What follows is an extended transcript of several conversations on foreign policy I had with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which formed the basis of a story in the December issue of The Atlantic. That story, along with an interview on Kissinger’s reaction to the surprise electoral victory of Donald Trump, can be found here. The transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Give me your underlying view of Donald Trump on foreign policy.
Henry Kissinger: In public, he speaks with great assurance, but some of the proposals he has made most emphatically will encounter obstacles to implementation. Neither Congress nor Mexico is likely to fund the construction of his wall.
Goldberg: And Hillary Clinton?
Kissinger: We had a common friend in the late Oscar de la Renta and met occasionally at his house. As secretary, she occasionally asked for my views. I have enjoyed my conversations with her; I respect her intelligence and analytical power.
Goldberg: Who is the best politician you’ve ever watched?
Kissinger: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both had exceptional natural abilities. Nelson Rockefeller was very good statewide, but never gained national traction.
Goldberg: Would Trump accelerate the U.S.’s decline? Would Hillary reverse this feeling of declinism, in part because she believes in a strong alliance system and the positive use of American power?
Kissinger: If Trump were to win, the shock might create an opportunity, but also a serious dislocation. The uncertainty of Clinton is whether the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party would permit her to carry out what she believes.
Goldberg: If [Trump] took American political analysts by surprise, it must have taken Chinese analysts by surprise.
Kissinger: I happened to be in China when it crystallized last April. And they reacted by having a discussion about “what is really going on.” What is he trying to do? What should they do in response? Since they have also paid attention to what Trump keeps saying about negotiations, they are reflecting about the possibility that, shocking as his behavior is, it might provide the occasion for a comprehensive discussion. Now, they seem to be motivated by a certain ambivalence.
Goldberg: Do you think Trump could bring about a globalized understanding of the relationship?
Kissinger: Trump has not put forward a worldview. He argues in a general way that he could solve the economic problems between China and the United States in a comprehensive deal, which would take care of our other problems. Could he, in fact, do that? It would require qualities different from those needed to win primaries and elections. I don’t feel that Trump has addressed the question of world order yet.
Goldberg: He doesn’t seem to have operating theories. There is no “Trump Doctrine.”
Kissinger: For a foreign policy operating along a continuum of American thought, what I have sketched is nearly impossible to define in a political campaign: to come to an understanding with the Chinese, I mean.
Goldberg: Everyone says the Chinese want Trump [to win] because Clinton has been hard-edged on their issues.
Kissinger: I don’t think they prefer Trump. As cautious strategists, they’re just thinking about how they’d deal with him if he was elected.
Goldberg: You don’t think they see him as an easy mark?
Kissinger: They don’t know what he is. I think the Chinese want to attempt a significant exploration of purpose between us and them regardless of who our president is. There’s no sense faking that because if they fool us and it doesn’t occur, they will have undermined confidence. That’s not a good outcome for them.
Goldberg: Come to the two candidates right now. Which one has the better understanding? If you want to endorse Hillary Clinton, feel free. If you want to endorse Donald Trump, take it somewhere else.
Kissinger: You wouldn’t publish that?
Goldberg: Of course I’d publish it! I’m a journalist. I’d be horrified, but I’d publish it.
Kissinger: I have not endorsed Trump and will not do so.
Goldberg: Since we last spoke, he’s said various things that must have made you go pale.
Kissinger: I disagree with several of Trump’s statements, but I do not historically participate in presidential campaigns. My view of my role is that together with like-minded men and women, I could help contribute to a bipartisan view of American engagement in the world for another period; I could do my part to overcome this really, in a way, awful period in which we are turning history into personal recriminations, depriving our political system of a serious debate. That’s what I think my best role is.
Goldberg: Donald Trump does not rise in your mind to the level of a person who is so clearly unqualified for the presidency that you should preemptively say, “this person cannot function in this job?” More and more Republicans are saying that, especially national security professionals.
Kissinger: I’ve decided I’m not going into the name-calling aspect of the campaign. I’m approaching 94; I will not play a role in the execution of day-to-day policy, but I can still aid our thinking about purposeful strategy compatible with our role in shaping the postwar world. Before the campaign, I said over the years friendly things about Hillary. They are on the record. I stand by them. In fact, my views have been on the record for decades, including a friendly attitude towards Hillary as a person.
Goldberg: Let me ask again: Is Donald Trump teachable?
Kissinger: Every first-term president has to learn something after he comes into office. Nobody can be completely ready for the inevitable crises. If Trump is elected, it is in the national interest to hope that he is teachable.
Goldberg: You know, there’s a chance he would govern as a pragmatic liberal Democrat.
Kissinger: He has said things that sound like it. He has also said many much more contrary things. I simply do not want to get into this sort of speculation. I don’t know Trump well. I intend to make my contribution to the national debate on substance. There is no point in trying to get me into the personal aspects of the campaign.
The Obama Doctrine
Goldberg: How would you define President Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine?
Kissinger: The Obama Doctrine described in your Atlantic article posits that America acted against its basic values in a number of places around the world, thereby maneuvering itself into an intractable position. Therefore, the argument goes, America contributes to the vindication of its values by withdrawing from regions where we can only make things worse. We must take care lest the Obama Doctrine become an essentially reactive and passive foreign policy.
Goldberg: The animating idea being, in your mind, that Obama’s doctrine is about protecting the world from America?
Kissinger: In my opinion, Obama seems to think of himself not as a part of a political process, but as sui generis, a unique phenomenon with a unique capacity. And his responsibility, as he defines it, is to keep the insensitive elements of America from unsettling the world. He is more concerned with short-term consequences turning into permanent obstacles. Another view of statesmanship might focus to a greater extent on shaping history rather than avoiding getting in its way.
Goldberg: As president, you get blamed far less for sins of omission than sins of commission.
Kissinger: That’s true. It’s harder to prove them. But you are blamed for disasters, no matter who caused them.
Goldberg: As a practitioner of diplomacy, how useful is it to go to other countries and make mea culpas about past American behavior? You’re a pragmatist. Surely it buys you something.
Kissinger: Foreign countries don’t judge us by the propensity of our president to traduce his own country on their soil. They assess such visits on the basis of the fulfillment of expectations more than the recasting of the past. In my view, presidential reassessment of history, should it occur, should generally be delivered to American audiences.
Goldberg: But what about the practical argument?
Kissinger: It has to be weighed against the impact on governmental procedures and personnel. Should every American public servant have to be worried about how his views will sound 40 years later in the hands of foreign governments? Is every foreign government entitled to a file verified by the U.S. government decades after an event?
Goldberg: Hillary Clinton is more like you than she is Obama. I say this because I think Hillary Clinton would say that the things we did in the Cold War were worth the demise of the Soviet Union, and it was worth the excesses, interventions, and so on. I just think she’s closer to your understanding of the world. Is that fair?
Kissinger: If you say that, you’re not going to be kind to her. I don’t think she would say that so extremely. Nor do I think “excesses” is the appropriate word.
Goldberg: It’s not my job to be kind or unkind.
Kissinger: But you will unleash the radical wing—the Sanders wing—against her.
Goldberg: I believe it’s a true statement, though. The fundamental difference is that she could have been a Cold Warrior, but Obama is post-Cold War. He is more focused on the developing world.
Kissinger: Who was not a Cold Warrior, in that sense, at that time? There was remarkable continuity in the idea that the containment of the Soviet Union was required of American foreign policy. In the beginning—in 1948—there was a debate—the Wallace objections—but after they were defeated, there was really no disagreement about our strategic objective. Some people argued that we went too far in overthrowing Mossadegh—
Goldberg: Obama would say that.
Kissinger: In your interviews with him, Obama implied that there are a lot of places in the world where we should act, but can’t because of our past conduct. For example, that we are handicapped in Iran by the Mossadegh legacy—almost 70 years ago. I doubt that. One can define our past according to that narrative on two levels—things we did, like Mossadegh’s overthrow, or things we—quotation mark—“tolerated.” But the word “tolerated” would be somewhat wrong; it implies that we could have intervened effectively had we been more vocal.
Today, you see this daily with Egypt and Turkey: We are not publicly disagreeing with them about their internal policies, even though I’m sure we disagree.
Goldberg: But I think Obama would say it has an instrumental purpose: that it unstops their ears, that it allows them to hear the other things you are saying.
Kissinger: That’s a question of judgment. Some in the administration argue that by lifting the arms embargo against Vietnam, the president has engaged in a symbolic act because he has undone something that occurred 40 years ago. I don’t think the Vietnamese leaders saw it that way. I’m sure they welcomed the lifting of the embargo; it implied support vis-à-vis their ancestral adversary, China. And the Chinese no doubt felt the needle. But I do not think that the vast majority of the rest of the world perceived the symbolism the administration did—or even knew an arms embargo was in force.
