Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A conversation with Henry Kissinger

Interview a Henry Kissinger, American Diplomat, Political Theorist, Geopolitical Consultant and Politician

Over two days in late April 2023, The Economist spent over eight hours in conversation with Dr Kissinger. Just weeks before his 100th birthday, the former secretary of state and national security adviser laid out his concerns about the risks of great power conflict and offered solutions for how to avoid it. This is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.


The Economist: Dr Kissinger, thank you so much for doing this. The topic of our conversation is how to avoid a third world war. The relationship between the usand China, the two most important countries in the world, seems genuinely broken, on a path that could end in conflict. We want to talk about how to avoid this. And we want to talk about how to create a more stable global order. That involves more than the us and China: we will need to discuss the roles of Russia, of Europe, of India, and others. But can we start with how great is the risk of war? Are we on a path to great power conflict?

Henry Kissinger: We are on the path to great power confrontation. And what makes it more worrisome to me is that both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger. And it is a strategic danger in a world in which the decisions of each can determine the likelihood of conflict. And in such a situation it is natural to attempt to be preeminent, technologically and materially. So a situation can arise in which an issue escalates into a confrontation about the overall relationship. That is the biggest problem, at the moment. And, when you have an issue like Taiwan, in which concessions become very difficult because it involves fundamental principles, that becomes even more dangerous.

The Economist: So we’ll come to Taiwan. For the moment I want to stick with the more abstract concepts, because you’ve spent your career, as a scholar and as a statesman, thinking about the concepts of world order. How does the threat today compare with previous episodes?

Henry Kissinger: Let me answer in terms of the evolution of my thinking. The nature of sovereignty begins with the definition of interests of states. And it is also inherent that sovereign interests will not always coincide, and that nations will need to explain their interests to each other. So if either of those elements come into being where those interests are close enough to permit a negotiation of differences, it becomes a mediating influence. Where sovereign nations use force to prevent outcomes, military conflict may occur. The general challenge of diplomacy is to bring those interests into connection with each other and not to settle issues by war. In our period, that is compounded by the domestic system that expresses itself particularly clearly as a system of values.

I started thinking about this very early on in my life – probably when I was in military service during the war. How to prevent that catastrophe from happening again was a conventional question. And the conventional answer, at the end of World War Two, was to prevent aggressors from imposing their will early enough, so that they could not achieve military dominance.

My first book was written on the subject of the balance between power and legitimacy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It dealt with the different conception of countries like England, which looked at it primarily as a strategic problem, as compared to the European perception, which needed a greater component of legitimacy. The British conception was to be in a strategic position of being able to achieve your objectives militarily; the European position being to pre-empt the evolution of such a political problem.

As my life evolved, I started writing about this issue. And I think when I entered government, I was still leaning to the position of achieving stability through strategic superiority. As I became obliged to study the military capabilities that were being produced and I reached a position in which my recommendation would be part of a final decision to go to war, I asked myself increasingly how one could ever [have] a stable system based on mutual assured destruction. It was the dominant theory, but it presented us with a paradox which we haven’t solved. We can all take credit for avoiding nuclear war for 75 years. That is an important achievement, but it was never explicitly negotiated. So, by the accident of life, I was hired by the Council on Foreign Relations as a researcher for a group of eminent Americans—great men of that scientific period—and it became important in my thinking about the avoidance of nuclear war. That was enhanced when I entered government.

So, this led me to supporting arms control from a perspective different from that of some of the scientific people, our perspective being that the issue of war would arise generally when there was a conflict and acutely when there was a crisis. So, the distinguishing feature of the Nixon administration was that in a crisis—that was imposed on us—we would escalate very rapidly in order to reduce the margin of escalation so that we did not slide by little steps into unanticipated catastrophe.

It worked because we were stronger than Russia. Although, phrasing it that way has its limitations, because in the nuclear field, “stronger” is not a physically accurate description, since a huge level of destructiveness is reached very quickly. So, in each case, the crisis ended very rapidly after we did that. And so, it’s the principle for crisis management, which I don’t recommend. But it had some application to the situation.

