A Conversation with Henry Kissinger

HK_0793 Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state and national security adviser, spoke with President Gayle D. Beebe before an audience of more than 100 guests at a Westmont luncheon in Montecito Oct. 9. For more than an hour, the 90-year-old diplomat answered a range of questions about American foreign policy and his varied experiences in Washington.

Beebe: Would you begin by commenting on the recent U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria? Is there reason to hope that other forms of rapprochement will occur that could lead to bipartisan efforts around the globe—even on nuclear weapons?

Kissinger: We have to understand the culture of the country in order to understand what it’s likely to do. Russia is a country with a completely different history from ours. Our country was settled by pioneers who took the personal initiative to go across the country. Russia was settled by people who were packed off into wagons and shipped to a place where they were told, “Here is your city.” Many of the cities in Russia were built because a tsar put a stake in the ground and said, “This will be a city,” and brought people there. The relationship of the state to the individual is totally different in Russia.

Secondly, Russia has been—in its mind and in reality—a great country that expanded from Moscow toward the Pacific, into the Muslim world and into Europe. In the last 30 years, the European part of their empire collapsed, and they’re back territorially to where they started 300 years ago. At the same time, they have a frontier with China, which is a strategic nightmare, and a frontier with Islam, which is an ideological nightmare, with 20 million Muslims joining an ideological frontier. Russia wants to flex their muscles to prove that they’re still a major country. They know, however, that they’re very vulnerable, so they can’t act like a NATO country, because in their mind that would indicate dependence on another society.

I happened by chance to meet Putin, which led to being invited to see him every year. The first time I met him was six weeks before 9/11. There was a big debate about missile defenses in this country, and he said, “I’m not interested in missile defense, I’m interested in radical Islam. I want to know if it’s possible to cooperate against radical Islam.” Six weeks later, we were attacked by radical Islam, so the pattern changed, and his bargaining position improved.

In the Nixon Administration, we pushed the Russians out of the Middle East, and they didn’t play a significant political role there after 1973. Now there’s this crisis in Syria. The American position is very American, viewing Syria as a contest between the ruler and the people. Let’s get rid of the ruler, and the people can have a democratic, moderate government. That’s relevant in many parts of the world, but not in Syria. I think Assad will have to go at some point, but it’s not a fight between Assad and the Syrian people; it’s a fight within the Syrian people between the Alawite minority, the Sunni majority, which is a narrow majority, and the group of other minorities (Christians, Buddhists and Kurds), almost all of whom support the Alawites. You may have noticed there’ve been practically no defections from Assad as you would expect from the military in a revolution. This is a fight between these two groups: the Alawites and the Sunnis. It can’t be settled by a coalition government or any of the formulas we use.

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The Russians and others who’ve observed the situation have felt all along that if you eradicate the central authority, this fight between the groups will become even more intense, and Al-Qaeda and other groups will take over. The so-called rebel groups are now dominated by Al-Qaeda and other radical groups. The Iranians are supporting Assad here. A number of non-state organizations fighting on the ground are probably stronger than some states. The Iranians are fighting on one side, and the Americans are supporting the rebels, but not with great enthusiasm, as the most powerful groups now on the rebel side are Al-Qaeda or other even more radical groups. Some people say we should massively support moderate elements. In theory—for college courses—I would say that too, except, I don’t know any moderate elements that are very visible, so that’s a dilemma.

We were sliding into a situation where we’d committed ourselves to using force in certain conditions. When the president asked for congressional support, even though I didn’t like the way we got to that point, I supported him and called congressmen and senators because I thought it was too much of a disgrace for the president to be refused in a judgment of the national interest.

My view from the beginning was that we should attempt to bring about a Lebanese-type solution, that you can’t get a central government. You should have the various groups, which can follow the same convictions, organized into autonomous units with a central government that has certain functions, but not dominant functions. And so a certain stalemate in the military was not incompatible with it.