Goldberg: That was an interesting moment. I was intuitively for it, but then I heard what you said: that it had only symbolic value.
Kissinger: It may well have been accompanied with private assurances to the Chinese that we have no intention to actually sell Vietnam arms. I don’t know that, but try to find out; it would be interesting to know.
Goldberg: One of the things he said to me that produced a lot of anxiety was that for Russia, Ukraine is a core interest, but for America, Ukraine is a peripheral interest. Core interests always trump peripheral interests; we shouldn’t make believe otherwise. This goes to the heart of his theory about leaders: I have a set of interests. You have a set of interests. If our interests overlap, we’ll work together. If they don’t, then we won’t. All the hand-holding and dining and stroking doesn’t really matter because it’s all about interest. This is why he thinks of himself as a realist—and in his mind he associates himself with Scowcroft, but I think he also associates his “realism” with you.
Kissinger: Obama’s point is accurate in terms of how national interests are conceived. But the administration seems to treat these interests as fixed, operating automatically, and regionally defined. Since it believes as well that the global trends are moving in a direction favorable to our values, the overwhelming strategic obligation of the United States becomes to avoid getting in the way of the inevitable. But the national interest can also be treated as dynamic and not static, as global rather than regional; indeed that regional interests are subdivisions of a global concept of order. The art of foreign policy is to recognize when seemingly peripheral interests merge into core ones, which is the basis of collective security. To an extent, foreign policy can seek to merge competing core interests—and that is the means of turning confrontation into cooperation (i.e., the opening to China). Assessing the evolution of future trends is therefore always part of the strategic reflection of the moment. It is the difference between static and mobile, between essentially passive and somewhat preemptive, diplomacy.
Goldberg: One similarity between your worldviews is that he is very Westphalian in the sense that he does not make very florid or even semi-florid human-rights demands on other countries. Human rights is not the focus of his foreign policy.
Kissinger: His vision of the arc of history produces a more passive policy. A puzzling aspect about Obama is how someone so intelligent could treat his peers with the disdain he did in your article. That’s really puzzling. Someone of that stature usually develops a sense of humility.
America in the World
Goldberg: What would you advise the 45th president to do first?
Kissinger: The president should ask, “What are we trying to achieve, even if we must pursue it alone?” and “What are we trying to prevent, even if we must combat it alone?” The answers to these questions are the indispensable aspects of our foreign policy, which ought to form the basis of our strategic decisions.
The world is in chaos. Fundamental upheavals are occurring in many parts of the world simultaneously, most of which are governed by disparate principles. We are therefore faced with two problems: first, how to reduce regional chaos; second, how to create a coherent world order based on agreed-upon principles that are necessary for the operation of the entire system.
Goldberg: Crises always intervene before presidents find time to create a coherent world order, no?
Kissinger: Practically all the actors in the Middle East, China, Russia, and to a certain extent Europe are facing major strategic decisions.
Goldberg: What are they waiting to do?
Kissinger: To settle some fundamental directions of their policies. China, about the nature of its place in the world. Russia, about the goals of its confrontations. Europe, about its purpose through a series of elections. America, about giving a meaning to its current turmoil in the aftermath of the election.
Goldberg: What are America’s perpetual, eternal interests?
Kissinger: I would begin by saying that we have to have faith in ourselves. That is an absolute requirement. We can’t reduce policy to a series of purely tactical decisions or self-recriminations. The fundamental strategic question is: What is it that we will not permit, no matter how it happens, no matter how legitimate it looks?
Goldberg: You mean, for instance, if Vladimir Putin were to invade Latvia in 2017?
Kissinger: Yes. And a second question is: What are we trying to achieve? We don’t want Asia or Europe to fall under the domination of a single hostile country. Or the Middle East. But if avoiding that is our goal, we have to define hostility. According to my own thinking about Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, it is not in our interest that any of them fall under domination.
Goldberg: That perspective is very post-World War II, American-led-international-order sort of thinking. It might not be fully Obama’s view. And it was quite noticeable that of the final four major-party candidates left standing in the primaries earlier this year—Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton—only one was a foreign-policy traditionalist.
Kissinger: Clinton is the only one who fits the traditional, outward-looking, internationalist model.
Goldberg: What does this mean?
Kissinger: That for the first time since the end of the Second World War, the future relationship of America to the world is not fully settled.
Goldberg: Hillary Clinton is much more traditional, in fact, than Barack Obama, on questions related to America’s international responsibilities, indispensability, and so on. But have Americans changed so much in terms of understanding U.S. primacy that even a president like Hillary Clinton would be much more limited in what she could do?
Kissinger: To many leaders around the world, Obama remains a puzzle after eight years in office. They don’t know what to make of him or of America’s current diversions. If Hillary wins, she’ll have the advantage that the world will welcome a familiar, traditional figure. In his interview with you, Obama prided himself most on the things he prevented from happening.
Goldberg: You’ve been watching American national politics since 1948 or earlier—
Kissinger: As a participant, in some way, since 1955.
Goldberg: There’s always been, more or less, a bipartisan consensus, in this period, concerning the importance of deep American engagement with the world.
Kissinger: This is the first time that this consensus has been questioned to this degree. I think it can be restored to some extent. It seems to me that in the Western world, after the Second World War, we had a vision of a peaceful order. There was no question that we would sacrifice for it. We sent a large army to Europe. We spent a lot of money. We need to rediscover that spirit and adapt it to the realities that have emerged since then.
Goldberg: Why is this dynamic changing now?
Kissinger: We’ve been too indulgent in challenging what used to be considered core national beliefs. I think we can reverse this trend, but it will take a big, essentially bipartisan effort.
Goldberg: Is the idea of America exceptionalism breaking down?
Kissinger: No, the notion of American exceptionalism still exists, but in the sense of “the shining city on the hill,” it’s weakening.
Goldberg: But that is Obama—he has a “shining city on the hill” understanding of American exceptionalism.
Kissinger: Not in the sense that we should stop trying to implement our values. Constitutionalism and dedication to human rights are among the glories of American achievement. To be sure, we went too far in believing that we could bring about democracy in Vietnam or in Iraq by defeating our opponents militarily and by the strenuous exercise of goodwill. We went too far because we didn’t bring our military action into relation with what our public could support or a strategy for the region. But the basic effort was an expression of American exceptionalism. Cold War American exceptionalism is gone. An appropriate adaptation is a principal task of a new administration. I instinctively believe that the American public could be convinced, but they would need a different explanation from the one that was valid in the 1950s.
A society has to have a vision of its own future—and it cannot be based on guilt primarily. Every society that has ever existed in human history has at some point declined. You can be arrogant enough to believe that it cannot happen to you, but you need the humility to recognize the limitations of human foresight. That said, you must have some faith in yourself. Lack of faith in a society is an early symptom of decline.
Goldberg: Did you ever believe that it wouldn’t happen to the United States?
Kissinger: I can’t believe it will happen, but on the other hand, history indicates the opposite. You have to act on the permanence of your values, adjusting them when you come into contact with other societies with their own understandings of permanence. But that adjustment will often be partial. That is the dilemma of foreign policy.
Goldberg: In your last book, you made two observations that seem to me to contradict each other. The first is that we have a problem in the United States in the making of foreign policy. There’s too much discontinuity from administration to administration, so we have a sort of bipolar approach that goes from excessive engagement to regret to withdrawal. On the other hand, you said that every postwar president has bought into the ideas of American exceptionalism and American indispensability. Are those ideas contradictory? Is President Obama on the same continuum of American indispensability?
Kissinger: The belief in American exceptionalism has been essentially permanent. Its application has varied. The traditional view held that America vindicates its international role best by refining its exceptional values unsullied at home thereby becoming a shining beacon for the rest of the world. The 20th-century vision was of America as global vindicator of democracy, aiding its survival by resisting aggression and fostering the growth of democracy, if necessary by military means against violators of human rights. The two versions differed in practice but merged in purpose. America’s mission was seen to be to spread its values, either by example or by military engagement.
We are now living in a period where the nature of exceptionalism is being reexamined. At the end of the Second World War, we had something like 55 percent of the world’s GNP. Any challenge we identified we were capable of overwhelming; that made foreign policy essentially about the allocation of resources. We thought this was natural and permanent. But it could not last as Europe recovered and Asia emerged. We now possess roughly 22 percent of the world’s GNP: leaving us as the single most important country, but requiring the establishment of priorities as well as an acknowledgement that we cannot do everything alone or simultaneously. To contribute to the establishment of a more stable world order, we need to foster a perception of a joint enterprise that is not just about buying into an American project. The administration has been subtle in analyzing constraints. What we have not yet seen is a new vision of a future world order.