In the course of government service, I learned the importance of using arms control negotiations for the two sides to learn about each other’s military capabilities, and thinking, to limit it in a way that is domestically bearable for each side. So I became an advocate of arms control, even though I was then attacked by the neoconservatives. And that’s true for Americans, and I think for many Europeans, that the view associated with arms control is also associated with a view of total [denuclearisation], which is not achievable in the present world, in any short period. So, this view that I’m describing—principles, commitment to strategic stability—coupled with a view of overall stability became pretty fixed. Since then, circumstances have changed enormously.

The cold war was a strategic situation in which we started in an inherently stronger position. But the word “stronger” needs understanding, because the dilemma was—and remains—that countries like Vietnam could defeat a superpower that had nuclear superiority, but did not wish to use it. And that imbalance applied also to nato [strategy], which perceived Russian conventional superiority, and which in turn enabled Russia to exert a dominant influence.

When we’re in an adversarial world with mutually assured destruction, you owe it morally to your society to avoid it. [The situation] never got to it during the cold-war period. But it is a hell of a responsibility to kill 110m people in a week, which was the estimate for such a war. And in any conduct of crises, you disarm yourself totally. So, you have to operate by escalation, but with the moral recourse to avoid the slide to a crisis, which is my fear in Taiwan today.

The Economist: You describe a cold-war relationship that was simpler in some ways. It had two big protagonists. Now we have more players. Is the right historical analogy [today] that of your doctoral thesis: 19th-century Europe, the world of Castlereagh and Metternich? Or is that itself inadequate, and we’re moving from the American-led global order to something completely new.

Henry Kissinger: In any diplomacy of stability, there has to be some element of the 19th-century world. And the 19th-century world was based on the proposition that the existence of the states contesting it was not at issue. What was at issue was some objective which only improved their relative position. Even that didn’t come about easily, because there was a long period of wars triggered by the French Revolution which concerned the legitimate existence of states, or their internal structure. But for about 100 years, that 19th-century model worked. So you had wars like the Crimean War, which brought together a number of European countries for different objectives: France to reintroduce themselves into the international system, England to constrain Russia, Austria which really couldn’t make up its mind whether to be in or out, or to try to balance Balkan outcomes, and Piedmont in order to establish a basis for Italian unification. And they then came out with a solution that lasted another 60 years. For that the element of legitimacy has to be in it. And by that, I mean moral values as conceived.


The Economist: Do we have that now?

Henry Kissinger: Well, what we were trying to do is to introduce China into certain systems and, based on our experience, determine how system-abiding China would become. It’s interesting that Mao was certainly the most ideological leader that I encountered. But he was also ruthless in applying stabilising principles when they benefited China. And so, the Soviet Union and China found themselves in a conflict in Manchuria. And one of my first experiences of that conflict was a briefing from a rand analyst, who said that most of the military actions were initiated by Russia. So the problem for us became, if there’s a conflict between two countries, and with one of which we have no contact whatsoever, what do you do?

And by great power principles, I recommended—and Nixon autonomously came to the same conclusion—that, given the dilemma, you should support the weaker against the stronger. On the Chinese side, what happened is that Mao was faced with the problem of potential isolation. So, he pulled four generals that were in concentration camps, whose family he had destroyed, and who lived in abject conditions, and brought them to Beijing. And he said, “Here is my problem. What should be my strategy?” The significance of this for our current discussion is that there is in China a degree of cultural patriotism that transcends personal suffering imposed by [their own] system. They gave him an answer, to open to the United States, which he followed. Those documents exist. The answer was to begin dealing with the United States, as a counterweight to Russia, [which fit both] Chinese and our purposes. I became the person to execute it.

We decided that we would not list our disagreements, but we’d see whether we could create on that first visit a basis for continuing dialogue, because that dialogue in itself would affect the situation. The American side was deeply influenced by the Vietnam War, which we were determined to end in a way that reserved the people that relied on us [in Asia]. Whatever the merit of the war, we inherited it—we couldn’t start from scratch. So this was our motive. The Chinese motive was parallel, about building a relationship to resist the Soviet Union. The difference was that China in the interval has become a strategic force, and acquired technological capabilities that make it a genuine rival. When we opened to China, the Chinese position was parallel to Europe, in that the threat of conventional Soviet forces was becoming their principal strategic challenge.

