Kissinger: 'We Can Be Leaders by Our Performance'

The United States has passed the point where its people can "be leaders by doing any one dramatic thing," said former secretary of state Henry Kissinger Thursday. But while "it's hard not to admit that we are in a strategic contraction," he commented, referring at Iraq and Afghanistan, "... we can be leaders by our performance now."

Speaking specifically about China at the Washington Ideas Forum, Kissinger characterized the developing U.S.-China relationship as "different from the Cold War situation," since in the Cold War the Soviet Union "depended on the reach of its military capacities. The Chinese approach to foreign policy," he argued, "is not based primarily on military plans," and American foreign policy leaders would do well to realize this. "I believe it is in the best interests of both countries to see whether it is possible to develop a cooperative approach in the face of a challenge which we can both define," he said.

Washington Ideas Forum - Full CoverageThat is not to say, Kissinger was quick to add, that he is "optimistic." Meeting the challenge "requires both sides," he emphasized. Furthermore, "we have serious domestic issues we must deal with, and if the United States is not a dynamic country we cannot rectify the situation." 

Yet it would be a mistake, he argued, to make the modern story of the U.S. and China "about who will win against the other. Because that will get us into a situation that has analogies to prior to World War I where self-fulfilling prophecies produced a conflict that I don't think either side would have entered if they knew what the consequences would be at the end of it." 

The key, he suggested, is to "distinguish between what is part of the design and what is part of the inherent strategic situation"--in other words, to recognize in our perception of China's position that there is a difference between what the country is actively trying to do and the natural dynamics involved in its economic rise. In addition, he pointed to the lingering effects of the one-child family and the Cultural Revolution, commenting, "it's wrong to think that China has no problems domestically to deal with and that they can uniquely conduct foreign policy without any constraints."

Asked by The Atlantic's Steve Clemons whether he had moved away from realism in his latest book, Kissinger dryly denied any "public conversion." 

"How do you define reality?" Kissinger asked. "I believe and have not changed my philosophy that for foreign policy you need a correct assessment of the principal elements that are shaping the perception of nations of each other, their sense of security--that you have to understand that the international system has an element of equilibrium because otherwise the strong have no restraint ... but conditions have changed fundamentally."

View the full session at

Presented by

Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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