The key to acting internationally with creativity is the willingness to confront ambiguity and to transcend it. For creative foreign policy, it is necessary to act on assessments you cannot prove when you make them. To insist on total clarity leads to stagnation. It is important, as I have pointed out earlier, to undertake comprehensive analyses, but the sense of direction derives from decisions whose necessity can only be proven in hindsight.
Goldberg: Is Obama’s view overly deliberative, or overly passive, as a reaction, maybe, to the previous president, who was overly preemptive?
Kissinger: Perhaps in part; in part out of his own philosophical convictions. Obviously not every preemptive move is right. My own view of the previous president—for whom I have great respect and affection—is that it was right to overthrow Saddam, but the democratization of Iraq should have been a multilateral international effort, if undertaken at all. It should not have remained an exclusively American undertaking.
Goldberg: Has there been a permanent shift in the way Americans see their country’s role in the world?
Kissinger: There has been a contraction, primarily as a reaction to failed efforts. My instinct is—and I hope I am right—that an American president who presents a framework combining fortitude and purpose will be supported.
Goldberg: Can we afford to withdraw from the Middle East?
Kissinger: We cannot afford to withdraw from the Middle East. That doesn’t mean we have to maintain our current distribution of our commitments. We need a relevant strategy, not a withdrawal.
We are at a hinge point. The world looks dormant for the moment because in many countries, a lot of decisions have been delayed. They are waiting for the American election to be settled. But they will accelerate and impact each other soon after the inauguration.
The Question of Credibility
Goldberg: President Obama is someone critics believe has questioned some core assumptions about America’s role in the world. In one of my conversations with him, he seemed to be arguing with you. When he was giving me his rationalization for not enforcing the red line he’d publicly drawn regarding President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, he seemed to be thinking, Unlike Kissinger, I’m not going to bomb someone to prove that I’m willing to bomb someone. When he made statements to me like that, I think he was thinking about Cambodia.
Kissinger: Cambodia has come to play a symbolic role because it’s the one place in Indochina where liberals didn’t start the war. Our military commitment to Vietnam started with Kennedy and culminated with Johnson. Cambodia, though, was Nixon’s decision, in the radical terminology. Here, according to the mythology of the liberals, was a peaceful little country that Nixon attacked. The fact that there were four North Vietnamese divisions within 30 miles of Saigon coming across the border killing Americans—killing 500 a week starting within two weeks of Nixon’s inauguration—was ignored in the debate on Cambodia by protestors emphasizing the technical neutrality of Cambodia and ignoring that its ruler had invited our response. The Obama administration has systematically conducted comparable bombing for comparable reasons, but with drones, in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. I have supported these bombings. But if we are ever going to have a creative foreign policy, we need to disenthrall ourselves from the slogans of a generation ago and attempt to overcome our current challenges.
Goldberg: What I mean is that when Obama is thinking about Cambodia, he’s thinking that Nixon and Kissinger come to power and they feel they need to establish credibility with Hanoi, so they ramp up a war. This is his analysis of how the U.S. gets itself into trouble.
Kissinger: That isn’t true. We had suffered, one month after coming into office, over 2,000 casualties, mostly from sanctuaries in Cambodia. They had to be reduced. We were concerned with controlling and ending the war.
Goldberg: But this is a popular rendering of events.
Kissinger: I know. We come to power, the North Vietnamese start an offensive within two weeks, we have 500 casualties a week—the bombing of Cambodia was a way not to resume the bombing of the North. That was what we thought. It wasn’t a matter of starting another war; the war was already in Cambodia. What were our real strategic choices? You could say “Pull out.” But you will not find one paper from the end of the Johnson administration that urged anything like immediate withdrawal.
Goldberg: Obama’s red-line decision on Syria, he told me, was when he broke with what he called the traditional Washington playbook. He didn’t think he would buy the United States credibility by using force. What is your view of the red-line controversy?
Kissinger: I think the red line was, above all, a symbolic issue. It was an unwise decision in a kaleidoscope of ambivalences. But it was a symptom of a deeper problem. Military force should be used, if at all, in the amount most likely to succeed. It should not be a compromise between contending domestic forces.
Goldberg: Describe your view of the relationship between diplomacy and power. As you know, John Kerry spent much of the past year lobbying Obama to conduct strikes against Assad in order to concentrate his attention on the necessity for a diplomatic solution. This is fascinating, because Kerry is a man who began his career protesting the Vietnam War, and who is now arguing for credibility-enhancing military strikes.
Kissinger: I respect John Kerry for his courage and persistence. In Syria, he is striving for a coalition government composed of groups that have been engaged in a genocidal war with each other. Even if you could construct such a government, unless you identify a dominant actor, you have to answer the question: Who will settle disputes when they inevitably arise? The existence of a government does not guarantee that it will be perceived as legitimate or its pronouncements will be obeyed. Kerry has come to understand that other pressures are needed to achieve the stated objective—a change from his position in the Vietnam War. The use of force is the ultimate sanction of diplomacy. Diplomacy and power are not discrete activities. They are linked, though not in the sense that each time negotiations stall, you resort to force. It simply means that the opposite number in a negotiation needs to know there is a breaking point at which you will attempt to impose your will. Otherwise, there will be a deadlock or a diplomatic defeat. That point is dependent on three components: the possession of adequate and relevant power, tactical willingness to deploy it, and a strategic doctrine that disciplines a society’s power with its values.
Goldberg: Stay on your understanding of credibility.
Kissinger: Skeptics of the claim that credibility is an important element of the international order frequently imply that its advocates substitute self-serving psychology for strategy. I have a different view. Credibility for a state plays the role of character for a human being. It provides a guarantee that its assurances can be relied upon by friends and its threats taken seriously by adversaries. It is a key component of strategy, not a psychologically distinct break.
The task of demonstrating credibility is bounded by diplomacy on one end and by the incremental use of power on the other. Between countries that agree on fundamentals or on specific purposes, diplomacy is the appropriate method. When there is no agreed purpose and clashing interests, power dominates. In only the rarest circumstances does a pure model present itself, even at the extremes. Diplomacy should derive its impetus from an awareness of the consequences of failure. Wars end, and diplomacy governs the continuum that defines the ensuing process. To make diplomacy an alternative to war is to define the limits of the national interest; a wise strategy will define the blending of the two realms.
Insistence on credibility must be judged by its applicability to the international situation. When Richard Nixon took the oath of office in 1969, the Soviet Union had, in the name of the Warsaw Pact, occupied Czechoslovakia less than a year earlier; it had also threatened blockades of Berlin for over a decade and a half. The Cuban Missile Crisis was only seven years earlier. Soviet troops were concentrating on the Chinese border, raising a real prospect of invasion. In China, Mao had declared his preparedness to overcome 300 million casualties in a nuclear war; the country was rent by the Cultural Revolution and had only one ambassador in place abroad. There had been no diplomatic relations between China and the United States and little contact for 20 years. The United States had, for over a decade, moved step by step into Indochina; 500,000 troops were already deployed there, and the number was still increasing on a schedule established by the previous administration. Inevitably, Vietnam and its relationship to other priorities became the immediate preoccupation of the Nixon administration.
In these circumstances, President Nixon and his advisors set forth five objectives: 1) deterring further Soviet military moves; 2) opening a diplomatic option to the Soviet Union, especially with respect to the control of nuclear weapons; 3) seeking a way to bring China into the international system; 4) reviewing Middle East policy to explore a way to restore relations with key Arab countries and to expel Soviet military influence from the region; and 5) making energetic effort to keep the Vietnam War from subsuming all national energies. Ending the Vietnam War was therefore a key element in achieving all our other objectives.
Our first step was to analyze where we were and where we wanted to go. We concluded that there were three theoretical outcomes. The first was to withdraw immediately, but there was neither a practical nor a political basis for that. It would take 18 months to extricate all 550,000 Americans, who would be surrounded by 800,000 hostile and about a million friendly—but latently hostile—forces throughout the process. The departing administration had left no program to the effect of total withdrawal. The war could not be concluded simply by announcing its end. All our other objectives would be jeopardized by such a step.
Two realistic options presented themselves. One was Vietnamization: to try to build up a Vietnamese army of a size and quality to assure the defense of the country as we withdrew. The second was to make a peace proposal of maximum scope—and if it was rejected, to go all out. We considered both options. In several memos to Nixon, I indicated my reservations about Vietnamization (paralleling what I had already written to the Pentagon in the Johnson administration). I preferred the negotiation-cum-showdown option, which we attempted. In March of 1969, we informed the Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that we were prepared to send Cyrus Vance to negotiate with the North Vietnamese in Moscow on a comprehensive agreement. Simultaneously, we explored the options of military escalation. Hanoi refused to negotiate with the participation of a third country. We learned this only later because no formal reply was ever returned. Nixon chose the Vietnamization option.
Goldberg: Was your primary goal to preserve American credibility?