Why did the Russians help us out in a very embarrassing situation? Neither they nor we knew what would happen a day after a military attack. In my public life, I’ve seen the United States enter four wars with great enthusiasm, which, within a very brief period of time, turned into a domestic debate about the rate of withdrawal. We can’t fight wars with the purpose of withdrawing. We have to have some idea of what we want to build—that would have been our dilemma. The Russian dilemma would have been that if we attacked, they really couldn’t do anything; their impotence would have been demonstrated. They weren’t helping us because they said, “We would help the Americans.”  They helped us out because both of our interests were in it.

Can we cooperate with Russia? We can cooperate on Syria if we define the issue in the way I outlined: If we say this is not about creating some all-powerful central government, it’s about creating a federal structure in which various autonomous areas should be able to cooperate. As long as Putin is there—and he will be for the foreseeable future—the Russians will never have the same geopolitical interpretation that we have, living in a much more exposed territory. They’ve never had a democratic system. But on concrete issues, we can cooperate.

Can we cooperate with Russia on the nuclear issue? Nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would have involved a level of casualties that raises serious moral questions: Do you kill tens of millions of people in hours? I’m sympathetic to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons. Between us and the Russians, the level can be reduced because both of us know we’re not going to fight a nuclear war against each other. But between them and the rest of the world, since their population is now shrinking, they feel they need nuclear weapons as a balance. In principle, we can negotiate on these subjects with them, and on issues like Syria and on Iran, we should develop some sort of common position. Russia is more threatened by nuclear weapons in Iran than we are, because it’s much closer and it has these large Muslim populations inside the country. But we can’t do it by lecturing them three times a week; we have to treat them like a major country with a different history—in some respect different concerns—but common interests.

Where do you believe we have the most coherent foreign policy, and where do you feel that we lack a coherent foreign policy?

To have a coherent foreign policy, you have to ask: What are you trying to accomplish? And you can’t answer in vague generalities. I look at this as a historian and a geo-politician. If someone tells me moral convictions require them to intervene in every place in the world where an injustice is committed, I respect that. I think it’s beyond our capacities. I believe in what John Quincy Adams said in 1820 that we are the advocates of freedom everywhere, but we are the vindicators of freedom only of our own. In relations with China, I think we have a pretty coherent foreign policy. The challenge with China is that they are both a rising country and an established country, so there’s a potential for conflict. Is it possible in this period when there are so many universal problems for societies to cooperate generally, or do they just fix day-to-day problems? I’m a believer in the comprehensive approach, but I would say our foreign policy on the minimum objective of not letting issues flair up has been pretty coherent. In the Middle East, we have trouble answering the question of what we are trying to do.

What is your perspective on Benghazi? When diplomatic consulates get attacked, how should we proceed?

I was not in favor of military operations to overthrow Gaddafi. He was a bizarre, unpleasant character who in some abstract way deserved to be overthrown, except he controlled a large chunk of territory and he had in the last 10 years of his life been rather restrained. I was afraid from the beginning that it would be hard to consolidate power and that if we overthrew him, the country would fragment. We would either do a nation-building exercise, which we had just withdrawn from in Iraq, or the part where Benghazi is located would be Al-Qaeda oriented. The largest single contingent of foreign Al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq came from that region of Libya, and many of the arms in Libya have gone into Africa, so it’s an overall chaotic situation. You can’t make a policy for everything. You don’t want to encourage [an attack on a consulate] or discuss it, so what do you do when an emergency like this arises? This was in the middle of an election campaign, and I think the coordination in Washington was very weak. It was left to the various departments, and there was no coordinated response. It could be costly to attack our diplomatic personnel. Little more could have been done that night, but it was certainly very poorly coordinated.

How do you balance these two realities or values within our society: our own national self-interest and what some people have referred to as American exceptionalism—the understanding that we have a unique role to play in the international affairs of the world order?

