The Interview: Henry Kissinger

As we celebrate our 30th anniversary, TNI Editor Jacob Heilbrunn sits down with the former Secretary of State. 

September-October 2015

The National Interest’s editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, spoke with Henry Kissinger in early July in New York.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Why is realism today an embattled approach to foreign affairs, or perhaps not as significant as it was when you had figures such as Hans Morgenthau, George F. Kennan, Dean Acheson, then yourself in the 1970s—what has changed?

Henry Kissinger: I don’t think that I have changed my view on this subject very much since the seventies. I have always had an expansive view of national interest, and much of the debate about realism as against idealism is artificial. The way the debate is conventionally presented pits a group that believes in power as the determining element of international politics against idealists who believe that the values of society are decisive. Kennan, Acheson or any of the people you mentioned did not have such a simplistic view. The view of the various realists is that, in an analysis of foreign policy, you have to start with an assessment of the elements that are relevant to the situation. And obviously, values are included as an important element. The real debate is over relative priority and balance.

Heilbrunn: One of the things that struck me in the new biography of you by Niall Ferguson is his quotation from your personal diary from 1964. You suggested rather prophetically that “the Goldwater victory is a new phenomenon in American politics—the triumph of the ideological party in the European sense. No one can predict how it will end because there is no precedent for it.”

Kissinger: At the convention, it seemed to be true to somebody like me, who was most familiar with the politics of the Eastern Establishment. Later in life, I got to know Goldwater and respected him as a man of great moral conviction and integrity.

Heilbrunn: Right, but I was more interested in your interpretation of the ideological force that emerged in ’64.

Kissinger: It was a new ideological force in the Republican Party. Until then, the Eastern Establishment view based on historic models of European history was the dominant view of foreign policy. This new foreign-policy view was more missionary; it emphasized that America had a mission to bring about democracy—if necessary, by the use of force. And it had a kind of intolerance toward opposition. It then became characteristic of both the extreme Right and the extreme Left, and they changed sides occasionally.

Heilbrunn: And they both vehemently attacked the Nixon administration.

Kissinger: Yes.

Heilbrunn: I remember that in your memoirs, you indicate that you were perhaps most astonished to be attacked from the right—

Kissinger: Totally unprepared.

Heilbrunn: —for allegedly appeasing the Soviet Union.

Kissinger: Well, and some, like Norman Podhoretz—who’s a good friend today—attacked me from both the left and the right sequentially.

Heilbrunn: I’d forgotten that he’d managed that feat. In the end, though, détente played a critical role in bringing down the Soviet Union, didn’t it?

Kissinger: That is my view. We viewed détente as a strategy for conducting the conflict with the Soviet Union.

Heilbrunn: I’m amazed that this doesn’t get more attention—in Europe, this is the common view, that détente was essential toward softening up Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and getting over the memory of World War II, whereas in the United States we have a triumphalist view.

Kissinger: Well, you have the view that Reagan started the process with his Evil Empire speech, which, in my opinion, occurred at the point when the Soviet Union was already well on the way to defeat. We were engaged in a long-term struggle, generating many competing analyses. I was on the hard-line side of the analysis. But I stressed also the diplomatic and psychological dimensions. We needed to wage the Cold War from a posture in which we would not be isolated, and in which we would have the best possible basis for conducting unavoidable conflicts. Finally, we had a special obligation to find a way to avoid nuclear conflict, since that risked civilization. We sought a position to be ready to use force when necessary but always in the context of making it clearly demonstrable as a last resort. The neoconservatives took a more absolutist view. Reagan used the span of time that was available to him with considerable tactical skill, although I’m not sure that all of it was preconceived. But its effect was extremely impressive. I think the détente period was an indispensable prelude.

Heilbrunn: The other monumental accomplishment was obviously the opening to China. Do you feel today that—

Kissinger: —Reducing the Soviet role in the Middle East. That was not minor.

Heilbrunn: That’s correct, and saving Israel in the ’73 war with the arms supply.

Kissinger: The two were related.

Heilbrunn: Is China the new Wilhelmine Germany today? Richard Nixon, shortly before he died, told William Safire that it was necessary to create the opening to China, but we may have created a Frankenstein.

Kissinger: A country that has had three thousand years of dominating its region can be said to have an inherent reality. The alternative would have been to keep China permanently subdued in collusion with the Soviet Union, and therefore making the Soviet Union—already an advanced nuclear country—the dominant country of Eurasia with American connivance. But China inherently presents a fundamental challenge to American strategy.

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