Now the situation is that China is developing genuine [strategic] capabilities, plus an economy that is competitive, to some extent, with the United States. So, we’re in the classic pre-World War One situation where neither side has much margin of political concession and in which any disturbance of the equilibrium can lead to catastrophic consequences. In that situation [it] gets inherently worse on a technological side.

Anyone who has talked to Mao could have no debate about his ideological proclivities. But when you read these conversations—I had five of them with Mao–[they evince a] strategic objective. That strategic aspect was expressed by Deng, who was a great leader conducting moderate policies, even by Western standards. He put forward two sets of principles. I don’t have the exact text in my mind. They were basically to “know your objectives, but [pursue] them quietly, without assertiveness.” And there was a sub coda attached to them, which said, “the enemy is at the gate and we must be very prudent in our conduct.” That is changing through technology. What we’re debating endlessly in the West is whether the existing leadership is inherently more radical. My [answer] to that is, I don’t know. But it’s our duty to test it. In other words, it is our duty to maintain the equilibrium but also to [provide] for a peaceful world.

The Economist: So let’s focus on China. And backtrack slightly. Because one thing that is difficult sometimes to understand is what China’s own conception of its global role is. I believe, when you first met Zhou Enlai you had dinner and you were discussing conceptions of world order. It was like a conversation amongst international relations professors…

Henry Kissinger: In my first conversation, I had prepared a little speech of how we got there. And it ended with “So we now find ourselves in what, to us, is a land of mystery.” And before I finished Zhou said, “May I interrupt? Tell me what is so mysterious about China.” And I gave a banal answer, because he said, “Let us see that we can take the mystery out of it. And after you know us better, there is a billion of us. I hope it will not be so mysterious to you…” That was a very good way to proceed.

So then we had only 48 hours, and I wanted to achieve a meeting between Mao and Nixon, because that affected all our other concerns. It was also important for our public, so that they could see that there was a quest for order. If you read the transcript of the first day, which is available, the first thing the Chinese did is to tell me to go to bed—and it was around noon. The meeting was scheduled for 5:30 in my residence. The next morning, they took us to the Forbidden City, which was closed for our visit; so we’d already spent one afternoon doing nothing, diplomatically. And then we spent another morning doing nothing diplomatically. And then at lunch, he began by discussing the Cultural Revolution, saying that it was important that we understood it. It was an attack on a society that was being dominated by pure bureaucracy, he said. But there were serious problems now [beyond that]. So we discussed our stated views on Taiwan, and we had still troops in Taiwan. And I said that we can’t talk about these troops until the war in Vietnam [is over].

The Economist: What did he say about China’s view on Taiwan?

Henry Kissinger: If you go through the sequence of discussions, we talked about Japan and Russia, but in a sort of conceptual way, until Zhou said that we needed to discuss what we’d say about the visit. So we agreed then that each side would draft something.

He said he had to go to a meeting with the Korean leader who was in China. So we had an evening of uncertainty about whether the whole trip was wasted. We met again the next day, when I had to leave—I had to get to Paris by midnight, that night. I had to be there because I had a meeting with the Vietnamese scheduled for the next day. So they presented their version, with slight modifications, and the issue was: who invited whom? And it said something like Chairman Mao—or maybe it was Zhou—having learned of Nixon’s desire to visit China at some point, has decided to extend an invitation for Nixon to visit, which was a key element.

We thought—and when I say we, I mean that Nixon had his view firmly in his own mind separately from me. I hadn’t met Nixon until he appointed me. Indeed, I opposed him publicly. On that second visit, we decided to prepare a communiqué. The Chinese proposed that each side state their own objectives, their own goals, and not pretend that we agreed after 25 years—by osmosis—on everything. So we listed a lot of disagreements, including on Taiwan. There we stated that the Taiwan solution needed to be settled, or whatever the phrase is—you can look it up—without the use of force. And then we listed a number of agreed objectives, one of which was to oppose hegemony by anybody, as a principle of policy. The [Shanghai] Communiqué was essentially agreed on this visit, except for the part on Taiwan, which was left open because only Mao had the right to do so formally. But Mao had seen and approved the statement of opposing objectives.