Kissinger: America had committed itself, in at least three administrations, to the principle that it would not turn over to Communist rule a people who had relied on us. The United States was the linchpin of the international system. We felt obliged to adhere to a commitment by which our adequacy to defend other regions and allies would be judged. We never criticized the previous administration for poor judgment, even though Niall Ferguson’s book makes clear that I quite early expressed concern over its strategy. Though in the actual Vietnam diplomacy we were flexible on many points—the schedule of withdrawal, for example—but we would not accept an outcome that would deprive the people of South Vietnam of the ability to express their views about their own governmental structure. We would not accept Hanoi’s insistent demand that our allied government be overthrown as a prelude to any other step.
We started withdrawing forces within six months of coming into office, even though the North Vietnamese had launched an offensive within three weeks of Nixon assuming the presidency—in violation of the agreement that had been President [Lyndon] Johnson’s last diplomatic act in Vietnam. In the first six months, when half of the casualties suffered during the Nixon administration occurred, we were still studying our options. By 1971, we had withdrawn America from ground combat. By 1972, we had only 25,000 troops remaining. Our casualties had been progressively reduced from about 500 per week to some 25 per week.
I have given such an extensive answer, because I believe the Vietnam issue has blighted our domestic debate ever since. Until the 1960s, there were intense controversies, but they concerned the feasibility or wisdom of policies. Afterwards they turned increasingly into moral condemnations of the administration in office and its members. When the charge of war criminal becomes an accepted form of discourse, the prospects of national cohesion disintegrate. Diplomacy loses its flexibility and strategy its force. But it was a strategic, not a psychological, judgment.
Goldberg: How does this relate to the contemporary decline of America’s credibility in the Middle East? I recently spoke with senior Asian officials who were shocked by Obama’s decision about the “red line.” It felt like an earthquake, he said, to the Asians.
Kissinger: With respect to Vietnam, the basic view of Lee Kuan Yew was that Singapore, a tiny country in a region in which China was historically dominant, needed America present in the consciousness of the Chinese. Hence collapse in Vietnam would bring about the domination by Maoist China and its satellite parties of all of Southeast Asia.
Like him, we were convinced that the stability of the international system depended on the steadiness and reliability of fundamental U.S. strategy. We believed that we could sustain these goals most effectively by a policy of stabilizing the Vietnam fronts, gradual withdrawal, and a commitment to a negotiated outcome.
What we misjudged was not so much the importance of credibility as the belief in a scope for compromise regarding an independent South Vietnam. For Hanoi, the war was not about allocating relative influence; it was about total control. Anything less was viewed by the Politburo in Hanoi as an historic defeat. While negotiating, and while critics accused the Nixon administration of missing Hanoi’s overtures, the Politburo was preparing an all-out offensive. Only on October 6, 1972, when that offensive was defeated, did Hanoi accept what had been on offer for more than a year. But no agreement is self-enforcing. Once the agreement existed, we lost the capacity to enforce it due to Watergate, which undermined the president’s executive authority, and congressional limitations on military aid and proscriptions of American actions in Indonesia. After that, it was only a matter of time until Vietnam collapsed.
Goldberg: Has the United States lost credibility over the last eight years? What about the last 15 years?
Kissinger: Loss of influence has occurred over an extended period of time. In addition to Vietnam, we lost the Afghan and Iraqi wars insofar as we failed to reach our objectives. As in Vietnam, we compounded our challenges by bitter and irreconcilable debates and by confusing unilateral withdrawal with an end to the war. As happened after Vietnam, domestic debates swung from general support for too broad objectives to proclaiming the end of the war as an objective in itself. A war’s termination, however, will achieve international stability only if it modifies the conditions that produced it.
Goldberg: What can the next president do to restore our credibility—or influence, if you choose that word?
Kissinger: Return American foreign policy to a predictable and sustainable strategy. The new president should enter office realizing that his or her vision and, yes, credibility will be determined by the reaction to emerging crises as well as the ability to impart a sense of direction to existing ones. That presupposes a clear definition of interests and goals. The overriding challenge for the next president will be how to address concurrent upheavals in many parts of the world simultaneously with defeating terrorism. Out of this process conducted in terms of different histories and cultures, a new world order must be distilled. Failing that, the country will go from crisis to crisis without ever really advancing America or the world.
The ambivalence of America’s engagement in Syria reflects these necessities. We proclaimed the goal of removing Bashar al-Assad but no comparable program to implement it. We seem to have expected that Assad’s removal would happen automatically following our stated appeal and lead directly to democracy. But Syria’s population is diverse and conflicted, composed of religious and ethnic minorities which compete to the death. Thus to the extent that our goals were taken seriously, they triggered not democracy but civil war. None of the many minorities in Syria struggling for predominance was willing to subordinate themselves to an election. And in the aftermath of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, we were unwilling to commit ourselves to the military requirements of imposing a democratic system. Democratization in Germany and Japan after World War II required total defeat of the adversary, long occupation, and sustained American investment. The result of American tentativeness in Syria has been deadlock. Terrorism has found an opportunity in the gap between objectives, capabilities, and strategic concept.
Realpolitik vs. Human Rights
Goldberg: To what degree does an America leader have to subordinate human rights concerns or moral concerns in pursuit of stability vis-à-vis major powers?
Kissinger: You have used the word “stability” often in your questions. An international order is stable when the desire or need for adjustment can be accommodated without overthrowing the system itself. An order tends towards chaos when its key challenges are to its system: then it evolves with competing versions of equilibrium. The choice almost never comes up in such a clear-cut way; usually, it is a balance between security and human rights.
Goldberg: I think you’re a firm believer in the importance of global stability.
Kissinger: I am, but I believe in evolutionary stability. I do not believe you can ever maintain the status quo in perpetuity. The challenge, then, is to devise a system in which change can be accommodated without producing chaos.
Goldberg: Your concept of “evolutionary stability” is interesting.
Kissinger: It is key to my thinking.
In terms of my personal history, human rights is never—can never be—far from my mind. But as one studies or experiences history more, one learns that unambiguous or un-ambivalent answers to this question are very rare. Policymaking requires compromise—and sometimes, painful sacrifice. The ideal outcome, of course, would be a triumph of democratic values achieved by methods that stand the scrutiny of time in all their aspects.
Goldberg: Was the opening to China worth the sacrifices, the deaths, experienced in the India-Pakistan Bangladesh crisis?
Kissinger: Human rights are an essential goal of American policy. But so is national security. In some situations, no choice between them is required, making the moral issue relatively simple. But there are situations in which a conflict arises, specifically when a country important to American security or international order engages in conduct contrary to our values, requiring the president to make a series of judgments: about the magnitude of the conflict; the resources available to remedy it; the impact of our actions on its foreseeable evolution; and finally, if the president identifies a path forward, the willingness of the American public to maintain that effort. Emphasizing human rights led us into failed nation-building in Iraq; ignoring them permitted genocide in Rwanda. Contemporary policymakers face this challenge all over the world, especially all over the Middle East.
The statesman can usually only reach his goal in stages and, by definition, imperfectly. The art of policy is to move through imperfect stages towards ever-more fulfilling goals.
Your question on Bangladesh demonstrates how this issue has been confused in our public debate. There was never the choice between suffering in Bangladesh and the opening to China. It is impossible to go into detail in one far-ranging interview. However, allow me to outline some principles:
- The opening to China began in 1969.
- The Bangladesh crisis began in March 1971.
- By then, we had conducted a number of highly secret exchanges with China and were on the verge of a breakthrough.
- These exchanges were conducted through Pakistan, which emerged as the interlocutor most acceptable to Beijing and Washington.
- The Bangladesh crisis, in its essence, was an attempt of the Bengali part of Pakistan to achieve independence. Pakistan resisted with extreme violence and gross human-rights violations.
- To condemn these violations publicly would have destroyed the Pakistani channel, which would be needed for months to complete the opening to China, which indeed was launched from Pakistan. The Nixon administration considered the opening to China as essential to a potential diplomatic recasting towards the Soviet Union and the pursuit of peace. The U.S. diplomats witnessing the Bangladesh tragedy were ignorant of the opening to China. Their descriptions were heartfelt and valid, but we could not respond publicly. But we made available vast quantities of food and undertook diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation.
- After the opening to China via Pakistan, America engaged in increasingly urging Pakistan to grant autonomy to Bangladesh. In November, the Pakistani president agreed with Nixon to grant independence the following March.
- The following December, India, after having made a treaty including military provisions with the Soviet Union, and in order to relieve the strain of refugees, invaded East Pakistan [which is today Bangladesh].
