The Economist: One of China’s aims is to drive a wedge between Europe and America. How does that complicate this process?
Henry Kissinger: I would say a Russian and Chinese aim is to constrain [American] freedom of action. And in the Middle East, an American policy that had the elements that I mentioned before would complicate Russia operating in the Middle East; but at least we would attempt to put it into a joint effort so that it’s not an anti-American effort.
Europe has to play a special role in American thinking. And there needs to be a special relationship. I have always been a believer in the special relationship of Britain to the United States, because it is a natural evolution of our history. [That] is what people really believe. So Britain can play that role—though it hasn’t done it to the same degree in the recent years. As for France, de Gaulle believed that France could not act as it would have to if it didn’t have an autonomous belief in itself. And I don’t mean that America should require that its allies follow our lead in every tactical point. But we should have an agreement strategically; what are we trying to achieve? And what are we trying to avoid? Whenever a concrete issue arises like Iraq, there have been huge differences. But I could understand in a modified arrangement that Europe could play a more important role in some areas. I am not offended by autonomy in my definition of it.
The Economist: So you were not offended by Macron’s recent comments, or his comments about nato being brain dead? Are they the manifestation of an autonomy?
Henry Kissinger: nato should be maintained. But it’s not the spontaneous place to define our future in every area of the world. So much dedication has gone into nato, and there are so many good people who believe in it and so many useful tendencies in its countries, but I don’t think nato is the place to develop creative policies for all the issues of the world you are asking me about. Its greatest utility is a defence of Europe. To the extent that European countries participated in, say, Iraq, it was to guarantee American support. The Eastern Europeans are different, but they feel the more immediate threat.
The Economist: Shall we turn now to America itself?
Henry Kissinger: Before we move to America, [let me say that] I don’t want to challenge China more than it’s essential. And I don’t want to hurt German feelings more than it’s essential.
The Economist: I understand your overriding view that in the long run, Russia and China, [their] underlying emotion is one of suspicion and contempt. But, for the time being, they’re working together. What can they accomplish in the short run and the medium term, if they work together successfully? What should we be worried about them doing together?
Henry Kissinger: Theoretically, you could say that if they split the developing world between themselves, that would give them an even greater impact. And to the extent that they both believe the United States is threatening them, and looking for opportunities to isolate China as they may think we’ve done to Russia, they’ll be more aligned.
But they’re not natural allies. You don’t find in Russian history or in Chinese history any leaders who have advocated basing their policy on alliances with each other, through all the turmoil that both of them have experienced. Of course, for a big part of the history, China was too weak for such a role.
When I was with Ford in Vladivostok, I peeled off to go to China to “brief them”—to show the Russians that we had a Chinese option. And Deng asked how I found Vladivostok, and I said that my overpowering impression of Vladivostok was the cold: “I’ve never known it could get so cold in this world.” And then—tactlessly—I said, “Now I know why you Chinese never went up there.” And Deng said, “What do you mean never went up there, it’s ours! And it’s called”—whatever it’s called in Chinese—“and all the cities around there are all ours.” And he gave me the names of all of them [in Chinese]. And it’s only very recently, well after the period that we opened to China, that they accepted the 19th-century border. And most of these territories were acquired in the 19th century.
So, what could they work together on? India a little bit, through the Russian arms sales. The Middle East? It’s not a natural alliance. Because really, if you’ve been to China, what do people look to Russia for? Anything?
The Economist: Contempt.
Henry Kissinger: Contempt, yes, is the basic attitude. And it’s not wise for us to say we want to split them from China— but it’s something which we should have in mind. And the prerequisite for it is, first of all, not to destroy Russia totally in the war.
And after the war, [we can] declare its membership in Europe an important objective. Though it will be impossible—and understandably—to get the Eastern Europeans to agree to something like that easily.
The Economist: Does China have any natural allies?
Henry Kissinger: You know, they haven’t conceived of themselves [as a state needing allies]… When the first British ambassador came there in 1793, he was treated with exquisite courtesy. But it was made very clear to him that a permanent ambassador was out of the question. And if he wanted to stay dressed like a Chinese, he could stay—but he’d never be permitted to leave. That attitude [remains]. I don’t think the Chinese are comfortable with the notion of sovereignty applied to them.
China has natural allies when they have common grievances. But this is all conjecture. I’m not worried about the Solomon Islands. The intention they reflect is worrisome. But the execution of it over a substantial period of time is not natural.
The Economist: So is the China that we will be dealing with one that would like to inspire awe rather than respect, or perhaps recreate its traditional notion of a tributary system with it at the centre? A different notion of dominance perhaps than we might think of in a Western view.
Henry Kissinger: I have no problem of saying we should be wary. I’m not saying we can teach mutual love. It is also very hard for Americans. Our notion of alliances is not the 19th-century [one]. Ours is to create a system of equal thinking and of substantial American contribution, but never quite equality. But compared to China, we think of it as a pragmatic burden sharing.
