computerization make government less functional, not more functional—a pretty good question, and anybody who has interacted with the federal government recently will recognize that he was right to worry about that increasing complication and proliferation of bureaucracy as a result of computerization.

So when he hit on the issue of artificial intelligence late in his life, not surprisingly he asked from the outset what are the downsides of this new technology. By the way, let’s not forget how remarkable that he began publishing on this issue in 2018, at a time when very few people appreciated just what was about to be unleashed. ChatGPT didn’t bring AI to wide public attention until, what, November 2022? Henry was ahead of the curve, as so often in his life, in writing about this. And what does he say in that first essay in the Atlantic? He says the problem about this is that we don’t understand how AI arrives at its conclusions; therefore, we’re going to be plunged back into a pre-enlightenment state of mystification. That’s the central argument of his first contribution.

The book that he later published—which we’ve already mentioned, co-authored with Eric Schmidt—was, I think, quite pessimistic on the issue of how AI could enable weapon systems. And by the way, it’s all very well to say that there’s going to be some kind of human switch in the process. But in reality, autonomous drone swarms won’t have that. And that’s already obvious from the way the war in Ukraine has evolved, that if you have drones that are piloted remotely, they can easily be disabled. So the future of drone warfare is autonomous mass with edge computing. There won’t be any real way of controlling the drone swarms when they are enabled in that way. So I think this pessimism is warranted.

And I’ll say a little bit more about that before handing it back to Joan. Let’s just remember what we did with fission. Ask yourself, after the discovery of the possibility of harnessing nuclear fission, which did we do more of: A, build warheads; B, build power stations? And the answer is, of course, A. We spent a great deal more energy, particularly in the 1970s and ’80s, building nuclear weapons. We basically stopped building power stations as if—an excessive risk aversion about nuclear energy. And I think that should really sober us, when we think about how AI is likely to be used, especially under the present circumstances, when it is being developed in an arms race between private companies. If nuclear fission had been developed in this way, then I think Graham’s enormous success of seventy-eight years would not have been achieved. Actually, we’re developing artificial intelligence the way we developed crypto, not the way we developed nuclear weapons, or nuclear energy, in a complete private sector free-for-all, where the arms race is not really between the U.S. and China; it’s between Microsoft, you know, Google, and Meta, the hyperscalers. And the notion that the executive order, or anything else that government does, is really restraining this race is a complete joke.

I saw Mustafa Suleyman a couple of months ago—whose book The Coming Wave, I highly recommend—and I asked him, isn’t the real question how the big tech companies regulate the governments, not the other way around? And that’s a reality I think we need to grasp. This thing is well out of the control of both the U.S. and the Chinese governments. And I think that creates a very dangerous contingency, because as they hurtle towards the frontier of artificial general intelligence, the big tech companies have an insatiable appetite for electricity, for data centers, and of course, for semiconductors. And what an irony that we have allowed the manufacture of the most sophisticated semiconductors, on which this entire process of AI development depends, to be concentrated in an island that is claimed by the People’s Republic of China. What’s fascinating to me is that both Henry Kissinger and Sam Altman agree that conflict is almost inevitable under these circumstances.

The last thing I’ll say is, it’s a little bit like Henry’s still with us, because yesterday, Eric Schmidt sent me a new book entitled Genesis, co-authored by Dr. Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Craig Mundie. So Henry hasn’t stopped opining on this subject. I just had time to flick through it before this webinar, and sure enough, the conclusion warns that conflict is highly likely in the AI arms race.

So to channel Dr. Kissinger, I think we should be pretty worried about where this is going, and a lot more concerned than maybe Graham is, when he says we can manage this the way we managed nuclear arms control, or perhaps, as confident as Samm is, that we can find ways between the U.S. and China to regulate it. I’m much more skeptical about both those claims.

ROHLFING: All right. Well, there’s a dose of realism for us. Thank you, Niall, for providing a foil to some of the optimism we were trying to inject into this discussion.