The American experience is an exceptional experience. It’s impossible to find another society of that nature, one that became a great power entirely by its own efforts and without wars—at least foreign wars with other societies—that had been a republic from the beginning. There is no model for this. Of course we should defend these principles intellectually—and to some extent politically—around the world. The question is: Can we—should we—use military force? We need gradations of where we can act. I was in office when we withdrew from Vietnam and when those who put the troops there joined the peace movement. We were under constant pressure while we were withdrawing, and that’s an extremely difficult experience. Then we went through it again with Iraq and again with Afghanistan.

I think it would tear our country apart if every few years or decades a president has to spend all these energies, knowing what the national interest requires and trying to keep this country together. Once we are in a war, if we just withdraw from it, we have to consider what that says about the credibility of the United States in any other situation—to get into a war, into a military operation whose end we cannot describe and then not be willing to stick to it until a military solution has been achieved.

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We need a number of categories in our thinking. What are the things we will fight for no matter how they happen and no matter how few countries support us?  Those would be the core issues. What are the things we will fight for but only if we have other countries supporting us? Third, what are the things we should not do because they are beyond our capacity or domestic will? People will argue about these three categories. I think many of the divisions you see in Washington now have their origin in the frustrations about Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. When I went to college at Harvard, I don’t think I ever met a Republican, but a Republican who spoke at a seminar I attended was treated with considerable respect. But in the Vietnam War the idea developed that if you disagree with somebody in the government, start out by calling him a criminal and then pile on horrible motivations. That has created this atmosphere, which is compounded by the news cycle.  I asked the European finance minister to what extent he is influenced by public opinion. He said, “There is no public opinion on these issues except for the people below 50. They don’t want a solution, they want an event. They want a moment of excitement and not a discussion about economics.”

I came here as an immigrant from Germany of a particular minority. So of course I’m for human rights, but I also think that this country is sort of a symbol for it around the world. It has to keep its cohesion—that has to be a primary objective—which is why I think it is so important to ask ourselves the question: What are we trying to do? What is really important? Chemical weapons in Syria are absolutely wrong. I would put that in the second category. I’d go to a lot of other countries, and if nobody else supports us, why do we have a special obligation to do it unilaterally? I don’t understand that. It’s coming out in a fairly tolerable way, but it was a very close call.

What do you think is the greatest threat to America’s long-term security?

I think we can handle military problems. The challenge we have is to adapt the thinking we developed when we were an island off the coast of Eurasia to a globalized world where you have to deal with the proliferation of nuclear weapons—you see that now in Iraq, for example. The issue isn’t only with the weapons but what it will do to all the surrounding countries. We have proliferation, we have environment, we have climate change, and there is no common language around the world on any of these. When one dealt with the British in their period of influence, they had a perception that everyone understood their national interest, and they were reliable in that sense. We never settled down. Every time we have a change of party, they start again reexamining every topic from the ground up. Our biggest challenge is to develop a continuous view that we can carry out over a historically relevant period.

Can you comment on our current status of readiness to support our diplomatic objectives?

There are two aspects of this. Our military forces were designed for the experience of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. They assume the necessity or the likelihood of a prolonged ground war on the Eurasian continent. For the immediate post war period, that was understandable and to some extent effective. Now we have a different situation. On the basis of the four wars we have fought, we need different strategies. I’m impressed by the British strategy against Napoleon, which you could call the peripheral strategy, which avoided prolonged land battles but sought to weaken Napoleon at different places, but not necessarily permanently. I think we have to come to something like that peripheral strategy and design our forces to be more mobile and focus our thinking less on drawing a line somewhere in Eurasia and fighting it out over an extended period of time. That should only happen in an extreme emergency. For that, we’re not well prepared yet.

Who have been effective presidents and international leaders that you admire? Who are effective leaders, who are ineffective leaders, and who would help our country?