The Economist: So let’s turn to America, which is the central actor in defining the world that we’re discussing. And perhaps start with your reflection on where America is now, in its long-standing intellectual tension between its idealism, which is so essentially part of it, and the realism that tempers its idealism—or the sense of frustration about the failure, so to speak— –of its idealism. Where is America now on that pendulum you’ve written about?
Henry Kissinger: America is in a strange position politically, because normally you would expect the Democrats to be exponents of pure idealism and the Republicans to be asserting something that at least contains my point of view. But what has happened is they’ve turned upside down: the public perception is quite unified fear of the Chinese. And practically, there is a great conviction that we can master this like we did World War One and World War Two, by material superiority.
But if we look at the post World War Two history, the United States deserves huge credit for the generosity in which we ended the war with Germany. But we’ve messed up conflict in other regions with the same insight, starting with the Korean War. It was a good decision to enter the Korean war. It became a prelude of the Vietnam War, in the sense that the Chinese, after initially trying to defeat us, then were satisfied with showing the limits of American power. Our superiority was so great that I think the Chinese decided that they couldn’t exhaust us [into defeat]. But in Vietnam there was no constituency that could play the role of a European bureaucracy, and on which we could establish a democratic state. We didn’t analyse the premises of a democratic state.
So the division in America became absolute, with the realists and so-called idealists on opposite sides. But the people who got us into the war and who sent 550,000 troops, they weren’t realists; they were the idealists who believed an absolute victory was possible. There is a point I made in an article that I published after I was already appointed nsa.
The Economist: But as you say, now, both sides have a concern about China, both the realist and the idealist, for different reasons. Is the us now less of an idealist power?
Henry Kissinger: The paradox is that the people who most loudly affirm the importance of power are the idealists, and the realists join them by instinct. But you already find now the Florida Governor saying we should be out of Ukraine, which traditional realists would never say.
The key question is, is the fear of China justified? And if it is justified, is our policy adequate to it? I don’t believe that China, in its history, has ever aimed for world domination. They have aimed at the maximum evolution of their capacities, inspiring so much respect that other countries would adjust their policies to Chinese preferences. The European idea that domination means physical presence in the country derives from the fact [that] European history has been made by relatively small physical states. So they had a concept of domination that involved direct control.
In Chinese history, their biggest fear has been domestic upheaval. And they often tried to keep the foreigners out – they built the Great Wall [for that purpose]. So in the course of time, if they achieved superiority that can be genuinely used, would they drive it to the point of imposing Chinese culture? I don’t know. My instinct is no, but I don’t want to get to the test of that. I believe it is in our capacity to prevent that situation from arising by a combination of diplomacy and force. But if we fail in that, the first thing that would happen is the disintegration of our influence in the world.
“THE CURSE OF AFGHANISTAN
IS THAT IF YOU WANT TO GOVERN
THE WHOLE COUNTRY, NO AFGHAN
GOVERNMENT CAN DO SO WITHOUT AN
OUTSIDE POWER TO RALLY AGAINST.”
The Economist: You say that both sides are motivated by a fear of China in the us, but one of the framings that the us is making is a very Wilsonian idealist one, which is the framing of democracies versus autocracies.
Henry Kissinger: The French Revolution certainly didn’t turn out to be peaceful. Certainly, insofar as the public in democracies can have a big influence on decision-making, and decision-making can be framed in a meaningful way that is relevant to the problem, it is, of course, better to live in a democracy.
The difference is, I would think, that democratic power should be used, first of all, in the defence of the people who profess it. It should be used in some limited way for the benefit of others, but not to the point of begging the war and peace question. And also with a modesty. If your conduct is announced to be the overthrow of the opponent, that makes it a more intense conflict. And of course, it would be worthwhile if the result were good, but since at least the invention of nuclear weapons a relationship between military and political goals remains a prime and serious goal of American policy.
I differ with the people who make the military issue in terms of democracy against authoritarianism. It also disarms us, to some extent, from analysing the strategic dangers that can emerge. Those we must resist when they arise. But then it’s in the nature of statesmanship that a judgement has to be made, whether you are able to bear whatever the burden is of that particular exercise. We solved that issue in Europe to a large extent. When we have encountered that test with respect to the region outside of Europe, our unity was [transitory].
The Economist: You mean, in Iraq?
Henry Kissinger: In Iraq, I was in favour of going in and overthrowing [Saddam], and then doing what we did after the Gulf War—letting a natural evolution take place, in which we could play a role similar to that of the great powers in Afghanistan. I even wrote an article calling for a Belgian-type solution of neutralisation, by which all the threatened countries could co-operate against terrorism…The curse of Afghanistan is that if you want to govern the whole country, no Afghan government can do so without an outside power to rally against.
The Economist: Just to be clear, this focus on democracies versus autocracies that is currently fashionable in Washington, do you think that is weakening America’s ability to achieve the strategic goals that we’ve been discussing versus China? Does it make it less likely to have alliances, less likely to have support amongst emerging economies?