I want to come back to Graham, to respond to some of that. And I do want to observe—I will just say, when the Center for AI Safety issued their statement last year, saying AI should be a global priority, and then compared it to, you know—as we do with pandemics and nuclear war, my reaction was, that’s a really low bar. (Laughs.) Right? We’ve not done—I mean, while we have been very lucky to avoid a nuclear Armageddon over the last seventy-eight years, as we’re shredding the architecture that safeguarded us from nuclear weapons, it’s not the best example to hold up. And by the way, we haven’t been doing a great job at preventing the next pandemic, either. These are both huge challenges. And Niall, thank you for pointing out just how challenging this moment is.

Graham, I wonder if you could respond to some of what Niall just shared, about the stark differences between AI and nuclear weapons; you know, private sector versus governmental, who’s regulating whom; and why, even in that context, you’re still—I think, optimistic. I don’t know. Can I say that? Maybe you can share with us. Are you optimistic about our ability to get our arms around this technology in a way that protects humanity?

ALLISON: So, thank you.

So Niall and I have talked about this before. And I think we agree more than we disagree. So let me make sure I’m not misinterpreted as being sort of Pollyannish or unduly optimistic.

I would say, as a betting matter, I would bet it turns out badly, yeah. I’m just making a bet. And with Henry, and I think Niall, I would agree.

I would say that, just what you said earlier, Joan, the seventy-eight, seventy-eight, and nine is not meant to say we solved all those problems, put a bottle around them, and let’s move on—which, unfortunately, is where most of the mind of most people is today, and of governments—but to say: What an incredible achievement. What an unbelievable achievement. How fragile. So, as we write in that piece, each of these answers are not likely to be sustained with the next generation. And we had many very, very close calls. So again, pessimism is, I think, maybe—or realism is the place to start.

But I think the reason why I try to reach to that history, for both some clues, but also for some inspiration, is that, lo and behold, human beings did succeed for this long. And basically for our entire lives, we’ve lived without what should normally have been the scourge for people. And that was as a result of lots of strategic imagination, lots of amazing statecraft—including Henry’s, that Niall has written about so brilliantly—and a lot of grace and good fortune.

So I would say that there are clues and insights from this that are kind of like, these are the reasons for not giving up. This is not for—(laughs)—sort of being comfortable about having a good—a good outcome. And I think, Joan, as you pointed out, in the nuclear space, again, to take that for granted now, as most people do, and regard it as kind of, well, it’s inconceivable. I try to do this with students. They say, you know, great power war. There’s never been a great power war that we can remember. So, that must have—that must be obsolete. Or nuclear war, that’s—there hasn’t been a nuclear war, so we’re not going to worry about that.

So I would say, again, across the spectrum, this is not a grounds for complacency. But I think it would be a mistake to be fatalistic about it, because I think—I mean, if you’re being fatalistic in 1945 or ’50, or ’55, as many people were, you might have just given up on it. And actually a number of people thought, no, this is worth a try. This is possible. It’s conceivable. There’s—and I would say, that story, I find inspiring, you know.

ROHLFING: So, I wonder—we have just a few minutes left before we open up to questions from the audience. And I wonder, a question for each of you: Are our governments taking this seriously enough? Taking AI as a potential game-changing technology for humanity, are we taking it seriously enough, from the standpoint of our engagement with the private sector, our engagement at a government-to-government level?

And I guess a philosophical question that goes with that in my own mind is, have we yet come to grips with what this technology potentially means, given that it is so widely distributed, but it’s in the hands of the private sector, when we’re living still in a Westphalian world, right? And our authorities and decision structures are still largely invested in governments that are becoming less and less functional to deal with the challenges of today’s world. Are we just woefully behind in terms of innovation, in the kind of governance mechanisms that we’re going to need for the future?

And Samm, I’m going to toss that question to you first.

SACKS: I’ll go back to your first question, about the nature of the existential risk. And I said, no, it’s not, let—if we don’t let it.

I think when we look back on this time in history, if we get this right, we will see that AI and related technologies will have profoundly positive impacts on humanity, from advancements in science and medicine, food, automation in the professional realm. But we must guard closely and be very careful about the military implications, AI-enabled cyber weapons.