When Mao and Nixon met, whenever Nixon raised a concrete subject, Mao said, “I’m a philosopher. I don’t deal with these subjects. Let Zhou and Kissinger discuss this.” That had the advantage that if we deadlocked, it wasn’t Mao’s failure—that was the reason, I think. But when it came to Taiwan, he was very explicit. He said, “They are a bunch of counter-revolutionaries. We don’t need them now. We can wait 100 years. Someday we will ask for them. But it’s a long distance away.” That, in effect, accepted our non-military use formula de facto.

So, this became the basis of our arrangement. We’d stated in our version of the communiqué [that] the United States [acknowledges] that the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have the goal of One China. The United States [does not] challenge that proposition. So that was our commitment to One China. But the formulation of that time recognized Taiwan as the authorities of China. There is no doubt that the implication of our conversations was that we would not support the Two China policy. And that they would not use force… The one important thing to add is, this became a bipartisan policy. Not necessarily in this detail, [but in substance,] every American administration of both parties made it clear that we had a commitment to One China and to a peaceful outcome on Taiwan. So it’s lasted into the Trump administration.

The Economist: Let’s fast forward to today. Have either or both of those elements changed? Has the US position changed on Taiwan?

Henry Kissinger: Well, first of all, the position that we established endured through three Democratic presidents who followed—Carter, Clinton, and Obama. It was that China and the US would attempt to solve strategic issues between them, and attempt to keep them from arising. Now, in the Bush administration, the key people in office had been trained in the Nixon period – partly because in the ‘50s, the people with Chinese experience and education had been eliminated from the State Department. So, that policy towards Taiwan was continued until the Trump administration, which through the visit of Trump to China sort of followed the established principles, but then took a Trumpian turn, that he wanted to be perceived as exacting demands he made in the economic field. I agreed with the objectives: he wanted to get a better balance [of trade]. But he then turned it into a formal confrontation. There was a trade treaty negotiated in that period. At the signing ceremony of that treaty, he made it very clear that it had been exacted from the Chinese. That was a turning point. Now, the Biden administration is pursuing a Trumpian foreign policy towards China with liberal rhetoric.

The Economist: There now seems to be an arms race developing across the Taiwan Strait, in which China wants to keep open its option for being able to use force if necessary. And the US wants to defend, to be able to defend Taiwan, which in turn leads China to continue to arm itself. How do you stop this unstable dynamic?

Henry Kissinger: Well, the basic question is this: “Was it possible?” Or “is it possible for China and the United States to coexist without the threat of all-out war with each other?”

I thought and still think that it was, that the negative proof has not yet been given. Because Taiwan is a special case. Every Chinese leader has asserted its essential connection to China; so did Chiang Kai-shek. So the margin for concession here is very limited. On the other hand, with the way things have evolved to now, it is not a simple matter for the United States to abandon Taiwan without undermining its position elsewhere. So that should be off the table. What I hope [is] that both leaders come to one fundamental understanding. Traditionally, in diplomacy, the proper set up [is to] settle something easy first, to get used to that.

That may not be possible here. I’m not opposed to that. But I don’t believe that climate change will, by itself, create huge confidence – although I wish Kerry well. So, the key question is, is it possible for China and the United States to establish a relationship of a nature that reduces the danger of conflicts that arise autonomously, not sought by either side? And how do you do that? Well, I have thought—and what I’m saying now, I’ve said to leaders, to people in China with access to their leaders, and of course to American leaders also—that if the two presidents meet, rather than list all their grievances, which they know… hopefully the American president, from my point of view, would say: “Mr. President, the two greatest dangers to peace right now, are us two. In the sense that we have the capacity to destroy humanity. I think we should agree between ourselves to try to avoid such a situation.” Structurally, Europe has never recovered from World War One. Because they could not bring their objectives into relationship to their capabilities.