Henry Kissinger: No, though it makes it less likely to have the kinds of alliances which we favour, which are multilateral and permanent. I think [highly of] the Australian alliance; I’m very enthusiastic about close relations with India. I’m wary of the anti-Chinese definition of [American policy], but I’m not in favour of withdrawing from Asia.
The Economist: I was going to ask you whether India is a good test of this, in that there are all sorts of reasons why the interests of India and the interests of the usalign, particularly over some aspects of China. But, in Wilsonian terms, the government of Modi is increasingly oppressive and anti-Muslim and constrains the press and interferes in the courts. So, I wanted to ask you whether you thought India was an interesting test case of whether the us is able to think through these tensions between Wilsonian principles and the overriding [national] interest. How do you think about that? And how would you assess us treatment of India at the moment, and how it should be in the future?
Henry Kissinger: I agree with strengthening India militarily with respect to its conflict with China, because I think a military victory of China over India would then raise all kinds of problems of civil war in India. So, I would help India for that specific purpose.
And in India, I think we could, partly because of the previous British educational system, give expression to a preference for democracy in the form of encouraging private institutions for various purposes. And between India and the United States, there’s enough freedom of dialogue to express philosophical points.
When I was in government, the Indians were, by our standards, very difficult in stating their views in relation to some of our policies. But it never got us to the point of being hostile to India. In India today, there is scope for alignment. I have very high regard for the way the Indians conduct their foreign policy now, because it shows balance. So how would they actually decide in various circumstances? I don’t know. Partly because of our history with India, it’s still varied, and we have had so much dialogue already. We have a greater scope for being understood when we put democracy and power together into one. And the Indians have a great talent; they have survived thousands of years under foreign occupation, without having a government of their own, which shows a great social tenacity—a remarkable social tenacity.
The Economist: Can I ask you about the domestic context in which American strategy is being formulated, and how different that is now from the years when you were in office? Is it possible to have the kind of long-term strategic thinking that you’ve described in modern American political life?
Henry Kissinger: That’s our big challenge which we must solve. If we don’t, the predictions of failure will be proved true. I’m deeply worried at the kind of dialogue that goes on now… This has been going on for a long time, and, if you compare the charges against Nixon, he didn’t fight them. I mean, he fought them legally, but he did not attack the motives of his critics. But now a comparable situation to Watergate could lead to civil war-type conditions, and that deeply worries me. The nature of a political debate is so different from when I first came to Washington, without any knowledge of the system. Joe Alsop—I don’t know if you know who he was—he was a fantastic character. He gave a bipartisan dinner every Sunday night, with leaders of both parties. And they were intense but not acrimonious.
George McGovern and I were on friendly terms, which is unlikely today between a security adviser and a cabinet member from the opposing party. I met regularly with him. So even in the Nixon period with all its animosities, there was still a degree of unity. It started weakening in every administration, but I think Trump and now Biden have driven it over the top. You don’t see that kind of discussion now in Washington.
And in order to get a strategic view, you need faith in your country. To some extent [the problem is] the teaching system, which makes the evils of the country the pre-eminent point. Of course, such evils are a special historical problem, there is no debate about it in my mind. But unless you educate people to have some faith in the future, then, in the difficult decisions of life, which are close – otherwise they wouldn’t be difficult – they’re confused about the real issues.
The Economist: And does that mean that American strategic thinking in the 1950s and the 1960s was predicated on a common perception of American strength? And that now –
Henry Kissinger: It was a common perception of America’s worth.
The Economist: Has that perception of America’s worth now been lost?
Henry Kissinger: In a way.
The Economist: That is what you hear in Beijing, that America is a declining power.
Henry Kissinger: It’s very hard for Americans—it’s hard for anybody—to learn the principles of coexistence in a world which is on the way to learning a dialogue with machines. Which is going to happen. And we don’t know what we’re going to learn there, through that process.
“IT’S VERY HARD FOR AMERICANS—IT’S HARD
FOR ANYBODY—TO LEARN THE PRINCIPLES OF
COEXISTENCE IN A WORLD WHICH IS ON THE WAY
TO LEARNING A DIALOGUE WITH MACHINES.”
The Economist: That’s the other element of the context that has changed so dramatically, technology. Let’s talk about that, again, because you’ve written about it—a man approaching his 100th birthday is writing about a technology of the future. It’s impressive. How worried are you that technology is going to make the kind of strategic thinking that we’ve been discussing even more difficult?
Henry Kissinger: I view this present period in technology [as] sort of comparable to the period after the invention of printing, in which the previous view of the world was challenged by a new technology. So it will affect everybody, but there will always only be a few in any generation that can handle its implications across the whole spectrum. And that is a huge problem for every society now. You know, Europe had to learn this when it went through a comparable experience, in the wars of the 16th and 17th century, which were extremely bloody and destructive, and which killed a third of the population of Central Europe with conventional weapons.