And if we can do this right—and I think this administration is in the process of grappling that—I think we can only see that as a profoundly positive thing. But conversations like this that start from the basis of realism are fundamental to getting it right. And I think we need to be able to begin that right now.

And recognizing also that we have a dysfunctional Congress. So if we—thinking about the Biden administration, the AI executive order dispatched a lot of work to, you know, dozens of agencies, recognizing if we get an AI law, that may not even be feasible, even if it’s the best way to do it. So let’s work with the tools we have across all of these industries.

ROHLFING: Thank you.

Niall, do you want to comment on the same question?

FERGUSON: Well, I think the answer is that the governments are not serious, because if they were serious, the kind of conversations between Washington and Beijing that we’ve talked about would be happening with the utmost priority. Instead, they’re not happening. And that's the tell.

If you think about the role that Dr. Kissinger played in the strategic arms limitation talks, that consumed an immense amount of his time as national security adviser and secretary of state. But a very good reason that the arms race had kind of got out of hand in the 1960s, and the Soviets, by some measures, were overtaking the United States.

Now, what’s interesting about SALT is it’s totally failed to stop the Soviets continuing to grow their arsenal. It just kept growing. And if that was the measure of success, SALT was a complete failure. But by engaging the Soviets in a serious—and it was undoubtedly serious —process of negotiation about strategic arsenals in all their complexity, I think SALT worked in a different way, that it was the reality of detente, forcing the superpowers to negotiate, to engage with one another, on a consistent basis. I think that significantly reduced the risk of, say, another Cuban missile crisis in the 1970s. We don’t have anything like that happening between the United States and China right now, and we really need to.

One of the last things that Dr. Kissinger said to me, in the very last weeks of his life, was, I think this negotiation, this arms control negotiation about AI, will only happen when one side thinks it’s losing the race. And he suspected that the reason that the Chinese were becoming more constructive—as he’d been in Beijing and discussed it with them—was precisely their fear that they were losing the AI race. But until we see those talks really happening at the highest level, with the kind of people who—the kind of quality of people who did the SALT negotiations, I won’t believe the governments are serious. Because believe me, the United States government cannot do it on its own with executive orders, especially since executive orders could be completely torn up by January of next year, if the Biden administration is defeated in the election.

ROHLFING: Graham, any thoughts on that same question?

ALLISON: No, I am—I guess you can tell I’m a little schizophrenic. But I would say, on the one hand, I think Niall’s reminder that the big difference between this and nuclear, the huge difference, is that this is being driven at warp speed by mega technology companies seeking fortune and dominance. And the idea that the government can keep up is sort of almost silly. It’s just—it’s got to be behind. So that’s the pessimistic side of it.

The more optimistic side, I would say, is—and maybe this is actually relevant for the—for the audience—so this is, I think, again, analogous to the first decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which time people had no idea what the hell was going on. I mean, basically, many of the people involved in making the bomb called for it to be abolished, as you pointed out. Oppenheimer became totally pessimistic about where things were going. Bertrand Russell was confident that there was going to be a great nuclear war. So, if you were taking odds at that time, most people saw Armageddon as the likely next phase.

This is, therefore, I would say, an opportunity for next-generation strategic thinkers, like Henry was at that stage, to begin trying to get their head around what the hell is going on, and can we conceptualize it? And so, I would put in, again, a plug for, as Niall did, Mustafa Suleyman’s book. If you—if you haven’t read The Coming Wave, I would say that’s a pretty good place to start by somebody who’s an AI frontiersman. He’s got one of the LLMs of his own pie, but he’s also been, for the last five years, part of a conversation group that I’m part of, in trying to think his way around the question, are there any constraints that would be possible? And I think this is, again, early phase, but great opportunity for younger scholars looking for, you know, a topic to chew on.

ROHLFING: OK. Thank you, Graham. And there’s so much there in all of these answers. We can circle back to some of this.

