Henry Kissinger seems more youthful than his 91 years. He is focused and affable, but also guarded, ready at any time to defend himself or brusquely deflect overly critical questions. That, of course, should come as no surprise. While his intellect is widely respected, his political legacy is controversial. Over the years, repeated attempts have been made to try him for war crimes.
From 1969 to 1977, Kissinger served under President Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, first as national security advisor and then as secretary of state. In those roles, he also carried partial responsibility for the napalm bombings in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos the killed or maimed tens of thousands of civilians. Kissinger also backed the putsch against Salvador Allende in Chile and is accused of having had knowledge of CIA murder plots. Documents declassified just a few weeks ago show that Kissinger had drawn up secret plans to launch air strikes against Cuba. The idea got scrapped after Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976.
Nevertheless, Kissinger remains a man whose presence is often welcome in the White House, where he continues to advise presidents and secretaries of state to this day.
Little in Kissinger's early years hinted at his future meteoric rise in American politics. Born as Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Fürth, Germany in 1923, his Jewish family would later flee to the United States in 1938. After World War II, Kissinger went to Germany to assist in finding former members of the Gestapo. He later studied political science and became a professor at Harvard at the age of 40.
Kissinger recently published his 17th book, a work with the not exactly modest title "World Order." When preparing to sit down with us for an interview, he asked that "world order" be the topic. Despite his German roots and the fact that he reads DER SPIEGEL each week on his iPad, Kissinger prefers to speak in English. After 90 minutes together in New York, Kissinger says he's risked his neck with everything he's told us. But of course, a man like Kissinger knows precisely what he does and doesn't want to say.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Kissinger, when we look at the world today, it seems to be messier than ever -- with wars, catastrophes and chaos everywhere. Is the world really in greater disorder than ever before?
Kissinger: It seems that it is. There is chaos threatening us, through the spread of weapons of mass destruction and cross-border terrorism. There is now a phenomenon of ungoverned territories, and we have seen in Libya, for example, that an ungoverned territory can have an enormous impact on disorder in the world. The state as a unit is under attack, not in every part of the world, but in many parts of it. But at the same time, and this seems to be a paradox, this is the first time one can talk about a world order at all.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Kissinger: For the greatest part of history until really the very recent time, world order was regional order. This is the first time that different parts of the world can interact with every part of the world. This makes a new order for the globalized world necessary. But there are no universally accepted rules. There is the Chinese view, the Islamic view, the Western view and, to some extent, the Russian view. And they really are not always compatible.
SPIEGEL: In your new book, you frequently point to the Westphalian Peace Treaty of 1648 as a reference system for world order, as a result of the Thirty Years' War. Why should a treaty dating back more than 350 years still be relevant today?
Kissinger: The Westphalian Peace was made after almost a quarter of the Central European population perished because of wars, disease and hunger. The treaty was based on the necessity to come to an arrangement with each other, not on some sort of superior morality. Independent nations decided not to interfere in the affairs of other states. They created a balance of power which we are missing today.
SPIEGEL: Do we need another Thirty Years' War to create a new world order?
Kissinger: Well, that's a very good question. Do we achieve a world order through chaos or through insight? One would think that the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the dangers of climate change and terrorism should create enough of a common agenda. So I would hope that we can be wise enough not to have a Thirty Years' War.
SPIEGEL: So let's talk about a concrete example: How should the West react to the Russian annexation of Crimea? Do you fear this might mean that borders in the future are no longer incontrovertible?
Kissinger: Crimea is a symptom, not a cause. Furthermore, Crimea is a special case. Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time. You can't accept the principle that any country can just change the borders and take a province of another country. But if the West is honest with itself, it has to admit that there were mistakes on its side. The annexation of Crimea was not a move toward global conquest. It was not Hitler moving into Czechoslovakia.
SPIEGEL: What was it then?
Kissinger: One has to ask one's self this question: Putin spent tens of billions of dollars on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The theme of the Olympics was that Russia is a progressive state tied to the West through its culture and, therefore, it presumably wants to be part of it. So it doesn't make any sense that a week after the close of the Olympics, Putin would take Crimea and start a war over Ukraine. So one has to ask one's self why did it happen?
SPIEGEL: What you're saying is that the West has at least a kind of responsibility for the escalation?
Kissinger: Yes, I am saying that. Europe and America did not understand the impact of these events, starting with the negotiations about Ukraine's economic relations with the European Union and culminating in the demonstrations in Kiev. All these, and their impact, should have been the subject of a dialogue with Russia. This does not mean the Russian response was appropriate.
SPIEGEL: It seems you have a lot of understanding for Putin. But isn't he doing exactly what you are warning of -- creating chaos in eastern Ukraine and threatening sovereignty?
Kissinger: Certainly. But Ukraine has always had a special significance for Russia. It was a mistake not to realize that.
SPIEGEL: Relations between the West and Russia are tenser now than they have been in decades. Should we be concerned about the prospects of a new Cold War?
Kissinger: There clearly is this danger, and we must not ignore it. I think a resumption of the Cold War would be a historic tragedy. If a conflict is avoidable, on a basis reflecting morality and security, one should try to avoid it.
SPIEGEL: But didn't the annexation of Crimea by Russia force the EU and US to react by imposing sanctions?
Kissinger: One, the West could not accept the annexation; some countermeasures were necessary. But nobody in the West has offered a concrete program to restore Crimea. Nobody is willing to fight over eastern Ukraine. That's a fact of life. So one could say we don't have to accept it, and we do not treat Crimea as a Russian territory under international law -- just as we continued to treat the Baltic states as independent throughout Soviet rule.
SPIEGEL: Would it be better to stop sanctions even without any concessions from the Russians?
Kissinger: No. But I do have a number of problems with the sanctions. When we talk about a global economy and then use sanctions within the global economy, then the temptation will be that big countries thinking of their future will try to protect themselves against potential dangers, and as they do, they will create a mercantilist global economy. And I have a particular problem with this idea of personal sanctions. And I'll tell you why. We publish a list of people who are sanctioned. So then, when the time comes to lift the sanctions, what are we going to say? "The following four people are now free of sanctions, and the other four are not." Why those four? I think one should always, when one starts something, think what one wants to achieve and how it should end. How does it end?
SPIEGEL: Doesn't that also apply to Putin, who has maneuvered himself into a corner? Does he act out of weakness or out of strength?
Kissinger: I think out of strategic weakness masked as tactical strength.
SPIEGEL: What does that mean for any interaction with him?
Kissinger: We have to remember that Russia is an important part of the international system, and therefore useful in solving all sorts of other crises, for example in the agreement on nuclear proliferation with Iran or over Syria. This has to have preference over a tactical escalation in a specific case. On the one hand it is important that Ukraine remain an independent state, and it should have the right to economic and commercial associations of its choice. But I don't think it's a law of nature that every state must have the right to be an ally in the frame work of NATO. You and I know that NATO will never vote unanimously for the entry of Ukraine.
SPIEGEL: But we cannot tell the Ukrainians that they are not free to decide their own future.
Kissinger: Why not?