And it was only out of that war that the notion of sovereignty and international law emerged as a rallying concept. On China, some Americans think that if we defeated it, it will become democratic and peaceful. [But] there is no precedent for that in any part of Chinese history. The much more likely outcome is civil war between competing units, and civil wars fought about ideological principles will add a new element of catastrophe. It’s not in our interest to drive China to dissolution. So, here’s an interest principle that transcends the moral principle in the name of the moral principle. That’s the ambiguity of it. And if you ask me, how are we going to handle this? Where do we find the Lincoln? Nobody knows that.
The Economist: How does modern media, the news cycle, and social media complicate this process of shaping us policy?
Henry Kissinger: My theme is the need for balance and moderation. Institutionalise that. That’s the aim; whether it’s always succeeded is a different issue. When I first came to Washington, I had never had a press conference in my life, so I had to learn all of this, and the media were hostile to Nixon. But there were in the largely print media about 15 to 20 people who thought in the categories of national unity, but who didn’t always agree with me. But on Vietnam, it was possible to have a dialogue with them. I always took up to 15 journalists with me—I saw every day for an hour or so. I rarely answered very concrete questions, but that was understood. And they drove me nuts. For example, they would say things that provoked the Arabs during [shuttle diplomacy] that would complicate negotiations with the Israelis even more.
But that was part of the game, they weren’t unfair. So people like Scotty Reston, who was a consistent critic of Nixon, and Walter Lippmann—these were people with whom it was possible to have a dialogue. I don’t see many like this today. There’s no reward for reflective media thinking and no incentive for it. I think it’s a big problem.
The Economist: So if you put that together with what you were saying about educational problems and a sort of pessimism about America’s worth, what has that done to American soft power in the world, if you accept that category of analysis? And if so, what are the consequences of that?
Henry Kissinger: Look, no matter what media we had, we’d be in an age of transition now. You can’t blame it all on the media. We would need great leaders—or good leaders, like Gerald Ford, who inherited an administration in dissolution. He did decent things. And his opponents could also rely on him to do decent things. You don’t find that drive as a typical characteristic now; any means that can [start the unilateral] are acceptable. But what I don’t want to do is to sound pessimistic.
The Economist: You’re doing a very bad job in that case.
Henry Kissinger: I know I’m doing a poor job, but this is the problem that has to be solved. And I believe I’ve spent my life trying to deal with it. It’s not a problem easily solved right now. And I don’t necessarily know how it’s going to be solved. And in this book, I tried to show what six different leaders did to solve substantial problems. Can we do that today? We must.
The Economist: In your [latest book] you’ve looked back at historical figures and the nature of their leadership. When you look at it today, point to some of the characteristics of leadership that you’ve identified in the past that would be useful today.
Henry Kissinger: Identify where you are, pitilessly. So, this kind of analysis is useful for constructive things. Define objectives that can enlist people, find means, describable means, of achieving these objectives. Link all of these to your domestic objectives, whatever they are.
I really do believe that if our leaders can find the courage to [articulate a vision], the American public—without understanding all the details—would go along with it. But what becomes hard to bear is an endless source of scandals as the conduct of debate. Bipartisanship, [too, is important]. A senator I knew from Mississippi, Senator Stennis, told me that on weekends he would go to courthouses to see law [practised], which bound all of America together. That was a very moving statement to me. Or Senator Jackson on the Democratic side.
The Economist: Henry Jackson?
Henry Kissinger: Yes. He often criticised me, but if he were here, he would consider this a valid discussion. Today, most presidential advisors would say, don’t waste your time on this. Let’s find some phrases that can be move people right away. Worry about being president once you’re president. But who can unify? The security adviser can, if the president backs him; the secretary of state can’t, he has clients in 160 countries. And in the British system, it’s almost automatic, if you get four or five first-class cabinet members.
The Economist: I don’t want to sound frivolous here, there’s a serious point to this question. But earlier, you talked about one of the steps to try and improve things between China and America is to get a group of people together who would sit and study and speak to each other. Now, if you could pick that group, anybody dead or alive, who would sit on that committee? Who would be your committee to save the world? Picking people dead or alive, from history, or people you knew?
Henry Kissinger: Three people to do this Chinese discussion, I think we can find. Among contemporaries I would pick Bill Burns for sure. Then I’d find some academic. And one great technical guy. I could name 10 who could contribute to that.
The Economist: You mean someone who understands the technology?
Henry Kissinger: Yes, somebody from the technology world. Somebody that I liked among [them was] the head of Microsoft…
The Economist: Satya Nadella?
Henry Kissinger: Yes, Nadella. I think it can be done well, on the technology side—we’ll be forced to deal with it. When the public understands that it is surrounded by machines that act on a basis that is not understood, there will need to be an expanding dialogue about it.
And I don’t know whether you know Winston Lord. When we intervened in Cambodia, he wanted to quit. And I told him, “You can quit and march around this place carrying a placard. Or you can help us solve the Vietnam War.” And he decided to stay. And he became head of the policy planning staff, then ambassador to China.