- The U.S. had to navigate between Soviet pressures; Indian objectives; Chinese suspicions; and Pakistani nationalism. Adjustments had to be made—and would require a book to cover—but the results require no apology. By March 1972—within less than a year of the commencement of the crisis—Bangladesh was independent; the India-Pakistan War ended; and the opening to China completed at a summit in Beijing in February 1972. A summit in Moscow in May 1972 resulted in a major nuclear arms control agreement [SALT I]. Relations with India were restored by 1974 with the creation of a U.S.-Indian Joint Commission [the Indo-U.S. Joint Commission on Economic, Commercial, Scientific, Technological, Educational and Cultural Cooperation], which remains part of the basis of contemporary U.S.-India relations. Compared with Syria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the sacrifices made in 1971 have had a far more clear-cut end.
Goldberg: Did you read Samantha Power’s speech on values in foreign policy, by the way?
Kissinger: She’s a good friend of mine with a somewhat different perspective. I respect her. In the debates she conducts at United Nations, she is very clear about American values, which she relates to American interests. I agree that to the greatest extent possible, moral arguments should influence our actions, but they must also be related to long-term security interests. She is doing a great job, even if she takes an occasional shot at me.
She’s in the process of broadening her approach. When she came to New York as UN ambassador, she was an exclusive liberal interventionist. After living in the real world of the United Nations—making arguments, lining up votes—she’s had to face the necessity of including national security and executing policy in a world of different histories.
But to go back to Obama, in avoiding potential risks, he is quite realistic according to my definition of the word. But he sees the presidency itself in more personal terms; he believes he has imparted unique aspects to it. I see it more in evolutionary terms as a dynamic process.
Goldberg: There is no domestic pressure to do something about Syria.
Kissinger: Suppose Assad leaves tomorrow. Then what the hell do we do? What follows from the moral decision to depose him? Does democracy automatically succeed him? If not, what is the governance structure that will not magnify the threat?
Goldberg: What would you have done in Rwanda?
Kissinger: As an academic observer, I would have leaned towards doing something about the genocide in Rwanda. The human toll was egregious. The cost of intervention would have been fairly low and the long-term international consequences limited. But would I have done it had I been in office? I have sympathy for those who were faced with the challenge. Until the Vietnam War, the president had certain latitude to commit forces without coming under immediate attack. Today, the very first casualty would draw criticism.
Goldberg: Are Sino-American relations more consequential than Islamist terrorism?
Kissinger: Islamic terrorism is consequential for the prospects of international order in the short term. Our relations with China will shape international order in the long term. The United States and China will be the world’s most consequential countries. Economically, this is already the case. Yet both nations are having to undergo unprecedented domestic transformations. As a first step forward, we ought to try to develop an understanding of how joint Sino-American action could stabilize the world. At a minimum, we should agree to limit our disagreements; more sophisticatedly, we should identify projects we can undertake together.
Goldberg: How should the 45th president make China policy?
Kissinger: After its early years, America was lucky enough not to be threatened with invasion as it developed, not least because we were surrounded by two great oceans. As a consequence, America has conceived of foreign policy as a series of discrete challenges to be addressed as they arise on their merits rather than as part of an overall design.
Not until the post-World War II period did we begin to think of foreign policy as a continuous process, even in seemingly tranquil circumstances. For at least 20 years, we forged alliances as a way to put down markers as much as to design a strategy. Henceforth, we must devise a more fluid strategy adjustable to changing circumstance. We must therefore study the histories and cultures of key international actors. We must also be permanently involved in international affairs.
Goldberg: Constant engagement with China?
Kissinger: China is an illustration. For most of its history, China also enjoyed isolation. The only exception is the 100 years it was dominated by Western societies. It did not have to continuously engage with the rest of the world, especially outside of Asia. But it was surrounded by relatively smaller nations incapable of disturbing the peace. Until the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, China’s relationships with other countries were managed by the Ministry of Rites, which classified each foreign country as a relative tributary to Beijing. China did not have diplomatic relationships in the Westphalian sense; it did not consider foreign countries as equal entities.
Goldberg: I think there are countries along its borders that don’t feel they are treated as equal entities.
Kissinger: China is undergoing a tremendous process of domestic change. President Xi Jinping laid out two goals called the “Two 100s”—the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party and the 100th anniversary of the Communist state. The first will be in 2021; the second in 2049. By the time they reach the second 100, they will be, by their own estimate, the equal of any other country in the contemporary world, and will, by their reckoning, be able to insist on absolute material and strategic equality, including with America. Some Chinese strategists are in effect saying, “If we were in the American position, would we not at least consider preventing another country from reaching equality?” So that is a latent source of tension.
The Chinese internal discussions offer at least two answers. The hard-liners will say, “The Americans are visibly declining. We will win. We can afford to be tough and look at the world with sort of Cold War-ish attitudes.” The other position—apparently that of President Xi—is that confrontation is too dangerous: Cold War with the U.S. would keep China from reaching its economic goals. A conflict with modern weapons might exceed the devastation of the First World War and leave no winners. Hence in the modern period, adversarial countries must become partners and cooperate on a win-win basis.
Goldberg: So Xi is a moderate?
Kissinger: President Xi, for his part, has put forward two objectives for China. The first is “Asia for the Asians.” The second is an effort to turn adversaries into partners. In my opinion, we must try to make this second framework the dominant theme of U.S.-China relations. The Chinese view the world very differently than we do. We have to combine our own diplomatic and military capabilities to respond to this reality. But is that possible in the current world with its weapons of mass destruction and cyber capabilities?
One obstacle is a cultural gap: The basic American attitude is that the normal condition of the world is peaceful, so if there’s a problem, someone is causing it. If we defeat that person or country, everything will become harmonious again.
By contrast, the Chinese do not believe in permanent solutions. To Beijing, a solution is simply an admission ticket to another problem. Thus, the Chinese are more interested in trends. They ask, “Where are you going? What do you think the world will look like in 15 years?”
As a result of this cultural gap, when the American and Chinese presidents meet, there is too often an ambiguous outcome. Progress is made on immediate short-term issues—climate change, some economic concerns. But the basic agenda of developing a common concept for the future is given less priority, in part because of the pressure of time and the impact of the media waiting outside the conference center.
Goldberg: How do you grade President Obama’s management of the China portfolio?
Kissinger: I’d say B-plus.
Goldberg: That’s a pretty good grade.
Kissinger: Well, B-plus in terms of the present, but somewhat lower in terms of the long-term evolution of Sino-American relations. He has made things somewhat better for the short term, but he has made no major contribution to the relationship’s long-term evolution.
Goldberg: Let’s talk about “the Thucydides Trap,” the notion that a rising power will more often than not come into conflict with the established power. Graham Allison has done important work on this. You buy the basic concept, yes?
Kissinger: To a considerable extent. Graham Allison shows that in the vast majority of historical cases, rising powers and status quo powers have fallen into some kind of military conflict. It is almost inevitable when both countries have global influence. Even with benign intentions, they are bound to interact and occasionally step on each other’s toes in some parts of the world. It is inherent in the definitions of rising and status quo powers.
Yet there is another paradoxical explanation for conflict. Conflict could occur, on the one hand, because of a gradual escalation of tension, and on the other, because the states have come to expect their ultimate solutions as normal. World War I resulted in large part from the fact that the states’ impact on one another was, for quite a long period, successfully managed. Suddenly, a crisis comes along that in its essence is not more severe than what had been handled before—indeed, you could argue, less severe than the Balkan wars that had preceded it. But in the assassination of the Austrian archduke and his wife, a number of accidents compounded the crisis. Because the wife was not of royal blood, the heads of state were not obligated to attend the funeral. Had they all assembled, they might have been able to negotiate an informal diplomatic solution to the immediate Serbian problem.
Moreover, in pre-World War I Europe, two rising powers were confronting each another. A rising Germany was threatening Britain’s command of the seas, while a rising Russia was threatening Germany’s role in Central Europe. Germany, after Bismarck, had maneuvered itself into a position of being a fortress surrounded by a hostile France in the west and a hostile Russia in the east. So its strategic objective became, in any war that happened, whatever the cause, to defeat one of these enemies first. The one that was more reachable was France, because it would take Russia longer to mobilize, hence German strategists thought not enough of its army would be available to be destroyed. No matter how a war started, even if it was about some transgression of Serbia against Austria in the Balkans—as it was in 1914—Germany would begin by attacking France. They had built themselves into a system where, subconsciously, the expression of these rising powers was local, but the strategy to defeat them was global, or at least regional.
Finally, nobody understood the consequences of a general war. In the present period, we have a comparable situation, made more complicated by the fact that the world is more global in nature. A crisis in the South China Sea over 280 islands, many of which are rocks protruding into the ocean, could escalate into a global conflict. And if these issues keep boiling, and if there’s no overriding approach, history could repeat itself. So China and the U.S. should have as a goal—and a duty—to coordinate their strategic reach not in dominating the world, but in constraining their adversarial impacts on each other and agreeing to cooperate. We are both handicapped by having no historical experience of ever having engaged in such an enterprise.