“We should recognize that, since it’s a unique decision that has never formally been taken. We should appoint—each of us–a small group of advisors specifically asked to do this and these advisors should have rapid access to each other and meet at some designated relatively brief interval, but long enough so that they can learn from developments. And then you and I should meet once or preferably twice a year to review that agenda. With some issues like Taiwan, what that means is that we both reduce the rhetoric on that subject. But not try to change it fundamentally, on either side. If it were private, we will try to reduce or eliminate “two-China-like” proposals. And you will reduce additional threats in the region, and we will act [accordingly].”

Of course, the question is—that would certainly be said by opponents—“the Chinese are so dangerous; they’ll get a lot more information than they give, and they’ll use it to their advantage.”

When you get into a Ukraine sort of war, a war over Taiwan, it will destroy Taiwan and destroy the world economy because of the chips that are made there. So there are reasons other than an agreement between the two presidents not to have that.

The Economist: You’ve raised a number of questions here. One is that that kind of agreement or approach between the presidents requires a level of trust. And one challenge now, I think, is that in Washington, there is a view that China wants to supplant the US as the world’s dominant power. And that must be stopped. And then in Beijing, the view is that the US wants to contain China and keep it down. And with those two positions, is the kind of approach you’re talking about feasible?

Henry Kissinger: I think it’s necessary. I keep repeating it in some form. It may fail. And therefore, we have to be militarily strong enough to sustain the failure. But it may be the nature of modern technology. The easy thing to say is, “We must be superior.” Then the question is “what do you mean by superiority?” How do you use it operationally? But isn’t the capacity for damage in the nuclear massive-retaliation age—or unacceptable-damage-age—you’re not going to be ever constrained with modern technology by capacity.

The Economist: So that suggests if you don’t have this approach, we are headed to conflict; that this is essential for the avoidance of war.

Henry Kissinger: You have to trust yourself enough to believe that you will be strong enough [such] that there is no military reason to attack you. But of course, there can be differences in the assessment of pain you are willing to accept, and then in that the West may become inferior, through its own fault.

The Economist: Isn’t one of the problems here that there’s an asymmetry? China wants Taiwan more than the West is willing to defend it, and China knows that. It would prefer to prevail over Taiwan without war, but if necessary [it will use] war; that would destroy American power in the Pacific. So, in a way, it’s better for China to have a trial of strength over Taiwan than it is for the West. That asymmetry makes it hard to solve.

Henry Kissinger: But a war over Taiwan would set back China’s internal evolution substantially. So, at the end of the war, they might find themselves in the position of the winners of the first world war, who were afraid to enforce its provisions. The ambiguity of the nature of superiority now is an inherent flaw of the system. But the question we now face is that, whatever capabilities China has, technology accentuates it. So if we get into a trade war, if you take the views of the traditional hawks on this, it is that China really must be given no opportunity to develop itself. Under 19th-century principles, there will be some areas of special interest—Central Asia will always be an area in which China has a special geographic interest. And in fact, I’ve been told by pretty responsible people in China that an original motive for the Belt and Road policy was as an alternative to other Asian policies, which would lead to more confrontation with the United States.

To do what I believe needs to be done—and something towards which the administration is tacking—it’s very close to what I’m describing. The only problem is, you can’t just say it, you have to do it. And you have to do it with a series of intangibles. Because there is no certain answer. You know, in 1938, at the time of Munich, it was not an implausible argument to say that, if you thought you were going to get into conflict with Germany, you better yield – i.e. appease, than go to war then. But that’s a complicated question and, having lived in Nazi Germany, I know that war was inevitable because Hitler needed it. I don’t think the Chinese need it.

My perception of the Chinese is that they’re more Confucian than Marxist in their basic thinking. And the strength of China has been historically that the selection of personnel through the educational system and through the appointment did bring forward people who were nationally trained. So, the Confucian system teaches two things: to achieve the maximum strength of which they are capable, and they want to be respected for it. But not personal respect in the Western sense, but respect in the sense that any negotiations should reflect some recognition of pragmatic capacities and accomplishments. It is of course possible that they drive it to a point, where the Chinese definition of respect is incompatible with our security. That will lead to conflict, but even then it would be better that the conflict be limited, rather than all-out.