I think that what we need [is] people who make that decision—that they’re living in this time, and they want to do something about it, other than feel sorry for themselves. I’m not saying it can always be done dramatically. But we don’t often in history arrive at a point where a real transition is occurring, not just a visual one. This one is real, in the sense that amazing things are happening. And they’re happening to people who are not aiming for them. Necessarily, I’m talking about the technology [here]. And at the same time, if you look at military history, you can say, it has never been possible to destroy all your opponents, because of limitations of geography and of accuracy. [Now] there are no limitations. Every adversary is 100 percent vulnerable.
So there’s no limit to this, and simultaneously with this destructiveness, now you can create weapons that recognize their own [targets]. So destructiveness becomes practically automatic. Though it is a standard doctrine that there must always be a human being in the chain, it is not always possible in practice. Theoretically, it’s possible. But when you have all of this happening, and then you keep building more and more destructiveness without trying to limit the framework. The only trouble is that all the demonstrators in the various squares in the world say that too. And they want to solve it by feeling sorry for themselves and bringing pressure [onto governments]. They have two illusions. First, you cannot abolish this technology. Second, there needs to be an element of force in international politics. That is the essence of the issue.
The Economist: The other thing, I think, that comes through your writing is a sense of restraint. And I don’t think we live in a world where people are good at restraint.
Henry Kissinger: That’s inherent also in the media, and in the multiplicity of media. We may well wind up destroying ourselves. And a point is now quite reachable where the machines can refuse to be shut off. I mean once the machines recognised this possibility, they can build it into their advice prior to the contingency. Many genius scientists believe that—and they know more than I do.
The Economist: But just to bring this fascinating conversation together, there are the risks that come from both the us and China acting incautiously.
Henry Kissinger: You have to blame the Chinese too. It’s not that they are doing well and we’re doing badly and need to change.
The Economist: There are the risks that come from technology. Together with your careful assessment of risks that you’ve spent your career doing, how much time do we have?
Henry Kissinger: Look, probably not enough to give a perfect answer. And there’s never been a period where you can say that these objectives have in fact been reached. But our first step has to be mitigation of them. I think the technology will become more and more dangerous when combined with the other factors, within five years.
[Demis] Hassabis [is] one of the key scientists who understands where it’s going. So more and more scientists will become convinced of the stakes… The scientists are not strategists, but they have been affected by the turmoil of their times. And by the fact that, if you want to make any progress, you need to go down certain routes that are not necessarily popular. To stand apart and do well has become harder.
The Economist: Two questions to end on. One is that, if you look throughout history, as you have done, progress has been made—but it has often been made in the aftermath of prolonged and terrible conflict.
Henry Kissinger: Exactly. After the Napoleonic Wars, after the Thirty Years War, after World War Two, in the construction of Europe. But then when it became global, new factors complicated it, and then the people who had done a wonderful job in the post-World War Two period became too absorbed in immediate issues.
So progress has been made. I think it’s possible that you can create a world order on the basis of rules that Europe, China and India could join, and that’s already a good slice of humanity. So if you look at the practicality of it, it can end well—or at least it can end without catastrophe, and we can make progress through it. But it will require vision and dedication.
The Economist: When I read your books, on diplomacy and on world order, and on China, a common theme at the end of these books is to appeal to a more clear-sighted sense of the balance between America’s interests and its enduring values. And reading particularly Diplomacy, and your analysis of how Russia might behave after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it looks really prescient now. Because actually, Russia has pretty much behaved like that, [and] the things you predicted have come to pass. And when I read your recommendations on how the us should think about its relations with China, and what would happen if it failed to do that, it looks like your warnings about there are also coming to pass. The calculation that balances between interests and principles that you’re asking of the us—is the us is actually capable of doing that?
Henry Kissinger: That’s our big challenge. I don’t know… Many great things in American history derive from commitment to principles. On the other hand, it hasn’t occurred to any country to try to reform every other. At the height of its power, that has never occurred to anyone [else]. And that reflected American optimism that it’s possible. And you read it even today with the crisis in Sudan. The progressive newspapers will say if we put enough resources into it [we can fix it].
Is that possible? On present evidence, I’d say no. But if I look at it for the future, if I say what should our task be, I would say the task of leaders is to make it possible to inspire small groups and build on it. That’s what I would say if this were a student discussion, and you can totally quote that if you want to. How optimistic am I about that?
If you look at the leaders whom I’ve respected, they didn’t ask that question. They asked, “Is it necessary?” And I think it’s possible in America. It is possible in countries in Europe. Is it possible in China? Over the years I have met Chinese leaders, who I thought would understand what we are talking about, and would even be sympathetic, as long as they are granted their cultural identity within it. In India it’s clearly possible. But how do you get to it for the next 10 years? It’s going to be a big challenge, because we’re now busy indicting the son of a president on top of all the other indictments already being pursued. You can say these were bad people to begin with. But a really effective system would eject them quietly and not make them symbols. It is dangerous to weaponize politics with the criminal process.
We have problems now.
The Economist: For almost 100 years you’ve been in a world where on balance, optimism [has been validated and] progress has been made.
Henry Kissinger: But after some very terrible periods.