But at this time, I would like to invite members and guests in New York and on Zoom to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record.

We will take our first question from here in New York. And I—the first hand I saw—oh, was back of the room.

Q: Hi. Maryum Saifee. Thank you so much for this panel. I am a Foreign Service officer—

ROHLFING: Can you—can you please stand up?

Q: Oh, of course. Sorry.

ROHLFING: And, yes, thank you for introducing yourself first.

Q: Of course. Maryum Saifee. I’m a Foreign Service officer in the newly launched Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, so this panel is incredibly relevant. We’re trying in government to sort of keep up.

I think what’s interesting is, the analogy with nuclear risk mitigation is just the velocity of change. Generative, as Niall mentioned—generative AI, the speed of this, and the policy processes—it’s sort of dizzying, to be honest. And so, as we’re thinking about Kissinger’s legacy, how would he balance this need for maintaining our competitive advantage of the innovation space? You know, we have this techno, you know, capitalist laissez-faire approach that means we weren’t having, you know, the big tech companies all here, and we didn’t regulate. But we need to. And we need guardrails. So how do you balance that need for guardrails, so that we don’t have this doomsday scenario, but we win the AI arms race?

ROHLFING: OK. Who would like to—why don’t we—Samm. Do you want to tackle that first?

SACKS: Sure.

Well, here, again, I would say, we have an opportunity to talk with our Chinese counterparts, believe it or not, because they are moving full-steam ahead to regulate AI. And I don’t think we would necessarily want to import, and copy and paste, everything that they’re doing. But it’s an opportunity to learn.

So if you look—if you look at their generative AI regulations, for example, didn’t know that it was written in Beijing, you might see some concepts that would be appealing to concerned members of civil society here, worried about digital harms, for example. Like, talk about algorithmic harm, and bias testing and evaluation. They also talk, of course, about making sure that AI is not going to be used to upset social stability, and the ruling Communist party in extremism. So it’s a bit of the sweet and sour of all Chinese cyber regulation. But I think that that’s one area that we can look at.

We also have to think about—with guardrails, right—what are the areas where there actually may be—it may not make sense to work with Chinese researchers who are in military universities, but there are some, when it comes to government—or business communications, medicine, where we do need to work. And so in terms of the tools like export controls and investment reviews, I think that we should think closely about what is essential to the military, versus what is just a commercial, off-the-shelf technology, or a software that can be—that can be accessible from others, even if the U.S. restricts it. Where is there a scarcity of knowledge that really does reside in the U.S.? We don’t want U.S. components to be designed out in other parts of the world. And so there are a number of things we can do from the guardrails protect side, and then we just really have to lean into playing offense, in ways that have nothing to do with China. But how can we think about creating the incentives for talent, for the use of open capital markets, attracting the best and the brightest around the world? Where is the role for public-private partnerships in a moment when industrial policy in the U.S. is back in? And how do we think about allocating those resources wisely? Traditionally, governments have not been great at picking winners and losers. So now that we have the CHIPS and Science Act, for example, how can we make best use of those resources in a way that is not mimicking the Chinese system, but playing to our advantage of openness?

ROHLFING: Well, thank you for putting some practical suggestions on the table. That’s really helpful.

Niall or Graham, do you want to add anything for the—to the question?

FERGUSON: Can I perhaps add something to the debate? Again, applying history.

In a way, it’s worth looking back at the restrictions on chemical and biological weapons, which I think we don’t think enough about. And in a way, they’re more relevant here, because an obvious worst case scenario for the abuse of AI is to use it to design biological—or chemical—but probably biological weapons. And that’s the kind of thing that one would want to have outlawed at the international level.

I mean, of course, it’s hard to hold totalitarian regimes to account when they subscribe to that kind of thing. And we can be pretty sure that the Soviets didn’t stick to the rules. But I think that there’s an important argument to be made here that there needs to be some international convention that rules out, prohibits certain uses of AI.

But I think if Dr. Kissinger were listening, he would say, you need that, but you also need the superpower dialogue to be—to be a meaningful dialogue about restraint, rather than two separate parallel conversations about how do we regulate AI in our national jurisdictions. That, I think, is a great waste of energy.