The Economist: Is it the case that their goal—as so many in Washington say—is to supplant the us as the world’s leading power?

Henry Kissinger: It is highly likely that a significant part of Chinese thinkers believe America is on a downward slope. And, therefore, as a result of a historic evolution, they will eventually supplant us. But if you believe that, then in your policies, you maintain the option of adversaries to assert themselves. So in the first phase of what I’m talking about, you need a kind of tacit agreement, which has all the dangers that the Washington people recommend, except they have no alternative to it. It has dangers. And there is a danger that, in America, we then will not keep up strategically. And there is a danger that our allies will start moving. It’s uncertain that [they] will move [all the way] but near certainty at least some of them will start moving. While, if we pursue the course I recommend, we will always have more options. But I have great sympathy for the administration on this.


The Economist: So, let’s imagine your approach is being followed. And you’ve already described how you think climate change may not be the right ground on which to build diplomatic engagement. What would you be looking to instead? What are the possible areas where the two presidents could sit down?

Henry Kissinger: I would probably do two things at the beginning. I would say, first of all, let’s lower the rhetoric on Taiwan. And we don’t need to make an announcement of it, we can just do it. And, secondly, on Taiwan we can deploy our forces in such a way that assures our intention. Because, realistically, I’m sure Taiwan can’t be maintained in its present form in a war. So I think that’s an achievable objective, if we don’t state it as an announcement. And secondly, I think we have to begin exchanges on the impact of technology on each other. We have to take baby steps towards arms control, in which each side presents the other with controllable material about new capabilities. I had an experience in Russia once with Brezhnev, with whom I was negotiating arms control. We were discussing an agreement about technical capabilities. And Brezhnev said, “I’m going to assign [their execution] to the minister of production,” who was at the meeting. So I began my discussion of the weapon capabilities—the minister of production had a hysterical fit. He made so much noise they took him out of the room; then they brought him back, I began speaking, and he again had a fit. So we couldn’t go any further. And, later, when we thought about it, we weren’t sure if Gromyko knew what the weapons’ capabilities were, because he was only a foreign minister at that time – he wasn’t yet in the Politburo. The basic problem was that their weapons had more throw weight, but ours had more accuracy—and we had more variety of weapons. So it was easy for the hawks to play with these disparities, and if you had the wrong people in office…

Now, we are in a world in which you invent technologies that will have huge and novel applications. And it isn’t so easy to say, “Let me tell you what we think the consequences are.” Because the people who develop llms [large language models] wanted to build office machinery, they sought to teach a computer how to complete sentences and then make that an imperative for American businesses. The newfound machines understand more than humans ever originally conceived. So that is something that affects the Chinese as much as us.

What I have in mind requires two leaders to have wisdom on each side and a domestic structure that can sustain it. Because the danger for the West is to say, “the danger is gone”. That’s the great danger.

The Economist: One more question on this idea of finding ways to coordinate. Is there scope to coordinate over, let’s say, Iran and the Middle East? And let’s say the war in Ukraine—and all these are things that look like threats—could they actually be opportunities to build confidence?

Henry Kissinger: We all have to admit we’re in a new world…there is no guaranteed course.

My impression of talking to Chinese leaders is that what is grating on them is our assumption that we are on the right course, and that if they behave themselves, we will grant them certain privileges. And also when we speak of a world system, a rules-based system, we made all the rules. And they want to participate in whatever new rules emerge. There’s another part that thinks that the Americans will never grant us that, so it’s foolish to fall for it. But if that happens, if you look at the evolution of technology, the concept of these llms didn’t exist before. They were inconceivable before.

Now, we have tremendous confidence feeding them information that, by definition, nobody else can get. It costs a billion dollars to build that learned information. So there can only be, perhaps, 10 in the whole world. And then you deal with another country by monopolising that knowledge. And if you then rely entirely on what you can achieve through power, you’re likely to destroy the world. Because you will not know the consequences, fully. The people who started World War One thought it would end in six months.

