SPIEGEL Interview with Henry Kissinger: 'Obama Is Like a Chess Player'

Part 2: 'A Unique Chance To Conduct Peaceful American Foreign Policy"

SPIEGEL: So you are calling for a kind of realistic idealism?

Kissinger: Exactly. There is no realism without an element of idealism. The idea of abstract power only exists for academics, not in real life.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it was helpful for Obama to deliver a speech to the Islamic world in Cairo? Or has he created a lot of illusions about what politics can deliver?

Kissinger: Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening. Now he's got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts. We haven't gotten beyond the opening game move yet. I have no quarrel with the opening move.

SPIEGEL: But is what we have seen so far from him truly realpolitik?

Kissinger: It is also too early to say that. If what he wants to do is convey to the Islamic world that America has an open attitude to dialogue and is not determined on physical confrontation as its only strategy, then it can play a very useful role. If it were to be continued on the belief that every crisis can be managed by a philosophical speech, then he will run into Wilsonian problems.

SPIEGEL: Obama did not only hold a speech. At the same time, he placed pressure on Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and to recognize an independent Palestinian state.

Kissinger: The outcome can only be a two-state solution, and there seems to be substantial agreement on the borders of such a state. Now, how you bring that about and what phases of negotiation, what issue you start with, that you cannot deduce from one speech.

SPIEGEL: Do concepts like "good" and "evil" make sense in the context of foreign policy?

A column of German prisoners walk under the watch of French soldiers in Belgium in September 1918 at the end of World War I after the Allied victory.
AFP

A column of German prisoners walk under the watch of French soldiers in Belgium in September 1918 at the end of World War I after the Allied victory.

Kissinger: Yes, but generally in gradations. Rarely in absolutes. I think there are kinds of evil that need to be condemned and destroyed, and one should not apologize for that. But one should not use the existence of evil as an excuse for those who think that they represent good to insist on an unlimited right to impose their definition of their values.

SPIEGEL: What does the word "victory" mean to you? After World War I, there was a victor and a victim, the Germans; and the Versailles Treaty was an effort to contain the power that had lost. Do you think it's a smart idea to claim victory over another country?

Kissinger: The important thing after military victory is to deal with the defeated nation in a generous way.

SPIEGEL: And with this you mean not to subdue the defeated nation?

Kissinger: You can either weaken a defeated nation to a point where its convictions no longer matter and you can impose anything you wish on it, or you have to bring it back into the international system. From the point of view from Versailles, the treaty was too lenient with respect to holding Germany down, and it was too tough to bring Germany into the new system. So it failed on both grounds.

SPIEGEL: What would a wise winner do?

Kissinger: A wise victor will attempt to bring the defeated nation into the international system. A wise negotiator will try to find a basis on which the agreement will want to be maintained. When one reaches a point where neither of these possibilities exist, then one has to go either to increase pressure or to isolation of the adversary or maybe do both.

SPIEGEL: Were the Western countries wise in respect to their dealings with the former Soviet Union after their implosion?

Kissinger: There was too much triumphalism on the western side. There was too much description of the Soviets as defeated in a Cold War and maybe a certain amount of arrogance.

SPIEGEL: Not only towards Russia?

Kissinger: In other situations as well.

SPIEGEL: What's the difference between the conflicts in Europe in the early 20th century and the conflicts we are facing in today's world?

Kissinger: In previous periods, the victor could promise itself some benefit. Under the current circumstances,that no longer applies. A clash between China and the United States,for example, would undermine both countries.

SPIEGEL: Would you go so far as to say what we are seeing is end of major wars?

Kissinger: I believe that Obama has a unique chance to conduct a peaceful American foreign policy. I do not see any conflicts between suchmajor countries, China, Russia, India, and the U.S., which will justify a military solution. Therefore, there is an opportunity for a diplomatic effort. Moreover, the economic crisis does not permit countries to devote a historic percentage of their resources to military conflict. I am structurally more optimistic than a couple of years ago.

SPIEGEL: The situation in Iran doesn't make you fearful?

Kissinger: Fear is not a good motivation for statesmanship. It could be that some kind of at least local conflict will happen, but it does not have to happen. Iran is a relatively weak and small country that has inherent limits to its capabilities. The relationship of China with the rest of the world is a lot more important in historic terms than the Iranian issues by themselves.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Kissinger, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Jan Fleischhauer and Gabor Steingart.

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