And so I think it’s very urgent—as I said earlier, but I’ll repeat it—that there be meaningful AI arms control conversations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. Because that’s surely one of the lessons of Dr. Kissinger’s time in government, that that can achieve, maybe not restraint in terms of technological development, but it can—it can build some trust, albeit trust with verification, between two superpowers. And that’s what we urgently need.

ROHLFING: Graham, anything to add?

ALLISON: I agree. (Laughter.)

ROHLFING: Very good.

We don’t have any questions from our virtual participants, so I’ll take another question from the first table here in New York. Microphone is right behind you.

Q: Winston Lord. Greetings to my friends. I’m a friend of Henry Kissinger, as well.

Graham is going to China tomorrow to talk about these issues, and this most recent discussion sets up my question. I would like Graham to tell us what his talking points are, what he’s going to take to the Chinese, in terms of what priorities we ought to be looking toward. And then I’d like Niall and Samm to edit his talking points. Thank you. (Laughter.)

ROHLFING: Oh wow, a real-time editing session.

Graham, do you want to share your talking points?

ALLISON: Well, probably not all together. But I’ll say a couple of things.

I think that this is part of a—I try to go to China at least a couple of times a year, and talk to folks, both who are in Xi’s team and who were in his team previously, who I got to know fairly well, because they became fascinated with Thucydides, who they had never heard of. And the idea that there was a guy who was a contemporary of Confucius, and that he had some big ideas, has fascinated Xi Jinping and the—therefore, the people around him. So, I’m going to be mainly talking about the larger—or talking to people about larger geopolitical issues, but, consistent with Henry’s conversations with Xi Jinping and the agenda that we recommended in that article, the proposition that the two leaders have now talked about this seriously.

Xi Jinping is fascinated by AI. Henry talked to him at great length about it. And the fact that he and Biden had a serious conversation about it in San Francisco and authorized further track-one conversations among trusted experts, that just needs to be happening now. So I would say that’s something the U.S. government wants to do, the Biden administration wants to do, but for whatever reason the two governments have been slow to do it. I would say same thing with track-one-and-a-half and track-two equivalents, a number of which have already emerged.

So I think—and if you look at the sort of things to discuss, I think all the comments here are very much relevant. So each of the two governments is struggling to deal with this problem for itself within its own borders, so, therefore, simply explaining to each other better what each thinks it’s doing, and how much impact it’s having, and what difficulties it’s having dealing with it, and whether there are any clues and suggestions. Again, if you had been—Lynn (sp), as you know better than anybody, if you had been outlining the talking points for the people in the early talks about arms control, the open sky agreement and whatever, they didn’t have concrete, you know, deliverables; they were beginning to try to see what the—what’s the area—What terms do people use for discussing it? What are the things about which they’re most concerned? What actions are they taking to try to constrain?

So China, being a(n) autocratic, you know, Xi-driven—Xi/party-driven state, is very concerned about rogue uses of AI that would be upsetting to the government’s stability and control. So that’s an interesting question. Well, actually, I think the U.S. government is also interested, as Niall said, in not having some AI company hook up with a CRISPR gene adaptor to produce a biological weapon. So maybe there’s some—so I would say this is much more exploratory, and I’m just, with that part of the agenda, trying to nudge it along.


Samm, any edits you would like to offer, or reactions?

SACKS: I want to just—I just—I think what would be helpful to emphasize is a point I made earlier, which is that the Chinese side has not officially committed to human control over AI and military domain. However, we’ve seen signals that they are concerned and thinking about this. Last summer at the U.N., one of the senior representatives that they sent indicated his support for that principle. One of their working groups on ethics in Beijing has also signaled support for maintaining human control. So I think this could be a really important piece, Graham, to drill down on in your conversation to understand: What is the thinking behind this? What are some of the concerns? And to the point I made earlier, what does human control even mean? At what point in the chain? Are we talking about the data? Are we talking about the analytics, the targeting? What does that mean to the Chinese side? So I would really emphasize drilling down on this, even if we have not seen them willing to agree officially and publicly to that point yet.