So, the current leaders will have to be strong and, beyond that, understand that they cannot use the limits of this. And so, what are the limitations that you can achieve either by agreement, or by practice, or indirectly?

But I will admit, what I want to achieve requires above all confidence in oneself. But the alternative is worse.

The Economist: You’ve laid that out very clearly. And we’ll talk in a little while about the context in which these decisions are being made. But firstly, another way in which the world is now more complicated and more dangerous is that it is not just the two players – we’ve been discussing the US and China—there are the emergent players. And then there are arguably the collapsing players; and I wanted to go next to Russia. You were just describing Putin, whom you know well. And let’s start with where we are now. Russia has destroyed, I think, any chance of finding a way to live with Europe. In the short term, it’s going to be a junior partner to China, even as it is sort of clinging to its imperialist dream, with the invasion of Ukraine. Was where we are now inevitable, was it a failure of Western diplomacy? Or was it a catastrophic failure of judgement by Putin?

Henry Kissinger: It was certainly a catastrophic mistake of judgement by Putin at the end. I wrote an article, which you’ve probably seen, in which I substantially predicted the evolution. I thought that the decision to leave open the membership of Ukraine in nato was very wrong. It was unwise, because if you looked at it from the Russian point of view, in 1989, they controlled Europe up to the Elbe River. They then withdrew from there, under compulsion of their internal system, but still—they withdrew from it. And every square inch of what they withdrew from became part of nato. The only territory that was left was the country they always considered the little brother closest to them organically and historically. And now it’s going into nato, too. So [that] was a big turning point, it was a final turning point.

And at that time Putin was even saying that he didn’t object to Ukraine becoming part of an economic system with Europe, but not nato. The year before the war, he made a proposal on nato’s long-term evolution. And we didn’t take it seriously. It was not acceptable by itself but could have been a starting point. Our negotiator was a wonderful lady, I like her very much, but she hates Putin so totally.

Compare that with how the West reacted to the Berlin Ultimatum. Both Macmillan and Eisenhower used it to start long negotiations that went on for 20 years until Nixon and Brezhnev found the preconditions for a new Berlin agreement, which then lasted the rest of the cold war. We didn’t do that with Ukraine. And in fact, our negotiators said at the negotiation, that one American basic principle is that any country that meets our membership qualification can join. So that meant Russia will be totally surrounded by nato countries. What is Georgia doing in nato? We have every right to defend it, but why as part of a multilateral institution? In the 19th century Britain might have defended for a strategic reason. But it wouldn’t have brought in everybody else.

To Putin, Ukraine membership in nato was an obsession. So now I’m in the weird position that people say, “He’s changed his mind, now he’s in favour of full membership of Ukraine in nato.” And my reason for that is twofold. One, Russia is no longer the conventional threat that it used to be. So the challenges of Russia should be considered in a different context. And secondly, we have now armed Ukraine to a point where it will be the best-armed country and with the least strategically experienced leadership in Europe. If the war ends like it probably will, with Russia losing many of its gains, but retaining Sevastopol, we may have a dissatisfied Russia, but also a dissatisfied Ukraine—in other words, a balance of dissatisfaction.

So, for the safety of Europe, it is better to have Ukraine in nato, where it cannot make national decisions on territorial claims.

The Economist: So your argument for having Ukraine in nato is an argument for reducing the risks of Ukraine to Europe rather than an argument about the defence of Ukraine?

Henry Kissinger: We’ve proved now the capability to defend Ukraine. What the Europeans are now saying is, in my view, madly dangerous. Because the Europeans are saying: “We don’t want them in nato, because they’re too risky. And therefore, we’ll arm the hell out of them and give them the most advanced weapons.” And how can that possibly work? We shouldn’t end it in the wrong way. Assuming the outcome is the probable outcome, that would be somewhere along the line of the status quo ante that existed [prior to February 24, 2022]. The outcome should be one in which Ukraine remains protected by Europe and doesn’t become a solitary state just looking out for itself.

