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Interview: Henry A. Kissinger

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-08

Henry A. Kissinger kept his word. Scarcely a week had passed since he underwent an angioplasty, but there he was, almost exactly on time for his lunch appointment. He engaged in a bit of schmoozing at a couple of banquettes with people like Sanford Weill, the Citigroup chairman. Then the former American secretary of state sat down at the table that was once the preserve of another legendary figure, the late Philip Johnson, the architect who'd designed the restaurant more than four decades ago.

"I'm sorry that I let you down a couple of times," Mr. Kissinger said to the reporter, referring to canceled appointments last week. In view of his heart situation, those cancellations hardly warranted an apology. But his words seemed to the reporter to be entirely in character for the 82-year-old statesman. The Nobel Peace Prize and scores of other high honors and encomiums notwithstanding, Mr. Kissinger -- at least to those like the reporter who'd followed his academic and public-service career for 35 years -- has been remarkably plain-spoken and intellectually accessible.

And so the reporter was emboldened to ask a delicate question: How did Mr. Kissinger cope with all the relentless personal attacks against him, jeremiads directed not only at his record as national security adviser to Presidents Nixon and Ford, and as vicar of American foreign policy, but also the subsequent -- and flourishing -- period as an adviser on international relations and investment to corporations, and as the author of best-selling memoirs?

"I don't want to pretend that I don't notice this criticism," Mr. Kissinger said. "Of course I notice it. But the virulence of some of these attacks is such that if one answers it, then one exhausts oneself in a guerilla war with an implacable group. So I would rely on the historical record to take care of it."

That historical record, fashioned by a life-long Republican who was a protege of Nelson Rockefeller, has been extraordinary by any rational measure -- which is perhaps why it has invited attacks from ideologues of the left, for the most part, who often equated his pragmatism with cynicism.

Consider this: Mr. Kissinger's secret diplomacy opened the way for re-establishing political ties between America and China in the early 1970s while Mao Zedong -- who famously referred to Americans as the "running dogs of capitalism" -- was still alive. His interaction with North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho -- with whom he shared the 1973 Nobel Prize -- led to eventual peace in Indochina. His ideas on detente led to triangular U.S.-Chinese-Soviet diplomacy and the drawing of the erstwhile Soviet Union into the web of international affairs, according to Prof. Dennis Kavanaugh of the University of Liverpool.

And Mr. Kissinger's celebrated "shuttle diplomacy" between Israel and various Arab countries after the 1973 Yom Kippur War contributed significantly to developing an incremental approach toward the peace process in the Middle East and three agreements -- two between Israel and Egypt, and one with Syria which is still in force.

Wasn't he tempted to respond in kind to his critics?

"I never attack any person, nor have I replied to any of these attacks," Mr. Kissinger said. "I think perhaps once I replied to something that was carried in the New York Review of Books. Basically, I've always tried to raise the debate above the level of personalities."

Wasn't he distressed by the rancor of public debate in America today?

"I don't want to put anything in terms of the day-to-day issues," Mr. Kissinger said. "I think we're watching a change in humankind. The generation that learned by reading had a certain conceptual approach -- and they would fight more ideological battles. The generation that has been brought up by the Internet has a more visual approach, and therefore the temptation to go emotional grows stronger and stronger.

"I think the Vietnam War was a sort of dividing line," Mr. Kissinger continued. "When I started in government 35 years ago, one had many opponents. But there was a bedrock of people who were quite well informed at the outset of many of the aspects of the issues. But it's much less today. People take positions before they've studied the issues. Their views on issues reinforce set positions rather than the other way around."

For Mr. Kissinger, the notion that careful study of issues must precede any pronouncements on them has always been an article of faith. It dates back to his time when, after obtaining his Ph.D. from Harvard, he taught government there. His book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, published in 1957, made the case that America's survival and victory depended not only on its military and economic strength but also on its capacity to recognize and fight aggression in all its forms. That argument -- and the book in which it was developed -- burnished Mr. Kissinger's reputation as a rising star among the nation's political scientists.

During the lunch, he recalled that time of promise.

"When I was a graduate student and a young professor at Harvard, we used to have faculty seminars with scientists and political scientists, and others, to discuss the implications of the nuclear age," Mr. Kissinger said. "Most of them were Democrats, but the emphasis was national, not partisan. And it was never personal. Every point of view was welcomed."