ROHLFING: Thanks, Samm.

I think the human control question is a really important one. It’s been, I think, simplified in the way many people talk about it in the public in a way that is disconnected from the complexity of these systems. And Niall, as you pointed out, we already have drone swarms and we have technologies that have wired in different aspects of autonomous decision-making; and even if there is a human on the loop somewhere, it doesn’t mean that we’re really operating within a system where a human is in control. So I think that is a critical issue.

Niall, did you want to make any observations about Graham’s points?

FERGUSON: Well, it’s kind of presumptuous for any of us to talk to Winston Lord about this, considering his enormous contribution to U.S.-China relations over the years, but see how you like this, Win.

I think the thing that I’ve learnt from writing the second volume of the biography is the way that in détente a lot of things got interlinked, and linkage was a way to incentivize the Soviets to give ground on the things that the United States cared about. So my sense is that we need to do some linkage here to try to bring in issues that we know the Chinese really care about in order to get them to give ground on the things that we are worried about.

So we should be very concerned about weaponization of AI. We clearly need to get them to sign up to some restrictions. And we should remind them that we need some reassurance here, given all the concerns that arose in 2020 about what had been going on in laboratories in Wuhan and elsewhere. In fact, we all need to learn the lessons of COVID. The kind of research that was going on—gain-of-function research in virology—turned out to be incredibly dangerous, and I don’t—and I don’t think we need to make that mistake again. So I think we need to have a conversation about how do we make sure that the Chinese are not weaponizing AI in ways that would be profoundly dangerous and unstable.

What can we offer them in return? Hey, you know what? Those tariffs really aren’t doing anybody any good, including in the U.S. tech sector. We’re going to have to do a whole lot of expansion of U.S. electricity generation. Having tariffs on China when China produces some pretty useful transformers is just stupid. And the U.S. should be moving away—this should be on the agenda of any second Biden administration—away from the tariffs because I think they’re, in fact, of very limited use in this area. I think the Chinese would welcome that, and it wouldn’t cost us. Indeed, I think it would benefit us to ease those tariffs.

And finally, Taiwan. Let’s not forget that, as I mentioned earlier, having all the most sophisticated semiconductors, virtually, be manufactured by TSMC in Taiwan creates a unique strategic vulnerability and a huge economic risk to the world. I think in the last four years the U.S. has said things about Taiwan, even if it’s sometimes walked them back, that have not been sensible, that have aroused Beijing’s anxiety on this issue precisely at the time when the U.S. can’t really deter China from taking action against Taiwan in the way that we could deter it in the mid-1990s. So I think a restatement of the status quo before people started to question strategic ambiguity would be very sensible. Of course, it’s been done in some measure already, but I think constantly reassuring them on that issue would be another way to promote engagement and rebuild trust between the two capitals.

So those would be my suggestions for a quite broad agenda designed to get meaningful concessions from Beijing on the things we really worry about.

ROHLFING: Thank you.

Samm, you’ve got a two-finger, and then we’re going to go online.

SACKS: Yeah. I just wanted to respond to the point about tariffs. Niall, how would you reply to the Chinese who said, well, we will engage in the conversation that you want us to about restraint, but you need to lift export controls on advanced chips? I think once we get into holding a conversation about restraint, which is the existential risk that you’ve pointed out—once we hold that hostage to a suite of other carrots and sticks, we’re not going to be in a position where we’re willing to walk away from export controls in order to have that restraint conversation. So how would you respond to the Chinese, then?

FERGUSON: Yeah. I mean, I think the answer to that is until we have really good understandings on AI and its use and abuse, we are very prudent to have export restrictions, just as we restricted the export of technology to the Soviet Union. You know, right now we have—

SACKS: No, exactly. They are—we need to keep them in place, but we can’t hold—

FERGUSON: Absolutely.

SACKS: —the conversation about restraint hostage to that is, I think, the point.

