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A Conversation with Henry Kissinger

Henry Kinssinger (darthdowney/Flickr)

Henry Kinssinger (darthdowney/Flickr)

Henry Kissinger was US Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977. He served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from 1969 to 1975. In July 1983 he was appointed by President Reagan to chair the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America until it ceased operation in January 1985, and from 1984-1990 he served as a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. From 1986-1988 he was a member of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy of the National Security Council and Defense Department.

Among the awards Dr. Kissinger has received have been the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973; the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian award) in 1977; and the Medal of Liberty (given one time to ten foreign-born American leaders) in 1986.

Dr. Kissinger was born in Germany and came to the United States in 1938 and was naturalized a US citizen in 1943. He served in the army from 1943 to 1946. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1950 and received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University in 1952 and 1954.

At present, Dr. Kissinger is Chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc., an international consulting firm.

This interview with Asia Society was conducted by Nermeen Shaikh prior to the Asia Society 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner of which Dr. Kissinger was an honorary chairman.


You are often associated with the realist school of international relations. In your book, Diplomacy, you suggest that Realpolitik is "essentially incompatible with the American tradition." How do these two perspectives work together?

I don't really like the distinction between the realist and idealist schools. In the American debate, the distinction is invoked by saying that there are power-mad people who are realists and then elevated people who believe foreign policy is based on ideals. This is a useless debate. A realist school of foreign policy would depend upon a correct assessment of the forces that affect foreign policy; these forces include not just military power but ideas and senses of legitimacy, both of which change from period to period. In the 19th century, you could have what was called Realpolitik because the domestic structures of states were quite compatible with each other and therefore the principal concerns were disputes between states. In the current period, ideology must play some role.

The trouble with the American approach to foreign policy, or the Wilsonian approach to foreign policy, is not that it emphasizes ideas but that it rejects history. It believes that you can achieve your ideas in a finite time and that this does not involve a process. According to this school, at the end of World War I, it would have been possible to go from what existed in the European states then straight to democracy. And all this on the basis of an assumption for which there is no proof -- that democracies do not go to war with each other, which may or may not be true, but it has never been really tested. So in that sense the Wilsonian school is incompatible with Realpolitik. But Bismarckian Realpolitik is incompatible with the present international situation. You cannot just operate on the basis of the military power of states in relation to each other.

You conclude your book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? by saying that, "America's ultimate challenge is to transform its power into moral consensus, promoting its values not by imposition but by their willing acceptance in a world that, for all its seeming resistance, desperately needs enlightened leadership." How would you define the relationship between persuasion and coercion in diplomacy?

It is of course true that persuasion involves both incentives and penalties. Inevitably, most frequently, leaders will have to calculate the benefits and risks of the course that they take. So there is an element of implied coercion. But there is a difference between that and saying, "We are the only superpower and therefore we can have our way by hegemony, benevolent or otherwise." There was an Australian scholar who said, "The art of American foreign policy is to act as if it were not omnipotent, knowing that it is." In that sense, what is required is to bring about a consensus on ultimate values even though every serious policymaker knows America is powerful. But America has to remember that results achieved primarily by the imposition of its power rallies more and more long-term opposition to it.

Prior to the most recent U.S. invasion of Iraq, you had suggested that there were three prerequisites to any attempt to oust Saddam Hussein; namely: "(a) development of a military plan that is quick and decisive, (b) some prior agreement on what kind of political structure is to replace Hussein, and (c) the support or acquiescence of the key countries needed for implementation of a military plan." Given that at least the first of these conditions has not been met, what do you see as the likely outcome of the situation in Iraq?

I actually think the first of these conditions has been met. It is the other two that have not been met.

A military plan that is "quick and decisive"?

The military plan was quick and decisive; what was not quick and decisive was the follow-on to the military plan.

If we understand the military plan to be simply the ouster of Saddam Hussein...?


But we clearly had difficulty developing a political plan that could work in a time period that the American public would sustain.