Goldberg: The Chinese have been down, though.
Kissinger: They’ve been down, but for most of their history, they’ve thought of themselves as the Central Kingdom. The 19th-century partial occupation by European powers was shocking to them—and remains so to this day. Contemporary China believes that it is returning to its rightful historical place of preeminence.
There is another important difference. Both countries consider themselves exceptional. The United States believes that our exceptionalism entitles us to educate others because if they adopt our principles, the world will be more peaceful.
The Chinese do not strive for conversion. In their view, if you do not belong to Chinese culture, you can never become fully Chinese. Thus, they feel America has no moral right to intervene in their domestic affairs. Their analogy to conversion is that the majesty of their performance will so awe other societies that they will follow enough of the Chinese pattern to become cultural and political tributaries.
Goldberg: But the U.S. is standing in the way. “Asia for the Asians” means Asia for the Chinese.
Kissinger: The Chinese have historically believed that any rational party would accept it. They would use military force—this is the difference between them and Russia—less to occupy than to impress. We fought in Vietnam to help transform the society into a democratic one. China occupied the northern provinces for four months in order, in Deng’s words, “to teach them respect.” His theory was that Chinese preeminence, not governance, would follow. It’s a subtle difference.
Goldberg: That’s pretty subtle if you’re the American president trying to maintain an alliance system of countries that live in fear of China.
Goldberg: Is there sufficient understanding of what an actual U.S.-China war would look like?
Kissinger: A military conflict between the two countries, given the technologies they possess, would be calamitous. Such a conflict would force the world to divide itself. And it would end in destruction, but not necessarily in victory, which would likely prove too difficult to define. Even if we could define victory, what in the wake of utter destruction could the victor demand of the loser? I am speaking of not merely the force of our weapons, but the unknowability of the consequences of some of them, such as cyberweapons. Traditional arms-control negotiations necessitated that each side tell the other what its capabilities were as a prelude to limiting those capacities. Yet with cyber, each country will be extremely reluctant to let others know its capabilities. Thus, there is no self-evident negotiated way to contain cyberwarfare. And artificial intelligence compounds this problem. Machines that can learn from their own experience and communicate with one another on their own raise both a practical and a moral imperative to find a way to keep mankind from destroying itself. The United States and China must strive to come to an understanding about the nature of their co-evolution.
Goldberg: Just to be clear: The stability of the planet depends on its two most powerful countries understanding what the other wants.
Kissinger: And that requires transparency toward each other about their motives, which sounds very strange to traditional diplomats.
Goldberg: Does it sound very strange to you?
Kissinger: Somewhat, but if you read the transcripts of my earliest conversations with Zhou Enlai [the Chinese premier with whom Kissinger met secretly in 1971 as part of the effort to open relations], you will notice two things. The first is that we were lucky, because we had no practical day-to-day relationship to talk about—except Taiwan, which we set aside—so, in order to build confidence, we had to talk about our philosophies of world order. And two, as a consequence, we sounded like two college professors discussing the nature of the world and its future.
This sort of dialogue is not apparent in contemporary U.S.-China dialogue. Leaders meet and have useful conversations in the sense that there are practical items—a lot of items—that they have to work through. Yet the Chinese leave such conversations frustrated. The primary subject they wanted to discuss—philosophical in nature—is never raised, which is, “If we were you, we might try to suppress your rise. Do you seek to suppress us? If you do not, what will the world look like when we are both strong, as we expect to be?”
Goldberg: How should the president go about systematically solving problems with China?
Kissinger: It is important to understand the difference between how we and the Chinese perceive issues. Americans think that the normal condition of the world is stability and progress: If there is a problem, it can be removed by the mobilization of effort and resources, and when it is solved, America can return to isolation. The Chinese believe that no problem ever can ever be finally solved. Therefore, when you talk to Chinese strategists, they talk about process rather than ad hoc issues. When you talk to U.S. strategists, they generally try look for solutions.
Goldberg: How do you understand China’s strategy at the moment?
Kissinger: There are two possible interpretations of China’s strategy. One: The Chinese think that the world is moving in their direction, that they will eventually inherit it in some fashion, and that their strategic task is to keep us quiet in the period in between—
Goldberg: That the arc of history is bending in their direction.
Kissinger: Some Chinese strategists may think that. Or one can interpret their actions as “However you interpret the arc of history, a conflict between countries possessing the technologies we do, and their uncertain application, is so dangerous that however you explain its origins, we have a duty to try to cooperate to avoid it.”
I think that is President Xi’s view. But we will not be able to demonstrate which interpretation is correct for about 20 years. In the meantime, our policies must be broad-gauged enough to allow for both.
Goldberg: Has Obama been too hawkish toward China, then?
Kissinger: Not too hawkish but too short-term. To truly advance our relationship with China, we must speak in trends.
Goldberg: Do you fear all of this talk, energized by Trump, about a trade war with China?
Kissinger: More than anything else, a balanced, peaceful world order depends on a stable U.S.-China relationship. President Xi Jinping has described our economic interdependence as the “ballast and propeller” of our broader bilateral relationship; a trade war would devastate both of us.
Goldberg: You talk to the senior Chinese leadership all the time. What was their reaction to Trump’s threat of a trade war?
Kissinger: Their first reaction to Trump was shock—not so much to his personality, but to the fact that America could produce this kind of political debate about its own nature. “Does this mean that we are inevitably bound to be in confrontation?” That was their first reaction.
Goldberg: What does the bipartisan opposition to TPP mean?
Kissinger: A desire to retreat from the worldview, from the kind of bipartisan engagement that has characterized American policy for the past half-century.
Goldberg: As a national security concept?
Kissinger: I do not agree that a national security policy must be equated with a “contain China” policy. It is important for us to be present in Asia in political, economic, and social ways. We cannot talk about equilibrium in Asia unless we establish some of the preconditions for it, like TPP. But it should also be open to China. And it should be understood that China can be part of it so that whatever economic contest we have with China will be within a framework of a cooperative option. A military containment policy should be a last resort.
Goldberg: Including trade as an issue?
Kissinger: That would be one of them. One necessary move would be for the next president to appoint someone in the White House to be responsible for China policy. That official could monitor the relationship’s nuances for the president.
Goldberg: Can we reset relations with Russia?
Kissinger: “Reset” is not the appropriate word. I prefer “adaptation to the new circumstances of a world in upheaval.” The issue is whether both countries are able to achieve their minimum security objectives and cooperate towards stability in regions within their reach? It is a formidable, but necessary, enterprise.
Goldberg: So why didn’t the reset go well?
Kissinger: Dmitri Medvedev was president during the beginning of the reset, with Putin acting as prime minister in a bow to a Russian constitutional requirement limiting presidents to two consecutive terms. (After an interval of one term, they can stand for reelection.) The White House, in that interval, carefully limited contact with Putin. Some in the administration seemed to hope that Medvedev would dismiss Putin as prime minister—the Russian Constitution permits that—and that the evolution of Russia would be towards a democratic, Western-oriented kind of aspiring NATO member. It was part of the argument in your interview, that history is moving in America’s direction and that Putin will eventually realize it.
When Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, the reset inevitably faltered. To understand Putin, one must read Dostoyevsky, not Mein Kampf. He knows that Russia is far weaker than it once was—indeed far weaker than the United States. He is the head of a state that for centuries defined itself by its imperial greatness, but then lost 300 years of imperial history upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is strategically threatened on each of its borders: by a demographic nightmare on its Chinese border; by an ideological nightmare in the form of radical Islam along its equally long southern border; and to the West, by Europe, which Moscow considers an historic challenge. Russia seeks recognition as a great power, as an equal, and not as a supplicant in an American-designed system.
The notion that Russia is organically a kind of NATO state ignores the experience of history. America was built by people with the faith and courage to explore new lands. Russia was built by an elite who transported serfs to distant fields and by Tsars who proclaimed, “This swamp land will be the city of Odessa or the city of St. Petersburg.” They are sustained in part by a sort of mystic relationship with their hardships and their vision. They had survived centuries under the Mongols. Charles XII of Sweden marched into Russia because he thought it would be easy to impose a Swedish ruler in Moscow. What he found were Russian peasants burning their own crops in order to deny food to the invaders. They would starve themselves before they would let him take over their country. He had marched across Europe, but he had never seen this before. His troops were forced to go south into Ukraine just to survive, where they were ultimately defeated.