But as the 1960s and 1970s evolved, he said, America's intellectual community split into two groups: "Job applicants -- people who wanted government jobs -- and revolutionaries, who denied that anything valid could be done unless the system was changed or destroyed."

"It was really about access to power," Mr. Kissinger said. "It was no longer about access to ideas. The nature of the intellectual community has changed. If more and more see themselves as advocates rather than as generators and debaters of ideas, then it's a different society."

"What the government needs from the intellectual world is a five-year perspective, but the job applicants, like government officials, focus only a two-year perspective," he said. "And what the revolutionaries do is to attack the premise that motivates the system. So there's a gap now in our country."

And how should this gap be addressed, the reporter asked?

The question elicited a reflection from Mr. Kissinger about the very meaning of America, a country to which he came in 1938 as a refugee from Nazi Germany; where he attended high school in Manhattan's Washington Heights at night while working during the day at a shaving brush factory; and in whose military service he was drafted in 1943 into the 84th Infantry Division and from there onto the 970th Counter-Intelligence Corps.

"One lesson I drew during my time in the military was that it was important to make a difference in life," Mr. Kissinger said. "Before that, I just wanted to be an accountant and make money. I knew after the military that I would be in public service some day -- although I had no idea at the time what that public service would be."

"One respect which somebody with my background is different from the mainstream is that those of us who are refugees, and who have lived abroad, find it hard to accept challenges to the American Dream itself," Mr. Kissinger said. "We've lived in societies with a long history. We know that history moves more slowly than American ideology, but we also know that there are very few societies with the freedoms and liberties and tolerance that America offers. We know what America meant to us when we were young. And so all these accusations of imperialist America -- we don't like that attitude. It's almost painful to us. We like to believe there are solutions to our social and political problems."

And what about critics of America? How does he relate to their positions?

"Student critics of America don't bother me -- that's the face of youth," Mr. Kissinger said. But it's those who seek "an upheaval in America's institutions and commitments" that he takes issue with.

"In any case, I don't debate with them," Mr. Kissinger said.

"I think that America, with all its faults and shortcomings, is still the hope of the world," he said. "First of all, in day to day to day living, no country can offer a better life for its people. No other society is so charitable, and its people so generous in human contacts. And no other society facilitates human contact like we do in the family that is America."

So does it puzzle him that Americans frequently seem flummoxed by what's happening in the world out there, the very international arena that Mr. Kissinger has studied closely for seven decades?

"Most Americans don't know much about other lifestyles around the world," he said. "Most Americans thinks that most foreigners are aspirant Americans, that they would all like to come and live here. Most Americans want to be left alone by the rest of the world."

Given such a scenario then, the reporter asked, does it surprise him that there's so much dislike for America around the world?

"It's painful to observe," Mr. Kissinger said. "But it's also true that so many of these societies, when they get into a real crisis, turn to us. What has undoubtedly occurred in many countries, especially European countries, is that there's been a coalescence of protest movements of the 1960s with the arrival of governments who are themselves sympathetic to these movements."

His assertion created an opening for another question. Wasn't the current American effort to promote public diplomacy intended to assuage countries that begrudged America's social and political objectives?

"I'm not the best person to ask that," Mr. Kissinger said. "In my period I had no formal public diplomacy."

Rather, he said, his approach was to give the media "a running commentary on my thinking" so that the objectives and purposes of American foreign policy could be better disseminated to the wider public and the media could understand individual decisions when the need for them arose.

"If you have to sell every policy in retail, then you're on an impossible ground," Mr. Kissinger said. "That's because the public may not always understand the context of those policies."

Mr. Kissinger worries about how America's values and foreign-policy objectives are perceived in the global community.

So, the reporter asked, how does America get across its objectives to the international audience?

"The most important thing is to get it right in our own head, to analyze what it is that we want," Mr. Kissinger said. "Secondly, we need to get our policy right. Look at figures like the late Pope John Paul II who could symbolize the necessities of the age -- if the next pope simply tried to emulate everything that the late pope did, you'd have a shipwreck. So I wouldn't say that we should supply a cookbook for recipes. But it's a unique challenge."

That challenge comes at a time of peculiar global tensions and of globalization, which is intended to generate a freer flow of capital, goods, services and ideas between nations.

