Interview April 2007

A Conversation With Henry Kissinger

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discusses Condoleezza Rice and American policy in the Middle East with author David Samuels

Tell me what it was like being a young academic—or a younger academic, a youngish academic—and suddenly coming into the superheated political environment of the Nixon White House with all these powerful—

Well, Nixon wasn’t my first White House experience. My first White House experience was as a Kennedy consultant. So if I hadn't had that, I probably couldn’t have done the Nixon period, because they taught me what can go on in a White House. But you’re not doing an article about me.

The article is about Dr. Rice. But one of the things people tell me is you have to understand what it means for a younger person with some limited experience on the NSC to suddenly find themselves surrounded by these titans, these elephants, Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney. What qualities of mind and temperament were necessary for you to keep your balance and do your job under similar circumstances, especially at the beginning?

Almost all of the departmental papers try to move an immediate decision. That’s a particular problem at the beginning of an administration because almost every department that was overruled in the previous administration tries to get it reversed in the new administration. And you have the paradoxical problem of having no files, because the previous administration has taken all the files. So you have to spend some time reconstituting the files.

But I was lucky. Nixon was a very conceptual President, and I surrounded myself with the most conceptual people I could find. So we made up our mind at the beginning that we would answer the big questions. First, what are we trying to do? What is the objective here? And actually, contrary to what almost everybody writes, we used the NSC mechanism. The NSC mechanism didn’t necessarily know what we would ultimately do with it, and they certainly had a shot at presenting what they thought should be done. And then I had my own staff. Anyway, that’s how it started.

Going through Secretary Rice’s interviews, roundtables with the press, her published work—there’s an analogy that she draws again and again to this present moment in history and the beginning of the Cold War. It’s something that she does with me, and something that she does repeatedly in interviews. She says we are making decisions now that will set the groundwork for policy for the next 50 years. She talks about Dean Acheson, she talks about George Marshall. What do you make of the analogy between this moment in history and the beginning of the Cold War?

The essence of the beginning of the Cold War was that the state system as we knew it was beginning to drag. A new danger appeared in the center of Europe. And Europe, which had been the leading continent and the leading actor in world affairs, was declining and was no longer capable of carrying out its responsibilities. George Marshall and Truman guided America into an international system. They defined the international system, and conducted debates in this country.

Now, a number of things are going on simultaneously today that are not necessarily concurrent. In the North Atlantic, in Europe, the nation-state is disintegrating, but the new political unit, the European Union, has emerged here as a political non-factor. So in effect, Europe has no mechanisms for conducting strategic policy the way it used to be conducted by nation-states. Maybe that’s not possible for a transnational unit. That’s what we have to find out.

In the relations between states, war is no longer possible. That’s a new factor. How do you conduct foreign policy when you can’t have war, and you have populations that are not willing to make any sacrifice for anything, including domestic changes? On the other hand, America is still a nation, and that greatly affects our relation with Europe.

And we have Asia, which is more like Europe was in the 19th century, with the notion of equilibrium and balance of power, and so forth. Then you have the Middle East, which is like Europe was in the 17th century, torn by religious and sectarian conflicts. And on top of that, you have a new set of problems that have never existed before and can only be solved on a global basis—climate, energy, terror, for which there is no national mechanism really to deal with it.

So if you sit where Condi is sitting, that’s the tableau in front of you.

Do you think that the language of democracy promotion and what some people call the freedom agenda, the invocation of these broad concepts, is a sufficiently large umbrella to enable policy makers to operate in all these radically different environments at once? Or does it cause more problems than it helps to solve?

I used to say to my colleagues, to the greatest minds of your generation, we’re a country, not a foundation. We have to conduct foreign policy for America. So is the word “democracy” enough?

America will always have a human rights component to its foreign policy. And a democratic component. America cannot conduct totally abstract power politics. Not even Bismarck conducted pure power politics. He said that the best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get a hold of the hem of his coat. You need values. But if you say to yourself that I’m going to get this accomplished in 3 years, or in a very finite time period, you’re denying any concept of evolution and of history, and you get in beyond your depth.

So I’m impatient when we lecture everybody on their domestic affairs. I think it’s often counterproductive.

I was in the West Bank and Gaza after Yasir Arafat died. And when I came back, there was no doubt in my mind that the people living there overwhelmingly preferred Hamas to Fatah. And this wasn’t because of my great skills as a political analyst or my great skills speaking Arabic. Anybody could see it. Fatah was hopelessly corrupt, they had been sitting there for a very long time. And Hamas, if they said they’d give money for suicide bombings, money went for suicide bombings. If they said the money would go to the mosque, it went to the mosque. You could see it if you were there for a day, which is why nobody wanted this election to happen on either the Palestinian or the Israeli side. The result of the election was that Hamas won, and the day after, the State Department and Dr. Rice were actually quite surprised.

Well you saw the same thing in Iraq. Whom could they vote for after 40 years of Saddam? The people they were closest to, which were their ethnic or religious group. That then confirmed the divisions. It did not create a consensus. That’s where we have problems.

But as far as your understanding of how this process works, is it that we are getting trapped by our own rhetoric into taking actual decisions on a day-by-day basis that are at odds with our interests in this region?

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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