Jeffrey Goldberg | December 2016 Issue | The Atlantic
The legendary and controversial statesman criticizes the Obama Doctrine, talks about the main challenges for the next president, and explains how to avoid war with China.
On Wednesday, the day the country, and the world, were just beginning to absorb the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, I spoke with Kissinger by telephone to get his postelection thoughts. He told me that he was expecting other nations, particularly the great powers, to enter a period of intense study, in order to understand how they should respond to a Trump presidency. He also said he expected the Islamic State, or other similarly minded jihadist organizations, to test Trump early by launching attacks, in order to provoke a reaction (or, he suggested, an overreaction).
“Nonstate groups may make the assessment that Trump will react to a terror attack in a way that suits their purposes,” Kissinger said.
Here is the transcript of our short conversation, followed by the full article.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Are you surprised?
Henry Kissinger: I thought Hillary would win.
JG: What does this mean for America’s role in the world?
HK: Well, it could enable us to establish coherence between our foreign policy and our domestic situation. There is obviously a gap between the public’s perception of the role of U.S. foreign policy and the elite’s perception. I think the new president has an opportunity to reconcile the two. He has an opportunity, but it is up to him to seize it.
JG: Do you feel better about Trump’s competence, or his seriousness?
HK: We should stop debating that question. He is the president-elect. We must give him an opportunity to develop his philosophy.
JG: Are you going to help him?
HK: I will not reach out to him, but that has been my approach to every president since I left office. If he asks me to come see him, I will.
JG: What’s your biggest concern about global stability coming out of this election?
HK: That foreign countries will react with shock. That said, I would like to keep open the possibility that new dialogues could emerge. If Trump says to the American people, “This is my philosophy of foreign policy,” and some of his policies are not identical to our previous policies but share their basic objectives, then continuity is possible.
JG: How is China going to react?
HK: I’m fairly confident that China’s reaction will be to study its options. I suspect that will be Russia’s reaction as well.
JG: Do you think Trump is a Putin apologist?
HK: No. I think he fell into certain rhetoric because Putin said some good words about him—tactically—and he felt he had to respond.
JG: You don’t think that their relationship is prebaked in any way?
JG: So no short-term chance that Russia takes advantage of this situation?
HK: It’s more likely that Putin will wait to see how the situation evolves. Russia and the United States interact in areas in which neither of us controls all the elements, such as Ukraine and Syria. It’s possible that some participants in those conflicts may feel freer to take certain actions. Putin, then, will wait to see what his options are.
JG: So there is some chance of more instability.
HK: I would make a general statement: I think most of the world’s foreign policy has been in suspense for six to nine months, waiting for the outcome of our election. They have just watched us undergo a domestic revolution. They will want to study it for some period. But at some point, events will necessitate decision making once more. The only exception to this rule may be nonstate groups; they may have an incentive to provoke an American reaction that undermines our global position.
JG: How would you advise Trump to present himself to the world?
HK: First, to demonstrate that he is on top of known challenges. Second, to demonstrate that he is reflecting about the nature of their evolution. A president has an inescapable responsibility to provide direction: What are we trying to achieve? What are we trying to prevent? Why? To do that, he has to both analyze and reflect.
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THE LESSONS OF HENRY KISSINGER
This past spring, shortly after The Atlantic published my article “The Obama Doctrine,” about the president’s foreign policy, I got word that Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and the most consequential and controversial American foreign-policy maker of the past several decades (or maybe ever), had been expressing to a number of mutual acquaintances his critical thoughts about the article, and about Obama’s management of world affairs. I called Kissinger, because I was eager to hear those thoughts. He was, at that moment, making a series of cameo appearances in the presidential campaign—Senator Bernie Sanders had recently castigated Hillary Clinton during a Democratic debate for the sin of seeking Kissinger’s approval—and I also wanted to hear his thoughts on the bizarre election season.
Kissinger did indeed have many thoughts. I suggested that we have an on-the-record conversation about them. Even at 93, his desire to convince people of his essential rightness still burns, and he agreed to an interview almost immediately. But, being Kissinger, he outlined a set of immoderate demands and conditions that would govern the public presentation of our conversation. He also asked me whether the article that resulted from our interview would be published at the same length—more than 19,000 words—as my original article about President Obama. “Dr. Kissinger,” I said, “that was an article featuring several interviews with the sitting president of the United States.”
He paused. “Please write the following down, and print it in your story as a first-person observation,” he said. “ ‘Though Kissinger has been out of government service for several decades, I found his egomania to be undiminished by time.’ ”
At another point, sensing my frustration with his demands, he said, “I must give you some grounds to write about my paranoia.” Finally we came to an agreement. I would record our conversation, and transcribe it, and then show it to him, and he would, he promised, make changes only in order to clarify points or expand upon his arguments. (He kept his promise.)