Theoretically, you ought to have an idea of where you want to go at all times. In reality, you’re always overwhelmed with a lot of urgencies that need to be met. The task of a leader is to raise the people around him to a vision of the future, and that only can be done at the high executive level. You can’t expect that to happen within the bureaucracy. Now when leaders rise to the top, there’s so much focus on their ambition and their immediate necessities when they come into office. Running for office does not produce the same qualities as being in office. If you read the letters of Theodore Roosevelt, those were people with knowledge of history who could write their own letters, and that permitted them to have a substantial view of the future. Right now our governmental process has become so complex. When I was security adviser, there were 80 people in the entire office. Now there are close to 500. The task of a leader is to have a vision for the future and to make his subordinates do things they did not know they could do and not to be overwhelmed by all the tactical considerations of the moment. Once a crisis hits, you have no idea how many cables come in and out, and if you haven’t thought it through before, you’re bound to be overwhelmed. When you look around the world, leaders in most democratic countries are so attuned to the 24-hour news cycle that they find it hard to ask for sacrifices. But without sacrifices to build the future, you just consume yourselves.

If you could advise John Kerry to do one or two things, what would they be?

I’ve had a policy since leaving the government, which was quite a while ago, to never volunteer advice and never to ask for an appointment with either the president or the secretary of state on the theory that they should determine when they need advice. I would periodically write an article or a letter. With the problems we now have, we have to define a position with respect to the Iranian negotiation. It’s a matter, really, of great importance. If at the end of this project, Iran emerges with some military nuclear capabilities, this will be measured against 15 years of American presidents saying a military nuclear capability is unacceptable, and no method is off the table. But what do we mean by that? We haven’t adopted a clear position, and if we can’t make an agreement, how far are we willing to go? This country certainly is not eager to get into another war—to get into a war with Iran would be a very long, drawn-out effort. It can’t be done with one bombing attack.

There is one more thing I want to say. We Americans tend to think of diplomacy as if it were a form of psychotherapy. Every time we have an enemy and he says something conciliatory, we have the idea in our heads that the man surely changed his mind. I’ve seen a lot of movies where some villainous character gets in an automobile accident that gives him a blow on the head, and he emerges from the hospital an almost saintly figure. I’ve never seen that in my life. I think the presumption is that if someone has done something for 50 years that reflects a certain affinity for it. We went through that with the Soviets all the time. Now we have this with the Iranians. Iran is a society with a 3,000-year history. They’ve handled lots of foreigners, and they’re very skillful at it. It’s not likely that they’ve had a sudden conversion. So we have to define what we’re trying to achieve and stick to it. We have to be clear in our own thinking what we want to get out of these negotiations. Because if they fail, I find it possible that the Israelis will attack, and then we have to decide how we will react. Even if the Israelis don’t attack, if everybody at the end of the negotiations thinks that Iran has acquired nuclear weapons or has the capacity for nuclear weaponry, you will see nuclear weapons in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, maybe Egypt, and you’re living in a different world. That’s an immediate issue that we have to clarify.

What do you see for the future of America? Where will America be in 20 years?

This is the most vital country in the world, and if someone gave me control of running the world or running America or running China, I wouldn’t hesitate for 30 seconds. I think our future is up to us. There are a number of things that concern me, and I don’t even pretend that I know how to fix them. I think the world that grows up with the Internet produces different people than the world before it because it is a more passive form of learning. You don’t have to participate in the process, and I’m frankly bothered by institutions like Google, which have a monopoly on the information that they give. They even learn your preferences so you get a different answer. I think this is dangerous, and you have to restore some concept of objective truth that isn’t massaged by the preferences and expectations of the viewer. That’s not aimed at Google as a company—they have conveyed to us a range of knowledge that nobody could ever imagine. On the whole, I am optimistic about America because we have a very dedicated population and we have the opportunities I’ve described. Almost all the problems I’ve described here, we can solve with our own effort. Who else can say that?

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