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.

So what do you think the likely outcome is of the present situation?


Is that all you'd like to say?


With respect to Vietnam, you say in Does America Need a Foreign Policy? that, "The resulting debacle was compounded by America's inability to sort out the various strands of its historic approach to foreign policy: how to reconcile universal principles with the practical necessities of a region which permitted only a piecemeal approach to lofty goals; how, in the crucible of battle, to relate moral maxims, which are absolute, to their implementation by means of power, which depends on circumstances." How much of this could be applied to the situation now unfolding in Iraq?

Well, we have a generic problem in the sense that we state our objectives in sweeping, idealistic and universal terms. But there are situations in which the local conditions are paramount. In Europe, in the Marshall Plan period, there were certain general principles that were (a) compatible with our own history, and (b) with the reality of the European domestic situation, which the European nations shared. So a somewhat generalized approach worked. In Southeast Asia, in South Vietnam we faced a society that had never been a state in its present borders, that had to construct a governmental legitimacy in the middle of first a civil war and then what, in effect, was an international war. And that presented huge difficulties. Now in Iraq we face an additional problem: South Vietnam was at least culturally homogeneous but Iraq is, in effect, three nations or three ethnic or religious groups. Therefore how to get a common policy is even more difficult in Iraq than it was in Vietnam. In Vietnam, when the program of Vietnamization was carried out, there was a government to which these armed forces were loyal. In Iraq the forces are mostly loyal to various factions and not yet to the government. So the task of political reconstruction is even more difficult in Iraq than it was in Vietnam.

The period of your service in government coincided with the period of the Cold War. A number of people have suggested that with the end of the Cold War, Islam has replaced Communism as the great threat to American interests. How do you respond to this claim?

Well, first of all, I would not say Islam, I would say radical Islam represents a threat. I would say it is true but I would also say that it is a totally different kind of threat than the Cold War threat. The Cold War threat had an ideological justification but it was fundamentally the struggle between two great powers who thought they were superpowers but it turned out only one of them really was.

The Islamic jihad is a religious, ideological movement that has no organized military force and no specific political address with which you could negotiate. So the nature of the challenge is more elusive and the extent of the challenge is more insidious.

In a recent interview, you argued that a military option should not be ruled out with respect to Iran. What are the alternatives to military intervention? What do you think the consequences of military intervention would be, should it come to that?

Just in an academic setting of course it is very nice to say that we should use diplomacy. And that then creates the impression, again, that the evil people want to use power and that the good people really want to use diplomacy! And really, there is the option. The question is, rather, what combination of benefits and penalties will move Iran to give up its nuclear military capacity. What are the options? I will grant, and I would far prefer, a diplomatic solution. But you could also argue that if you rule out a political solution you also reduce the incentive for a diplomatic solution because the Iranians then have nothing to fear.

A political solution here being synonymous with a military one?

Well, I could imagine a political solution involving things that Iran may want in terms of security guarantees. That is a feasible outcome.

What would be the consequences of military action? A tremendous international crisis that the world would have to face.

Much worse than Iraq?

Well I think to the extent that Iran is a better functioning state with more resources, definitely.

As someone who has worked on China for several decades, how would you characterize the present state and future trajectory of U.S.-China relations?

Well, we are both at the beginning of a transformation of our international positions. The United States is uniquely powerful but not in a position it can maintain indefinitely in the military field as a unique power. China is in the process, or almost at the end of a process, of transforming itself from an ideological state into a modern, technocratic state. But it is only at the beginning of a process of the meaning of a technocratic state for the international environment and for its own control of its population. So it is in the interest of both our countries to have an extended period of peace where we could come to grips with our own problems. It is also important that the generations that are growing up in both countries, that are internet-oriented and are going to be different types of people than the previous generations, not concentrate on nationalism as a means of achieving unity. And therefore China-American relations are crucially important to the peace of the world.

You have suggested in several articles that the center of gravity is moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What do you think the implications of this are for America retaining its status as the sole global superpower?

I am not so interested in America maintaining its status as the sole global superpower. I don't think it is good for us to be the only, sole global superpower. It misleads us into believing that we have greater ranges of options than we really have. I think, independent of Asia, it is absolutely inevitable that a country of 300 million will not be able to be the sole superpower, especially since it has been proved that the technology is fairly easily transferable and that the American edge consists of the ability to put it together, which cannot last indefinitely.

So I think there are two separate problems. One is whether America's role as a sole superpower will decline. I would say inevitably. America, for the foreseeable future, will be the strongest country but not the sole country. Secondly whether this occurs as a result of the rise of Asia or as a result of other reasons, that we can leave open. But when you look realistically at the world I can see China, Japan, India, and maybe Indonesia, rising as significant powers. I think Europe will be lucky if it can maintain its present position and even that would require a tremendous effort. In Latin America, only Brazil looks as if it even has the potential to enter that sort of international system. So for all of these reasons I think it is Asia that will show the greatest dynamism and the greatest progress -- if that is progress.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society