Interview with Henry Kissinger 'Do We Achieve World Order Through Chaos or Insight?'
Part 2: 'The War Against IS Has Wide Public Support'
SPIEGEL: You're speaking like a superpower that is used to getting its way.
Kissinger: No, the United States cannot dictate, and the US should not try to dictate. It would be a mistake even to think it could. But in regards to NATO, the US will have one vote in a decision based on unanimity. The German chancellor has expressed herself in the same sense.
SPIEGEL: America is very polarized. The level of aggression in the political debate is extremely high. Is the superpower still even able to act at all?
Kissinger: I am worried about this domestic split. When I worked in Washington, political combat was tough. But there was much more cooperation and contact between opponents of the two big parties.
SPIEGEL: In last week's elections, President Obama lost his majority in the Senate as well.
Kissinger: Technically correct. At the same time, the president is freed to stand for what is right -- just as President Harry Truman did between 1946 and 1948, when he advanced the Marshall Plan after losing Congress.
SPIEGEL: The next presidential race will soon begin. Would Hillary Clinton make a good candidate?
Kissinger: I consider Hillary a friend, and I think she's a strong person. So, yes, I think she can do the job. Generally, I think it would be better for the country if there were a change in administration. And I think we Republicans have to get a good candidate.
SPIEGEL: In your book, you write that international order "must be cultivated, not imposed." What do you mean by that?
Kissinger: What it means is we that we Americans will be a major factor by virtue of our strengths and values. You become a superpower by being strong but also by being wise and by being farsighted. But no state is strong or wise enough to create a world order alone.
SPIEGEL: Is American foreign policy wise and determined at the moment?
Kissinger: We have the belief in America that we can change the world by not just soft power, but by actual military power. Europe doesn't have that belief.
SPIEGEL: The American public is very reluctant to be engaged and would like to focus on domestic affairs. Obama himself talks about "nation building at home."
Kissinger: If you look at the five wars America has fought since World War II, they all had large public support. The present war against the terror organization Islamic State has large public support. The question is what happens as the war continues. Clarity about the outcome of the war is essential.
SPIEGEL: Shouldn't the most important objective be the protection of suffering civilians in Iraq and Syria.
Kissinger: First of all, I don't agree that the Syrian crisis can be interpreted as a ruthless dictator against a helpless population and that the population will become democratic if you remove the dictator.
SPIEGEL: But the civilians are suffering, however you define it.
Kissinger: Yes, they are, and they deserve sympathy and humanitarian assistance. Let me just say what I think is happening. It is partly a multiethnic conflict. It is partly a rebellion against the old structure of the Middle East. And it is partly a sort of rebellion against the government. Now, if one is willing to fix all these problems and if one is willing to pay the sacrifices for fixing all these problems and if one thinks one can create something that will bring this about, then one can say, "We will apply the right to interfere," but that means military measures and willingness to face the consequences. Look at Libya. There's no question that it was morally justified to overthrow Muammar Gadhafi, but we were not willing to fill the vacuum afterwards. Therefore we have militias fighting against each other today. You get an ungoverned territory and an arms depot for Africa.
SPIEGEL: But we are seeing a similarly unbearable situation in Syria. The state is falling apart and terror organizations are ruling large parts of the country. Wasn't it perhaps wrong not to intervene in order to avoid chaos that now represents a threat to us as well?
Kissinger: In my life, I have almost always been on the side of active foreign policy. But you need to know with whom you are cooperating. You need reliable partners -- and I don't see any in this conflict.
SPIEGEL: As in the Vietnam War. Do you sometimes regret your aggressive policy there?
Kissinger: You'd love me to say that.
SPIEGEL: Of course. You haven't spoken much about it all your life.
Kissinger: I've spent all my life studying these things, and written a book about Vietnam called "Ending the Vietnam War" and many chapters in my memoirs on Vietnam. You have to remember that the administration in which I served inherited the war in Vietnam. Five hundred thousand Americans were deployed there by the Johnson Administration. The Nixon Administration withdrew these troops gradually, with ground combat troops being withdrawn in 1971. I can only say that I and my colleagues acted on the basis of careful thought. On the strategic directions, that was my best thinking, and I acted to the best of my convictions.