"But then we have these religious and quasi-religious crusades, and nobody in the world has experience with this," Mr. Kissinger said. "Coping with that by itself raises some questions. Simultaneously, there are a whole host of other problems -- proliferating weapons could bring about an entirely new world order. There's also the shift in the center of gravity of foreign policy from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And there's, of course, the impact of globalization. The last three issues don't surprise me. I more or less expected them. But the first problem has spread more rapidly than I would have predicted."

He is worried about the proliferation issue. (The reporter recalled that as secretary of state Mr. Kissinger had made arms control one of his key concerns.)

"There seems to be a great reluctance to run the risk involved in stopping proliferation," Mr. Kissinger said. "The price for that is a worse form of proliferation."

He's convinced that the impact of China and India on the world will grow significantly. Already, China's trade balance with America is more than $150 billion; its economy is galloping at 10% annually. India, after decades of stifling socialism, has undertaken extensive economic reforms and registered annual growth rates of between 6% and 7% for several years.

Wouldn't these Asian giants pose a threat to American economic and political dominance in years to come?

"I think it's a mistake to think of them in terms of the containment theory of the Cold War," Mr. Kissinger said. "We must, of course, resist any hegemonic or imperialistic aspirations they may have. But in my view, they are best resisted by maintaining cooperative relations, by building coalitions, with as many of these emerging countries as we can."

His allusion to the late George Kennan -- the distinguished American diplomat who foresaw the Soviet Union's postwar effort to spread its influence and who urged America to adopt a "containment" policy -- prompted the reporter to ask Mr. Kissinger what it took to be a statesman.

He was writing a book on that very subject, Mr. Kissinger said. He wasn't sure about its title, but it might be called "Statecraft," or "Statesmanship"; he said that he hoped to have it ready for publication next year.

"I believe that it's important for statesmen to study history -- not because history repeats itself but because certain problems keep recurring," Mr. Kissinger said. "Of course, each generation has to learn for itself what matters are applicable. Somebody can tell you that a hot stove burns. But what good is that if you can't recognize a hot stove?"

As the lunch wound down, the reporter asked Mr. Kissinger what kind of a world did he see shaping before him?

"There's certainly a greater reliance on technology -- and that makes it easier to package ideas than to produce them," he said. "I see it in my grandchildren's generation. They are far ahead of me on the computer than I am. But they can't spell. They can't write essays. And that produces a certain cast of mind."

Did that mean he yearned for an age gone by?

"No, I don't harken for the past," Mr. Kissinger said. "We live in a period which would have been inconceivable some years ago. But I looked my name on Google the other day, and found some 500,000 references to me. Now how do you get through that? I was talking to a writer not long ago, and I asked him what books he'd read. He looked at me almost contemptuously and said that he did not read books, that he only used the Internet."

"But I have no clear idea of the world that's emerging," Mr. Kissinger said. "I think ideologically I support the quest for democracy. But the road to there will be extraordinarily complex, and in some places it will be extraordinarily tempestuous.

"I could conceive of the spread of nuclear weapons that might result in a coalition of three or four nuclear powers," Mr. Kissinger said. "They might say we'd better do away with nuclear facilities in all but three or four places. How that will come about, I don't know."

And what about the so-called "soft issues" that have figured prominently in global affairs in recent years -- issues such as environmental security and social justice?

"They have become an important element in the cohesion of societies," Mr. Kissinger acknowledged. "But they are not a substitute for traditional foreign policy."

And what about multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the scandal-plagued United Nations? What role in the emerging global order did he envision for them? Was the American Right correct in asserting that multilateral institutions infringed on American sovereignty?

"Multilateral institutions are a tool of foreign policy and foreign policy involves a sovereign decision to adapt one's freedom of action to circumstance, national purpose, and moral values," Mr. Kissinger said. "Multilateral institutions should be judged by how to fit these criteria, not by abstract debates in sovereignty."

Mr. Kissinger had already given the reporter far more time than he'd expected. There was one more question that he wanted to pose to a man whose temporal accomplishments couldn't possibly have been imagined by him when he was growing up in the Bavarian city of Fuerth as the second son of Louis Kissinger, a schoolteacher, and his wife, Paula Stern.

Was there something that he felt he still needed to achieve?

"If at the age of 82 you're driven by an unfulfilled goal, that's bad -- because you do know the actuarial reality. I cannot conceive doing that," Mr. Kissinger said. "I will continue to write, and I do hope that my book on statecraft will be read. I do not feel that there's one more specific thing that I need to do. But I am determined to keep working until I am physically incapable."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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