The presence of my daughter and of Kissinger’s own granddaughter gave him an audience for a disquisition on what he considers to be a crucial problem in the American academy today—the way American history is taught. He laments that history is not taught consecutively, and that historical incidents are often decontextualized beyond recognition. His argument was compelling, but also self-serving: His core contention, when it comes to the greatest controversies in his career, is that postwar American support for anti-Communist allies is impossible to understand or rationalize without both proper historical context and a baseline sympathy for a pro-Western narrative. Universities, he said, “like to teach history as a series of discrete problems. And they above all don’t want to teach Western history. They believe that the West has committed so many crimes that they are not entitled to single it out. That is a thought that would never occur to a Chinese. To return genuine pluralism to the campuses—to examine even ideas conventional wisdom rejects—has become a major national challenge.”
I asked Kissinger whether there was such a thing as a self-doubting Chinese tradition. “Certainly no tradition so self-doubting as to inhibit necessary Chinese action.”
We also spoke that day—and during subsequent conversations, in his office in New York and on the telephone—about his fears regarding American disengagement from the world. He argued that the U.S. is at a hinge moment in its history, in which it is deciding whether or not to continue playing the role it has played since 1945. “Right now, there is no real debate occurring on foreign policy. People are throwing slogans around,” he said. “I think that America’s recovery of a global strategic view is an absolutely essential element of our foreign policy.”
Kissinger’s critique of Obama was mostly measured, but I could sense that he was offended that the president had not seen fit to call him often for advice, as previous presidents had. I could also sense that he took some of Obama’s observations about the foreign-policy decisions of previous presidents as personal criticism. He wasn’t wrong about this. At various moments during my interviews with the president, I could feel the specter of Kissinger hanging over the room, in particular when Obama talked dismissively about the value of “credibility” in the pursuit of national-security objectives, and when he mentioned his unprecedented practice of referring openly, sorrowfully, and sometimes on foreign soil to American mistakes made during the prosecution of the Cold War. What most annoyed Kissinger was the manner in which Obama talked about some other world leaders. “A puzzling aspect about Obama is how someone so intelligent could treat his peers with the disdain he did in your article,” he said. “Someone of that stature usually develops a sense of humility.”
I also asked him about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. He is close to Clinton, but not to Trump, and it was not difficult to discern that he was appalled by Trump’s behavior and broadly sympathetic to Clinton. Whether or not Kissinger would endorse Clinton had been a subject of great speculation during the campaign. Some in the Clinton camp hoped Kissinger would—but others, I’d been told, worried that his endorsement would only reinforce the Sanders argument that Clinton was too close to various unsavory characters. Kissinger himself was acutely aware of this argument. When I observed that Clinton is dispositionally and ideologically closer to him than she is to Obama, Kissinger said, “If you say that, you’re not going to be kind to her.”
I told him it was not my job to be kind or unkind. “But you will unleash the radical wing—the Sanders wing—against her,” Kissinger said. He made a possibly prescient observation about the way Hillary Clinton would conduct America’s foreign policy: “The uncertainty of Clinton is whether the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party would permit her to carry out what she believes.”
Video: The Art of Interviewing Henry Kissinger
Jeffrey Goldberg: How would you define President Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine?
Henry 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.
JG: The animating idea being, in your mind, that Obama’s doctrine is about protecting the world from America?
HK: 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.
JG: As president, you get blamed far less for sins of omission than sins of commission.
HK: That’s true. It’s harder to prove them. But you are blamed for disasters, no matter who caused them.
JG: 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.
HK: 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.
JG: But what about the practical argument?
HK: 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?
HK: 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.
JG: 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.
HK: Clinton is the only one who fits the traditional, outward-looking, internationalist model.
JG: What does this mean?
HK: 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.
JG: 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 of U.S. primacy that even a president like Hillary Clinton would be much more limited in what she could do?
HK: 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.
JG: You’ve been watching American national politics since 1948 or earlier—
HK: As a participant, in some way, since 1955.
JG: There’s always been, more or less, a bipartisan consensus, in this period, concerning the importance of deep American engagement in the world.
HK: 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.
JG: 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?
HK: 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.
JG: Are Sino–American relations more consequential for U.S. national security than Islamist terrorism?
HK: 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.
JG: How should the 45th president make China policy?
HK: 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.
JG: So Xi is a moderate?
HK: 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?”
HK: 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.
HK: 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 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 to look for solutions.
JG: How do you understand China’s strategy at the moment?
HK: 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—
JG: That the arc of history is bending in their direction.
HK: 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 this 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.
JG: Has Obama been too hawkish toward China, then?
HK: Not too hawkish but too short-term. To truly advance our relationship with China, we must speak in trends.
JG: Do you fear all of this talk, energized by Trump, about a trade war with China?
HK: More than anything else, a balanced, peaceful world order depends on a stable U.S.–China relationship. 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.
JG: You talk to the senior Chinese leadership all the time. What was their reaction to Trump’s threat of a trade war?
HK: 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.