SPIEGEL: There is a sentence in your book, on the last page, that can be understood as a kind of self-criticism. You write that you once thought you could explain history, but that today you are more modest when it comes to judging historical events.
Kissinger: I have learned, as I wrote, that history must be discovered, not declared. It's an admission that one grows in life. It's not necessarily a self-criticism. What I was trying to say is you should not think that you can shape history only by your will. This is also why I'm against the concept of intervention when you don't know its ultimate implications.
SPIEGEL: In 2003, you were in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. At that time, too, the consequences of that intervention were uncertain.
Kissinger: I'll tell you what I thought at the time. I thought that after the attack on the United States, it was important that the US vindicate its position. The UN had certified major violations. So I thought that overthrowing Saddam was a legitimate objective. I thought it was unrealistic to attempt to bring about democracy by military occupation.
SPIEGEL: Why are you so sure that it is unrealistic?
Kissinger: Unless you are willing to do it for decades and you are certain your people will follow you. But it is probably beyond the resources of any one country.
SPIEGEL: For this reason, President Obama is fighting the war against terror from the air using drones and warplanes in Pakistan and Yemen and now in Syria and Iraq as well. What do you think about that?
Kissinger: I support attacks on territories from which terrorist attacks are launched. I have never expressed a public view on drones. It threatens more civilians than the equivalent one did in the Vietnam War, but it's the same principle.
SPIEGEL: In your book you argue that America has to make its decisions about war on the basis of what achieves the "best combination of security and morality." Can you explain what you mean by that?
Kissinger: No. It depends on the situation. What is our precise interest in Syria? Is it humanitarian alone? Is it strategic? Of course, you would always want to achieve the most moral possible outcome, but in the middle of a civil war you cannot avoid looking at the realities, and then you have to make the judgments.
SPIEGEL: Meaning that for a certain amount of time, for realistic reasons, we could be on the side of Bashar Assad fighting Islamic State?
Kissinger: Well, no. We could never fight with Assad. That would be a denial of years of what we have done and asserted. But frankly, I think we should have had a dialogue with Russia and asked what outcome we want in Syria, and formulate a strategy together. It was wrong to say from the beginning that Assad must go -- although it is a desirable ultimate goal. Now that we are locked into that conflict with Russia, a deal regarding the Iranian nuclear program becomes more difficult.
SPIEGEL: Are you in favor of a more assertive role for Europe, especially for Germany?
Kissinger: Yes, certainly. A century ago, Europe almost had a monopoly in creating world order. Today, there is a danger it is just busy with itself. Today, Germany is the most significant European country and, yes, it should be much more active. I do have very high regard of Ms. Merkel, and I think she is the right person for leading Germany into this role. By the way, I've met and been sort of friendly with every German chancellor.
SPIEGEL: Oh, including Willy Brandt?
Kissinger: I have very high regard for Willy Brandt.
SPIEGEL: We're a bit surprised here because a few months ago, a conversation between you and Nixon was released in which you call Brandt a "dangerous idiot".
Kissinger: You know, these phrases out of context confuse the reality. Here are people at the end of an exhausting day saying things to each other, reflecting the mood of a moment, and it probably was during some difference of opinion which I don't even remember. We had some doubts about Brandt's Ostpolitik at the beginning, but later, we worked very closely with him. Ask Egon Bahr, he will tell you: Without the Nixon Administration, Brandt's Ostpolitik would not have achieved its objective, especially on the issue of Berlin.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, you are a very controversial politician. When the University of Bonn wanted to name a chair after you, the students protested. Were you disappointed, or at least irritated?
Kissinger: I appreciate the honor. I didn't ask for the chair, and I only became aware of the chair after it was established. I don't want to be part of the discussion, it's entirely up to German agencies. I think Germany should do it for itself or not do it for its own reasons.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kissinger, we thank you for this interview.
- Part 1: 'Do We Achieve World Order Through Chaos or Insight?'
- Part 2: 'The War Against IS Has Wide Public Support'