“I THINK, TO INSPIRE THE
YOUNG GENERATION, THEY NEED A
DEMONSTRATION OF FAITH IN THE
FUTURE. AND THAT CAN BE DONE.”
The Economist: After some very terrible periods. Now, as you look forward, I think, actuarially, there are probably not another 100 years of you surveying this world. Are you—and we’ll close on this—are you fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic?
Henry Kissinger: Look, my life has been difficult, but it gives ground for optimism. And difficulty—it’s also a challenge. It shouldn’t always be an obstacle. So, I think, to inspire the young generation, they need a demonstration of faith in the future. And that can be done. For example, de Gaulle. In 1968, there was a student uprising in France that took over Paris. The prime minister was Pompidou, whom de Gaulle had appointed. [Pompidou] was already starting conversations about who would replace de Gaulle, when de Gaulle disappeared for a day and went to the military headquarters of the French army in Germany.
And he talked to the commander there, whom he had fired in Algiers, who therefore had every reason to hate him, and said, “I want to know your attitude when I resign.” The commander said: “You have no right to resign. You’re needed.” Which meant he supported him. So de Gaulle went back and called for a public meeting in the Place de la Concord and then called an election. He gained the only majority election in the French Republic history. And that shows what an inspired leader can do, because all the evidence was against it, every telegram within our government thought he was finished. And once he had done that, he resigned a year later, a little more than a year later, [without pressure, because he thought his task was completed.
The Economist: So individuals can do that.
The Economist: That may be an apposite place to end, given the announcement today. [Referring to announcement by President Biden that he was running for reelection]
Henry Kissinger: We’ve done actually pretty well on that, when it happened, in this country. But in the conduct of presidents to their vice presidents, I have never seen an exception to this rule that they keep the vice president in a [lower] position; it’s always limited to some particular job rather than a continual one, because they can’t fire him or her.
The Economist: So the one subject we’ve barely mentioned is climate change. It struck me that you talked about inspiring the younger generation. Is that subject, which so animates the next generation, something that should be a greater part of the calculus?
Henry Kissinger: But it requires no sacrifice by them. That’s something they can observe and ask others to do. I’m all for [responding to climate change]. I just don’t think that in the Chinese mind, and in the American mind, it will create enough of a balance to the strategic mind. But I’m for it in principle, even quickly.
The Economist: I’m ending this conversation, I think on balance, somewhat pessimistic. But inspired that hopefully your committee of three people Bill Burns, Satya Nadella and Winston Lord—
Henry Kissinger: Well, Kennedy had that inspirational quality. So you need something like that first. And then you can, in various fields, implement it in this generation. We need it immediately in the China field. But we need it also in the technology field. And we need it in the weapons field. Because the builders of technology and weapons don’t understand their implications, necessarily. But if you use them in a systematic way, you will lose control over them, and much quicker than in World War One.
But even in World War One, look at the discussions that were going on between Britain, Germany, and France, in 1916. And basically, the people talking agreed on peace without victory. But they didn’t know how to tell the people how to do that, when they had already lost a million casualties. At the same time, the Germans had prepared the Verdun offensive, the British had prepared the Somme offensive, and both of them thought they might win with this. So both offensives were carried out. Another million and a half people died, close to two million. And then they never got it together again. And they never had a strategy either, anymore, until we came in and overwhelmed it. We can’t afford to be in that position. I think if people in 1916 had understood that, they would have found a way to end it. It may not be demonstrable. But it’s not beyond conception. I think there are enough good people around who would know how to do this.
The Economist: We were putting a time [-frame] on this, and five to 10 years was the horizon. Well, five years takes us to 2028—in the next presidential term. And it looks as though the next presidential term is going to be between Biden and possibly Trump, and that’s not renewal. That’s not a Kennedy coming in, who can inspire something different. That’s a continuation.
Henry Kissinger: I don’t think Biden can supply the inspiration, and I’m hoping that Republicans can come up with somebody better. Look, it’s not a great moment in history, but the alternative is total abdication.
The Economist: And potential annihilation.
Henry Kissinger: You know, it’s not inconceivable that the discussion of how to handle machines, when we’ve developed qualities in them which we now cannot yet fully foresee, will be a totally new subject of conversation.
The Economist: Maybe that will be the catalyst to the kind of thinking that should have happened in 1916, or indeed in 1930. And it will be the catalyst to waking everyone up to the need for the kinds of approaches you’re describing.
Henry Kissinger: I think thinking people have to start from that assumption. I do not like the way many of these discussions are going, but I think that’s a phase like others we’ve had as humans.
The Economist: Well, let’s hope they change direction in time. Dr Kissinger, thank you.
Henry Kissinger: I won’t be around to see it either way. Thank you for the way you’ve conducted this conversation.
Henry Kissinger: The Chinese have called the Ukrainians and begun to be mediators.
The Economist: Yes.
Henry Kissinger: When you read over the statements that we make to the Chinese, it is to [ask them to] wake up and call it “Russian aggression.” That is not how the Chinese think. They don’t think in moral terms, but about the national interest. Ukraine is now a major state. The Chinese talk about joint relations. But for China and the Communist philosophy, joint is not nato. They are creating their own world order, in so far as they can.