FERGUSON: I am talking—

SACKS: We don’t want to get a negotiation. Yeah.

FERGUSON: You need to—I think—I think tariffs and export restrictions are quite different things. And in my view, the tariffs are kind of a white elephant at this point for American policy. If anything, they somewhat impede our efforts. Our industrial policy would be well-served by a trade liberalization agreement with China. But, obviously, it’s trade liberalization on things that are not strategically crucial in the AI arms race.

I think that’s—so that’s the kind of distinction that détente negotiations are all about. And of course, everybody ends up feeling a bit grumpy. But that’s—I think that’s the crux of this matter, to make it concrete—to make it concrete that we can’t have laboratories, whether in Wuhan or anywhere else, conducting experiments with AI-enabled weapons. That’s what we need to absolutely rule out.

And remember, dealing with the CCP means that we have to be very wary that they might sign agreements and yet welch on them in the way that the Soviets did. So this is why the trust-and-verify piece will be very important in any kind of regime of AI arms control.

ROHLFING: OK. There is so much there, but we’re going to go to an online question.

OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Paula Stern. Please accept the unmute now prompt.

Q: Thank you for this discussion.

I’d like to go back to a point that has not gone deep enough, I think, in this afternoon’s discussion, and it is that the technology we’re discussing is more in the hands of the private sector, unlike the period in which Kissinger reigned. The military-industrial complex really was in the hands of the military, of the government. Today, we have a situation in which AI is very much not in the hands of the government unless we act. And it kind of goes back to Samm’s first answer. AI’s not a problem if we, you know, unless—but it’s what we do with it. And so I’d like the three of you all to perhaps give some hope or suggestions of how our diplomats really do rein in this technology in such a way that it reflects the United States’ national interests.

ROHLFING: Samm, let’s start with you.

SACKS: Thank you, Paula. I think there’s two separate issues. One is: How do we regulate domestically, given that this is in the hands of private entities? And how do we think about government-private sector interactions in that realm?

But I want to answer it in terms of: How do we think about diplomacy with the Chinese? My understanding is that Kissinger, one of his extraordinary legacies has been a dialogue with Chinese counterparts on AI, and that it includes many of these most senior executives from the private sector from both the Chinese and the U.S. side. And I think this is really critical that we have these senior private-sector stakeholders in the room conducting that diplomacy. There’s a bit of an allergy right now in Washington to engaging too much with the private sector because it’s seen as lobbying. And, yes, lobbying is real and we have to be aware of that. But the reality is, to Paula’s point and on many of these technologies, a lot of the expertise resides in the private sector, and so they have to be at the table when we engage with China on this.

ROHLFING: Thank you.

Graham, do you want to add your thoughts?

ALLISON: I certainly second the—Paula’s proposition that a fundamental feature of the current challenge from AI is that it is driven by private companies and private researchers seeking private advantage. And that’s—there’s a fiercer rivalry, actually, among big tech companies than I think we’ve ever seen between two countries. So, you know, Google regards it as almost existential for Google if Microsoft eats it search engine, from which it gets about half of its profits. And you can see, therefore, this is something in which—totally unlike the nuclear space; as Paula rightly points out, it was controlled by the government. So I would say you have to start with the fundamentals as they are. But again—I don’t want to repeat all the things I said before—I think starting from those fundamentals there’s still space for a creative statecraft.

ROHLFING: Niall, what’s your take on can—how do we flip the script so that it’s not the private sector regulating government but the other way around?

FERGUSON: Well, I like this question. We should remember that the federal government of our time is not the federal government of the 1940s, and it would be hard to think of any surer way to impede the advance of artificial intelligence than to empower some federal regulator to get in the way.

Here I want to remind everybody that the business of America is business; that the reason the United States is ahead of China in the AI race is precisely the innovation has been driven by private corporations in a market economy rather than by state-led or state-owned institutions in a one-party state. So let’s not forget that this is actually the superpower. We’ve attracted capital to the United States and talent to the United States. Incredible amounts of foreign talent have come here precisely because we have the rule of law and a free-market economy. That’s why the U.S. is ahead.