Geopolitically, Putin governs a country with 11 time zones. Few countries in history have started more wars or caused more turmoil than Russia in its eternal quest for security and status. It is also true, however, that at critical junctures Russia has saved the world’s equilibrium from forces that sought to overwhelm it: from the Mongols in the 16th century, from Sweden in the 18th century, from Napoleon in the 19th century, and from Hitler in the 20th century. In the contemporary period, Russia will be important in overcoming radical Islam, partly because it is home to some 20 million Muslims, particularly in the Caucasus and along Russia’s southern border. Russia will also be a factor in the equilibrium of Asia.
I say all of this to underscore that it is not possible to bring Russia into the international system by conversion. It requires deal-making, but also understanding. It is a unique and complicated society. Russia must be dealt with by closing its military options but in a way that affords it dignity in terms of its own history. By the same token, Russia must learn a lesson it has so far refused to consider: that the insistence on equivalence goes both ways and that it cannot gain respect by making unilateral demands or demonstrations of power.
Goldberg: How can the next president get out of this mess?
Kissinger: There are at least two schools of thought. One says that Russia has violated international law by annexing Crimea, so it must be taught again the lessons of the Cold War. We must make them restore normal relations with Ukraine by sanctions and isolation, and if they collapse in that process, that’s the price they have to pay and, in a way, an opportunity for world order to reestablish itself. That’s the school of thought held by the left-wing Democrats and neoconservative Republicans. Mine is the minority school of thought: Russia is a vast country undergoing a great domestic trauma of defining what it is. Military transgressions need to be resisted. But Russia needs a sense that it remains significant. We will probably win a new Cold War; but statesmen must comprehend the limits of their definition of interest. A post-Tito-type Yugoslavia wracked by conflict stretching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok—from Europe across the Middle East to Asia—is not in America’s interest. Russia should not be regarded as an incipient NATO country; such a goal would simply move to the Manchurian border the crises we now face on the Ukrainian one. The goal should be to find a diplomacy to integrate Russia into a world order which leaves scope for cooperation.
Ukraine has in effect become symbolic of the crisis but also of the way to overcome it. We must be determined to defeat any further attempt at a military solution. But we need also to operate from an appropriate definition of security that relates strategy to diplomacy. To fix NATO’s security border on the eastern side of Ukraine places it 300 miles from Moscow—to the Kremlin, a dramatic upheaval of the border’s Cold War position along the Elbe River 1,000 miles west.
At the same time, a Russian security border along the western side of Ukraine fixes it along the perimeters of Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, countries whose not-so-distant memories of Russian occupation will not abide such placement. Ukraine should be conceived of as a bridge between NATO and Russia rather than an outpost of either side. Russia can contribute to this by forgoing its aspiration to make Ukraine a satellite; the United States and Europe must relinquish their quest to turn Ukraine into an extension of the Western security system. The result would be a Ukraine whose role in the international system resembles that of Austria or Finland, free to conduct its own economic and political relationships, including with both Europe and Russia, but not party to any military or security alliance. Advocates of NATO expansion say that Russia should not be concerned, that NATO has no intention of attacking Moscow. Historical experience obliges Russian leaders to assess the capabilities of their neighbors. To negotiate what I just described would be exceedingly difficult. And it could not be achieved by walking into the Kremlin and declaring, “Here is our plan.” Like all dealings with Moscow, it would require an understanding of the Russian spirit and an appreciation of Russian history, as well as sufficient military power to squelch any temptations.
Goldberg: Did we lose credibility with the Russians in Syria?
Kissinger: In the beginning of his presidency in 2001, Putin sought America as a potential strategic partner, primarily against Islamic extremism. But starting with American support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Putin has gradually convinced himself that the U.S. is structurally adversarial. By “structural,” I mean that he may very well believe that America defines its basic interest as weakening Russia, transforming us from a potential ally to another foreign country that he balances with China and others. Even this does not preclude the possibility of better U.S.-Russia relations, but Putin’s motivations for cooperation in the present period will be narrower than they were when he spoke of “strategic partnership” in 2001. The challenge will be whether clashing national interests of the moment can be reevaluated in terms of a larger design.
Goldberg: Would you cede Russia Ukraine in order to get their maximum cooperation in the management of the Middle East?
Kissinger: No. I favor an independent Ukraine that is militarily non-aligned. If you remove the two Donbas regions from eastern Ukraine, you guarantee that Ukraine is permanently hostile to Russia, since it becomes dominated by its Western part, which only joined Russia in the 1940s. The solution, then, is to find a way to give these units a degree of autonomy that gives them a voice in military entanglements, but otherwise keeps them under the governance of Ukraine.
Goldberg: I don’t see you and Obama being very different on the question of Ukraine.
Kissinger: Not on the objective of preserving an independent Ukraine. Technically, his goal is to compel Russia towards his goal. Mine would be to try to make Russia a partner in a solution.
The Changing Middle East
Goldberg: What would you have U.S. Middle East policy be?
Kissinger: The much-debated red line issue was a tactical aberration. The more profound problem was the absence of a strategic concept. The nature of the conflict between the various groups needs to be recognized. Syria contains Shia and Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Druzes, and Christians. Each is cultivating its own goals and obsessions to the exclusion of the others. The mélange of conflicts within Syria is stirred by outside forces. The millennia-old conflict between Shia and Sunnis provides one kind of grouping for the various sects, but it is not solely responsible for all the battle lines. The Alawites, a form of Shia, are mortal enemies of ISIS, an exponent of Sunni radicalism. But they are also hostile to a democratic outcome.
This explosive mix is further stressed by the intervention of outside powers. Russia’s motivation is threefold: first, to attempt to reverse the result of the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, which expelled Russian strategic influence from the region; two, to preserve their naval base in Latakia; three and above all, to check the growth of non-state terrorist groups that could reach into Russia, especially in the Caucasus, if the Assad regime collapsed in a vacuum. Iran supported Assad in pursuit of Shia solidarity but also because of the vision of the reincarnation of the ancient Persian Empire, which reached from the border of China deep into the Middle East.
The American position has been that, out of these many conflicts, we can distill a coalition government to administer a unified Syria. Yet for Syria’s many ethnic and religious groups, a national election is zero-sum. Only one group can win. For the defeated, the outcome could herald genocide.
Therefore the best way to combine democratic methods and a Syrian state is “cantonization,” or division, of the country into regions that correspond to its component minority groups. The intra-canton elections would reflect the concerns of the groups in each of the various regions. From this, one could move in two directions: 1) A federal constitutional structure for a Syrian state through which a national election with guarantees for minorities could be constructed over time. 2) An off-ramp for Assad, who cannot endure as the leader of unified Syria but could perhaps be given 10 or 12 months to transition first into the Alawite portion of the country, and then out of Syria altogether. In this effort, Russia would likely participate. A workable outcome would be an internal settlement supervised by the now competing outside powers. This, in essence, is what I think Secretary Kerry is trying to achieve.
The military campaign against ISIS exhibits the underlying dilemma. It avoids the essential issue of who will govern the territory ISIS presently occupies if the campaign succeeds—and it overlooks that, since the victor is in a position to structure the political evolution, the nature of the forces used will be decisive. In the name of the sovereignty of Iraq, we train the Iraqi army. But since the Iraqi army is largely Shia in composition and the Baghdad government is largely controlled by Tehran, any ISIS area that this Shia army recaptures will in effect contribute to a Shia-dominated belt from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. This would be a major step towards the Iranian empire that the Sunni world, and especially Saudi Arabia, is determined to prevent. Hence our military goals are not compatible with our long-term strategic objectives. ISIS must be defeated, but how and by whom—Sunni or Shia, radical or moderate—is in many ways the issue on which the future of the region will hinge. It is in America’s interest that a Sunni military defeat ISIS, that a Sunni military balance against Shia domination of the region, specifically that Anbar Province in Iraq be controlled by Sunni forces. But can we identify such a force or sustain it? That will be a test for the next phase.
Goldberg: Obama has said that our Sunni allies have to find a way to “share” the Middle East with Iran.
Regional stability with Iran is analogous to the challenge posed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War, to which we responded with the Kennan containment policy. Iran operates on two levels: as a state entitled to the rights and protections of the international system, and as a non-state entity inspiring jihadist groups around the Middle East in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. The prerequisite to a political settlement is an end to Iran’s non-state activities. We will never convince the Saudis of sharing the Middle East with Iran so long as the Iranians possess 150,000 rockets in Lebanon and control a large Hezbollah force in Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. Iran has to be brought to recognize national borders and to abandon its bid for hegemony. When they do, there can be a relatively stable Middle East. But first Iran has to decide whether it is a country or a cause.
The administration seems to think that it can negotiate this gap between the parties, especially the hostility and distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as a psychological enterprise. But the effort has so far created the impression—and the reality—of an American strategic withdrawal from the region. The rise of Iran geographically and American acquiescence to its nuclear threshold status have accelerated the emergence of two blocs: a group based approximately on Westphalian principles of statehood, and groups rejecting the notion of statehood and asserting the vision of caliphate and empire. Iran is active in both. Two-power worlds are inherently precarious and require a balancer. If the United States does not play at least part of that role, others will emerge, and there will be growing instability.