On the entry of China [into Ukraine conflict diplomacy], if I were Ukrainian, I would think about the nature of the upcoming offensive. It is one thing if you conduct it to punish Russia, another to stay within the principles that the Chinese have laid down. It is the same for Israel. It used to be an axiom that if Iran reached a level of weapons-grade material, they would risk an Israeli preemptive strike. I’m not saying how to conduct the strategy, but they need to consider the interests involved.
“ON THE ENTRY OF CHINA [INTO UKRAINE
CONFLICT DIPLOMACY], IF I WERE UKRAINIAN,
I WOULD THINK ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE
The Economist: Yesterday, you discussed China as a dominant power. Today, you have elaborated that China has a conception of world order. Is China trying to play a global strategic role [in Ukraine conflict diplomacy]? What does that mean for the United States?
Henry Kissinger: It is trying to play a global role. We have to assess at each point if the conceptions of a strategic role are compatible. In principle, I would like a permanent dialogue with China, where the outcomes are on the table, and my hope is a consideration of outcomes that are compatible. If that fails, strategic decisions on both sides have to be taken. Then, there is the question of technology and what kind of assurances you can achieve. Those are the questions, in my view, to educate on all sides. The fact is that China is interested in Europe exclusively from its interest. I would have preferred to put the date [of China’s involvement] off a bit. But when you read the statements on the Western side, which say, “have the Chinese ever called it Russian aggression?”—I wouldn’t expect that they ever would, with the background of their “partnership without limits.” If China plays a constructive role, it would be, first, presumably compatible with their limits, and we will see if it is compatible with nato.
The Economist: China sees its strategic rivalry with the United States—
Henry Kissinger: To which we have contributed mightily.
The Economist: You say about the Ukrainian counteroffensive—
Henry Kissinger: No, the Ukrainians want the relationship. Zelensky has proven an extraordinary leader, and it is an exercise in wisdom on his part, because they could have thought, after the pledge of the “partnership without limits,” that China would never enter on a diplomacy parallel to nato. That could not happen. That doesn’t mean that one couldn’t distil an outcome that would contribute to peace. That’s what I tried to do in my first Davos remarks. The war needs some political limits.
To the extent that the Chinese participate, their views need to be considered. It can’t be identical with ours. They have not expressed their views. The offer to participate is a big step. It is important to put limits on Russia. From my point of view, I would not have gone down this road, but settled on nato basically taking political steps. Chinese participation in this instance is a new challenge. But what we should not do is celebrate China joining us, because relative to an agreement with China, it is very complex and important. China does this, in part, because they do not want to clash with the United States. If Russia is totally defeated—two years of Chinese and Russian evolution cannot end in a total Russian defeat with Chinese acquiescence. In this new reality, China wants an independent Ukraine. And I’m impressed with the Ukrainian wisdom in being one step ahead of us on that road when they had to know how it would turn out. They couldn’t have expected China to be a nato ally. But China can support the outcome of having a strong and independent Ukraine.
The Economist: You argue that Ukraine should be in nato.
Henry Kissinger: My basic position was not to open nato to Ukraine, and the nato [expansion] debate was a basic mistake, because it challenged the perceptions of Russia fundamentally. Many Russians, including liberal Russians like Solzhenitsyn, who was a great opponent of the Soviet system, believe that Ukraine was a special case. I’ve never met a Russian in a leading position who did not believe that. [nato] took a chunk of Russia-dominated Europe and did not leave it there, but pushed it into a permanent military alignment with joint plans with other countries. [nato pursued] it ideologically, because in statements released afterwards, we said that any country that met our domestic structure could join nato. Any country in the Caucasus or Central Asia. That made security an issue. I don’t say that justified the Russian action of trying to return Ukraine to a satellite status or the means used. I wrote an article before the crisis that Ukraine should be a bridge and not an outpost.
The Economist: Yesterday, you said –
Henry Kissinger: If the war had ended with the present major participants, I would have said that Ukraine is not safe, because the nationalist aspect would never be calm. Ukraine is safer in nato, where it has the guarantee of allies and needs their approval for military initiatives.
Zelensky must have known the Chinese perspective was not incompatible with his survival. But China’s affection for nato is not compatible with ours. Western statesmanship needs to take that into account. If we want China to back our outcome, it will not be a nato outcome.
The Economist: If Ukraine is safer in nato, how can it be a safer Europe if Chinese involvement precludes nato in Ukraine?