But we must also remind the people at the big tech companies their counterparts a hundred years ago—the great arms manufacturers, the innovators in the technologies of the mid-twentieth century—when the crunch came knew that they had to subordinate their private interests to the national interest. So I think that’s the key feature of American power in the twentieth century, the way in which the private sector would, in time of crisis, accept, and accept without real questioning, the leadership of the federal government. It’s actually the most impressive thing about the U.S. economy in World War II, how that works, with the executives from major corporations effectively working for free to ensure that the huge capacity of the American private sector could serve the national interest. So I think we have a playbook for this, but I’m not sure that we’ve dusted it down and looked very hard at it.

One reason that Graham Allison and I have been arguing for applied history as a tool of policy for much of the last ten years is that we see little sign that today’s policymakers are aware of these precedents. They don’t have, I think, a very good playbook for working with the leaders of the big tech companies in time of crisis. We need to rehearse this, because if there’s one thing we learned in 2020, we did not have a preparedness plan for a pandemic that works. We had one, but it didn’t work. And it didn’t work because we didn’t really test it or think much about it. We need much, much better playbooks for the kind of national emergency that I can readily imagine and certainly Dr. Kissinger could readily imagine, and at this—at this point I don’t see much sign that it exists.

ROHLFING: OK. We are nearing the end of our time here. We might have time for one more question, but we wouldn’t have time for the answers—(laughs)—to the question. What I’d like to do is ask each of our panelists to just offer maybe one thought or one recommendation, one takeaway from this session today. And you could answer either in terms of whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to actually safeguard this technology, or perhaps give us your number-one recommendation for leaders given where we are at this moment in time.


SACKS: Go to them. Please go to them first. (Laughs.)


Graham? This is top of mind for you because you’ve prepared for a trip to Beijing.

ALLISON: Again, just to repeat, I would say remember seventy-eight and nine. This is an unbelievable accomplishment. Not—it’s not a finished product; it’s a work in progress. It’s at risk. It’s vulnerable even in itself. But it does give, I think, some basis for hope that human beings, if they apply their strategic imagination and engage in serious statecraft and learn the lessons of history, can be successful. So I would say, again, if you look at human history, it goes back and forth between despair and hope, but I still am hopeful.

ROHLFING: Thank you, Graham. I like the sense of optimism there.


FERGUSON: Well, I’m sorry, Graham; I’m just going to rain on the parade a little with a quotation from Dr. Kissinger’s final book, coauthored with Eric Schmidt and Craig Mundie. Quote, “As AI accelerates the timeline of evolution beyond comprehension, humanity will become divided into warring factions. Policymakers need to keep in mind that history makes that kind of outcome pretty likely.” And I think we need to approach all of these issues not in a spirit of, hey, we survived Cold War I, we’ll be fine; but rather, in the spirit of, we got really lucky in Cold War I, we might not be so lucky in Cold War II. And it was Henry Kissinger’s view that the second Cold War would be more dangerous than the first—here I’m quoting him again—“because of the technology.” I’ll leave it there.

ROHLFING: Thank you, Niall.


SACKS: I would urge policymakers to approach these issues with humility and recognition that we can’t take for granted what’s come before, but also that America’s power and role in the world may be shifting, and technologies play a role in that. So humility, to start.

ROHLFING: So that’s an excellent wrap-up. Thank you for joining this session. And big thanks to our three panelists. This has been, I think, a fascinating and important discussion.

Please note that the video and transcript of this symposium will be posted on CFR’s website. And with that, we conclude. Thank you very much. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR

South Africa

The provincial and national elections on May 29 come amid waning support for the ruling African National Congress thirty years after South Africa transitioned to democracy.


In his inaugural address, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te signaled broad continuity on cross-strait issues. China, however, is likely to respond with increased pressure. 

Election 2024

The European Union (EU) began implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA) this year, just in time to combat online disinformation and other electoral interference in the dozens of elections taking pl…