I want to avoid that. Before I wanted Ukraine to be a neutral state. But with Finland and Sweden in nato it doesn’t make sense. I want Russia to give up much of what it conquered in 2014, and it’s not my job to negotiate a peace agreement. I can tell you the principles of an enhanced, independent Ukraine, closely tied to Europe and either closely tied under a nato guarantee or part of nato. It’s not an ideal outcome. That would be my view on what will likely happen.

The Economist: And what about Russia? Is Russia now fated to be the junior partner or the vassal state to China? And what will be the consequences of that?

Henry Kissinger: Every student of history knows that Russia has been generally tied to Europe, at least since the 15th century. And so, much of the great history of Europe has involved Russia, and within Russia, there has always been this ambivalent feeling of living in unique danger from Europe but also having a unique cultural relationship to Europe. On the one hand, it has wanted to acquire European culture, but on the other it has [a view of itself] as the third Rome that will help define Europe. Putin has to be perceived as a character out of Dostoevsky, not as Hitler, and with all the ambivalences and the doubts about his own people.

So, that’s my general view of Russia. I have never met a Russian leader who said anything good about China. And I’ve never met a Chinese leader who said anything good about Russia, they are sort of treated with contempt. And even when Putin is in China, he is not shown the kind of courtesies that they showed to Macron, [who] came to a special place that is tied to the history of the Chinese leader, and they don’t do that for the Russians. Symbolism is very important in China, so it’s not a natural alliance.

The Economist: Is it therefore a reasonable goal of us policy—and European policy, but particularly us policy—to try to split China from Russia to help to catalyse that process?

Henry Kissinger: Reintroducing Russia to Europe [is important]. If Russia isn’t in Central Asia as an operating great power, it will become open to a Syrian-type civil war; all these many conflicts that are now in part restrained because they’re inconvenient to Russia would then be open to some extent to Turkey, to Iran, certainly to China with great ambivalence on the part of India about all of this.

You know, the practising political leader that is quite close to my views is the Indian Foreign Minister. That’s how I think he would analyse this situation. Which still makes them a block for China, and India is an important factor. But India doesn’t need a nato system for Asia to perform its role in the balance.

The Economist: So India will be playing a 19th century balance of power role in this?

Henry Kissinger: You may know Lyndsay Howard, she’s working for Bloomberg, and she organised a meeting at which I was present. A former Indian Cabinet Secretary said that the international system should be based on non-permanent alliances geared to the immediate necessities, and foreseeable needs, rather than these huge multilateral structures which then tie you up.

Take Singapore. They share our view about dangers, but they certainly don’t want to be in the permanent frontline. Or Japan. It has a pretty clear view of where they’re going; they’re heading towards becoming a nuclear power in five years. And they always want to be close to us. Except I wouldn’t exclude their making deals inconvenient to us. But they will always be worried about China, and the power relationship between them. Similarly, I don’t think Japan has any intention of being a permanent member of a global multilateral system that will constrain them.

The Economist: Let’s come back to that one. But just a couple of questions on Europe because this seems the most difficult bit of the puzzle that you’ve described. So, first, you describe Ukraine in nato, guaranteed by nato. And secondly, a European framework—which also requires the Europeans [to act]. And I guess my question on Europe is, is Europe capable of that kind of strategic autonomy? Is it capable of that kind of strategic thinking? And which countries in Europe would do that?

Henry Kissinger: I would look to Britain and France to take the lead, partly because Britain and France are the two countries that have practised it before—France with relation to Central Europe, Britain with relation to Europe and the world. Germany has had no historically consistent global or historical experience. They had a very great leader in Bismarck, who did it for 20 years. But after that, they could never clearly decide among the various options. And now, they’re only beginning with this kind of strategic reassessment. Because at the end of World War Two, they needed to link themselves [to the West] through people I admire greatly, and who were personal friends of mine. Now they are reassessing their new capacities and options.

Now, these issues—which were well-handled from that point of view—demand clarification in the post-Ukraine world. The young generation in Germany has been brought up on the history of the failures of their parents and grandparents. Germany will be a central part of that process and will always play a significant role, but I think the intellectual leadership in this next phase needs to come from both Britain and France.


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 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.


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.


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.


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

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