Henry Kissinger: Until the agreement between Putin and Xi at the Olympic Games, when Xi stated his opposition to nato expansion—I don’t think any Chinese leader had expressed a view on European evolution before this. Xi must have known that Putin would go into Ukraine. That is a serious Chinese commitment. They will not go to war for that. They’re not heading for world domination in a Hitlerian sense. That is not how they think or have ever thought of world order. [To them,] world order means they are the final judges of their interests. What they want is participation in how the rules are made. Not agreeing on the rules does not mean war, but it is a greater possibility. I haven’t seen the details of what the Chinese said. But what they say is usually invariably said after extensive meetings done in the Confucian way. Whether that is hopeful or not depends on what happens next. They might acquiesce in Ukraine in nato. I wrote in 2014 that Ukraine should be a bridge. If it is an outpost of nato in the east, it is within 300 miles of Moscow. If it is on the west side, it is within 300 miles of Warsaw and Budapest and 600 miles of Berlin. So, I thought that it would be better to have a Finnish type of neutrality in Ukraine. Now that Finland and Sweden are joining nato, that is not possible. And it is not possible to say that you cannot select Ukraine for nato membership, because it is in the most vulnerable position [geographically]. America should make that argument. The Europeans don’t want Ukraine in nato. They want to give Ukraine as many arms as they want, but make them defend themselves. That won’t work. That is why, reluctantly, I have come to support Ukraine being in nato. But China won’t make their view depend on where the borders are. They will probably throw their negotiating weight in favour of something like my first Davos speech.
The Economist: Do you think this could be a building block for us-China relations?
Henry Kissinger: It can be, in my opinion. When you’ve been in my position, I feel great compassion for my successors, but I don’t want to prescribe tactics. My general principle is that the United States and China should establish dialogue for these unprecedented circumstances. They are two powers of the type where, historically, a military confrontation was inevitable. But this is not a normal circumstance, because of mutually assured destruction and artificial intelligence. We are at the very beginning of a capability where machines could impose global pestilence or other pandemics—not just nuclear, but any field of human destruction. The circumstances require responsible leaders, who at least make an attempt to avoid conflict.
The Economist: Have you discussed this with your successors, the idea of finding common ground? We met many people in Washington but did not see it.
Henry Kissinger: I know what they think. They say China wants world domination. They now seem to want dialogue. The answer is that they [in China] want to be powerful. So far, they have not sought a military confrontation on order-threatening issues. We must try to bring China into some international system. I prefer a democratic system, on historical experience and my own life experiences. Our domestic system now must relearn [to reduce] domestic conflicts.
The Economist: Yesterday and today, you said that China and the United States should sit down and discuss their interests. What is the role of human rights and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang? American values impose an obligation to crusade for it.
Henry Kissinger: Yes. It makes a difference whether you approach it as something that is to be imposed or as something that is bound to affect their relationship but leaving the decision to them. I’ve always handled it in that manner and succeeded on individual issues. That does not mean that it would always succeed—by showing in individual cases that they might adjust their views. My formula is not to contest legality but to [have them] release the individual as an act of grace.
The Economist: Is [playing domestic politics] what the United States is doing now?
Henry Kissinger: The idea is that the United States can affect China’s domestic approach, but we cannot redo the world on our domestic basis. We tried that in Sudan—look at Sudan now—Vietnam, Iraq. Our perception is based on the Western experience. Of course, having lived in a totalitarian system, I prefer democracy. But [we live] in a world of unprecedented destructiveness, and machines that do not have feeling have to be considered. What to do case to case? China has adjusted to our preferences, even in the Mao era and substantially under Deng [Xiaoping], but that has to be worked out in practice.
The Economist: Is it fair to summarise that the United States oscillates between realism and idealism?
Henry Kissinger: And each side believes their conviction is absolute. People who rely on power do not think of limits. The missionary part also does not think of limits. Recognition of limits is imposed now.
The Economist: Should the world today be more realist?
Henry Kissinger: No. We have to begin with the correct assessment of the range [of outcomes] in each of these spheres, and we have to get the security right, because if not, you’re at the mercy of the most irresponsible group. Where to draw the line, I don’t want to say, because you have to learn it in practice.
The Economist: On your style of diplomacy: it depended on secrecy, and that seems hard today with social media.
Henry Kissinger: That is true. Yes, absolutely. I don’t think the president today could send an envoy with the powers that I had. I had the right to settle it on my trip [to China]. That couldn’t be done. But the substance could still be achieved.
When Ukraine wants to move with some diplomatic flexibility in the current situation, they have to get out of the nato framework to a limited extent. I believe they recognize it.
The Economist: Are you sure that Ukraine will give up on nato [membership]?
Henry Kissinger: It would be ironic if I became the defender of it. But I think the situation has changed. If I talked to Putin, I would tell him that he, too, is safer with Ukraine in nato.
This is not about my legacy as such. But the idea is, I have tried to implement [my view] from the perspective of having seen the challenges of societies in Europe.
The Economist: Yesterday was like recreating the last chapter of Diplomacy for the present day.
Henry Kissinger: [Immanuel Kant] said peace would either occur through human understanding or some disaster. He thought that it would occur through reason, but he could not guarantee it. That is more or less what I think. It is the duty of the leaders that now exist. It is an unprecedented challenge and great opportunity. We are at the beginning of the challenge but are not living up to it right now. But I’ve seen leaders in my lifetime, and it is possible even in the United States.
@The Economist Newspaper Limited, London, 17th May 2023