Goldberg: Well, what can an American president do to convince them that they won’t get away with hegemony over the entire Middle East?
Kissinger: First, (s)he has to convince the Iranian leadership that our relationship is strategic, not psychiatric, in nature. Diplomatic relations are not an exercise in goodwill or expiating past sins but rather a way to balance interests. The United States has to say to its counterparts, especially in Iran, something like this: “Improved relations with the United States are incompatible with proxy—practically terrorist—institutions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen. You are a significant country; we are willing to deal with you now. But we will judge your actions, not your words.” In due course, the Iranians may change their priorities, but they are far more likely to do so in response to our actions and strategy than to our maxims.
The Saudis are convinced that the United States would, in the end, acquiesce to Iranian domination of the region, or at least that the president would expend no huge military effort to save his allies. As long as they believe this, we cannot have the necessary influence on their strategy. Historic friendship gives us a certain entrée, but no responsible leader would say, “Just because I like this country, I will do things that I don’t really believe are in my interest.”
Goldberg: Do you think the Iran deal is working as a broad concept?
Kissinger: My approach to foreign policy has always been to try to link legitimacy and power. The crisis produced by Iran was the linkage of Iran’s nuclear capability with its imperial and jihadist foreign policy. As a result, by the time the agreement was signed, Iran enjoyed proxy influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The lifting of sanctions should have depended on more than limiting reactors and centrifuges temporarily; it should have also depended on certain political constraints, particularly on Iran’s support of non-state groups like Hezbollah. I think we should pursue the principle of standing firm against both Iran’s nuclear program and the combination of imperialism and jihadism with which it is attempting to control the Middle East. The assumption that a weapons-specific negotiation would produce a psychological breakthrough in their thinking did not reflect Iran’s 2,000 years of imperial experience.
Goldberg: Would you rip up the Iran agreement?
Kissinger: No. For better or worse, it is the one structure that now exists to which everyone has made the adjustments they have needed to make. What would ripping up the agreement achieve? Our most significant concession—lifting sanctions—has already been made. To abandon the agreement now would free Iran from more constraints than it would free the United States. But the agreement has created a two-power world in the Middle East. To balance a two-power world is inherently difficult, particularly when the United States appears to be withdrawing from the region. Down the road, we will have to come to some understanding with Iran, but before we can do that, we face a challenge similar to the one posed by the Soviet Union in 1945: We must contain Iran within its national borders. We must incentivize it to act as a state rather than a cause. We cannot be indifferent to the power vacuum that has created opportunities for them. There must be a phase of containment of Iran, and at the same time, suppression of the caliphate of the Sunnis. And if Iran accepts acting as a country instead of a cause, then cooperation will be possible and should at that point be steady and sustained. Russia must be built into this diplomacy.
Goldberg: What is the right way to make peace between the Israelis and the Arabs?
Kissinger: The conflict in and around Syria has complicated the prospect of a two-state solution. How could another small state survive in a region in which Syria and Iraq have collapsed and cannot govern themselves, let alone safeguard regional security? How can it be done when Jordan is under pressure from every side and in every direction? And how could a negotiation between a single Palestinian group and Israel guarantee general peace? If you call a peace agreement “final,” you create all kinds of problems, one of which is its designation as “final.”
If a so-called final agreement were negotiated with Israel—and Netanyahu pressured to accept it—as conventional wisdom urges, which Arab state could afford to defend it? Would the King of Saudi Arabia rejoice at the prospect of being able to say, “We’ve ceded this Arab territory forever?” From which Arab quarter do you hear demands for an overall settlement?
Netanyahu would be well-advised to establish unilaterally a government on the West Bank and clothe it with the attributes of maximum Palestinian sovereignty. The Israelis should make their presence less obtrusive. But issues like Jerusalem and the symbolic return of refugees should be part of a separate negotiation. I expect Obama will put forward a comprehensive plan before he leaves office.
Goldberg: Which the Israeli government might not listen to.
Kissinger: They never have a majority of more than two or three in parliament, and the survival of any government is always precarious. They have to go through a searing process of proving that they got the last drop of blood out of the stone. I learned these lessons negotiating with Golda Meir.
Goldberg: She was tough?
Kissinger: Oh, my God! And she made you defenseless because she looked like everyone’s favorite grandmother. When she went on television, you couldn’t win.
Goldberg: Do you think the two-state paradigm is relevant?
Kissinger: The creation of a Palestinian state is at the core of the so-called two-state solution. It is designed to end the threat of a permanent guerrilla war in the part of Palestine occupied by Israel. It assumes a “final” negotiated outcome between Israel and Palestinian leaders to be supported by the UN Security Council and the Middle Eastern states. I agree with the concept, but it has up to now encountered insuperable obstacles. The subject is inherently difficult. The borders have been essentially delineated, but the remaining issues—such as the return of refugees; the disposition of some settlements; the status of Jerusalem—go to the core of each side’s conviction and thus inhibit flexibility.
Israel’s long-term strategic problem is that all the countries around them will sooner or later become technologically adept enough to threaten their survival. Hence, the Israelis negotiate so fiercely to prove to themselves that they have taken account of their premonitions. The Arab side is ambivalent about the very term “final” agreement.
After a final peace agreement, radical Arabs are certain to accuse the Arab signatories of betraying the cause of defending Arab territory. That is the inherent weakness of an agreement sponsored by outside powers. But I’ve had another thought. Is it conceivable that Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, now cooperating against ISIS, extend this cooperation into new efforts? Could they come to an agreement to improve the lives of Palestinians to the greatest extent possible, perhaps including quasi-sovereignty, as their own initiative? It would not be a final agreement, but it would remove obstacles to movement and other measures to improve the lives of Palestinians—that is, de facto autonomy without a legalistic superstructure. I don’t think it’s impossible that they could be persuaded to do this. The times seem propitious for such an initiative. Look at the disengagement agreement that was negotiated in Syria in 1974 that is still in force. They continue to observe those lines. They never cross the border.
Goldberg: I was just up there, at Quneitra—
Kissinger: At one point—when I was conducting negotiations 40 years ago—I knew more about Quneitra than any living person. The Israelis have developed a way to make deterrence work without verbal threats. They have managed to come up with reactions of a magnitude that discourage hostile initiatives.
Europe and the Future of World Order
Goldberg: What is wrong with Europe?
Kissinger: For 400 years, world history was made by Europeans. Many of the great ideas by which we live—constitutional government, freedom of the individual, the ideas of the Enlightenment—originated in Europe and were spread by Europe around the world. Now this region, which was dynamic and built the world, has become too preoccupied with itself. It confines itself basically to the exercise of soft power. At present, no European government has the capacity to ask its people for sacrifices on behalf of foreign policy.
Unless Europe can recover some of its historic dynamism, there will be a big hole in the world system as it has until now manifested itself. What has been lacking in Syria is Europe, but their present domestic structures tempt them to avoid difficult strategic issues. You can only ask sacrifices of your people when you can present some vision of getting them from where they are to where they have not been. Otherwise, why should they do it?
Goldberg: Why is there no vision in Europe anymore?
Kissinger: Maybe they have gone through too much. Maybe they have lost too much. If you look at the succession of leaders in 19th-century Britain—Castlereagh, Canning, Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury—they were all significant men governing a coherent society. At Queen Victoria’s Jubilee at the end of the 19th century, 100 warships paraded for her. Today, the entire British navy has only one capital ship.
Beyond Britain, the EU, despite the economic eurozone, has not been able to unite around a uniform political or strategic approach to the world. It does not seem possible to create a European army. Actually, I do not even see a mechanism with which the continent could develop a strategic concept. Born in Europe, I say this with regret and the hope that I am describing an interval, not a trend. The decline of Europe, which shaped international order for centuries, is going to be a serious loss.
Goldberg: Do you consider it a loss?
Kissinger: It is not yet a loss, but it is striking that three weeks after Brexit, not one European statesman has articulated a vision of Europe’s future. They are the continent that built the international world. And no one has stood up with the vision of Churchill. They’re talking about tactical matters while they’re in the process of giving up the essence of what they’ve struggled for and what they’ve represented throughout history. Today, a standard statement is that when Europe is weak, it cannot conduct great foreign policy, therefore it must be, at a minimum, economically cohesive. That is only partially true. At the end of World War II, when Europe was exhausted and devastated, they produced Adenauer [in Germany] and Schuman [in France] and De Gasperi [in Italy]. They had a vision. Now, their successors risk transforming their vision into a bureaucracy.
Goldberg: Can there be great vision in the internet age?
Kissinger: That’s a good question. I don’t know, but it must be attempted.