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

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 86, discusses the painful lessons of the Treaty of Versailles, idealism in politics and Obama's opportunity to forge a peaceful American foreign policy.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Kissinger, 90 years ago, at the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Is that an event of the past only of interest to historians or does it still shape contemporary politics?

Henry Kissinger: "The are kinds of evil that need to be condemned and destroyed, and one should not apologize for that."
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Henry Kissinger: "The are kinds of evil that need to be condemned and destroyed, and one should not apologize for that."

Henry Kissinger: The treaty has a special meaning for today's generation of politicians, because the map of Europe which emerged from the Treaty of Versailles is, more or less, the map of Europe that exists today. None of the drafters understood the implications of their actions, and that the world that emerged out of the Treaty of Versailles was substantially contrary to the intentions that produced it. Whoever wants to learn from past mistakes, needs to understand what happened in Versailles.

SPIEGEL: The Treaty of Versailles was meant to end all wars. That was the goal of President Woodrow Wilson when he came to Paris. As it turned out, only 20 years later Europe was plunged into an even more devastating world war. Why?

Kissinger: Any international system must have two key elements for it to work. One, it has to have a certain equilibrium of power that makes overthrowing the system difficult and costly. Secondly, it has to have a sense of legitimacy. That means that the majority of the states must believe that the settlement is essentially just. Versailles failed on both grounds. The Versailles meetings excluded the two largest continental powers: Germany and Russia. If one imagines that an international system had to be preserved against a disaffected defector, the possibility of achieving a balance of power within it was inherently weak. Therefore, it lacked both equilibrium and a sense of legitimacy.

SPIEGEL: In Paris we saw the clash of two foreign policy principles: the idealism embodied by Wilson who encountered a kind of realpolitik embodied by the Europeans which was above all based on the law of the strongest. Can you explain the failure of the American approach?

Kissinger: The American view was that peace is the normal condition among states. To ensure lasting peace, an international system must be organized on the basis of domestic institutions everywhere, which reflect the will of the people, and that will of the people is considered always to be against war. Unfortunately, there is no historic evidence that this is true.

SPIEGEL: So in your view, peace is not the normal condition among states?

Kissinger: The preconditions for a lasting peace are much more complex than most people are aware of. It was not an historic truth but an assertion of the view of a country composed of immigrants that had turned their backs on a continent and had absorbed itself for 200 years in its domestic politics.

SPIEGEL: Would you say that America inadvertently caused a war while trying to create peace?

Map: Europe's 1914 borders
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Map: Europe's 1914 borders

Kissinger: The basic cause of the war was Hitler. But insofar as the Versailles system played a role, it is undeniable that American idealism at the Versailles negotiations contributed to World War II. Wilson's call for the self-determination of states had the practical effect of breaking up some of the larger states of Europe, and that produced a dual difficulty. One, it turned out to be technically difficult to separate these nationalities that had been mixed together for centuries into national entities by the Wilsonian definition, and secondly, it had the practical consequence of leaving Germany strategically stronger than it was before the war.

SPIEGEL: Why? Germany was militarily disarmed and geographically decimated.

Kissinger: Territorial expansion and power are relative. Germany was smaller, but more powerful. Before World War I, Germany faced three major countries on its borders: Russia, France, and Britain. After Versailles, Germany faced a collection of smaller states on its eastern borders, against each of which it had a huge grievance but none of which was capable of resisting Germany alone, and none of it probably was capable of resisting Germany even if assisted by France.

So that from a geostrategic point of view, the Treaty of Versailles met neither the aspirations of the major players nor the strategic possibility of defending what had been created, unless Germany was kept permanently disarmed. It would have been correct to include Germany in the international system but that precisely what the victorious powers omitted to do by demilitarizing and humiliating the country.

SPIEGEL: Despite the failure of Versailles, this Wilsonian idea is remarkably prevalent. Is our affinity to the ideals of democracy perhaps naïve?

Map: Europe's borders after 1919 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
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Map: Europe's borders after 1919 and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Kissinger: The belief in democracy as a universal remedy regularly reappears in American foreign policy. Its most recent appearance came with the so-called neocons in the Bush administration. Actually, Obama is much closer to a realistic policy on this issue than Bush was.

SPIEGEL: You see Obama as realpolitician?

Kissinger: Let me say a word about realpolitik, just for clarification. I regularly get accused of conducting realpolitik. I don't think I have ever used that term. It is a way by which critics want to label me and say, "Watch him. He's a German really. He doesn't have the American view of things."

SPIEGEL: Then it's a way to cast you as a cynic, isn't it?

Kissinger: Cynics treat values as equivalent and instrumental. Statesmen base practical decisions on moral convictions. It is always easy to divide the world into idealists and power-oriented people. The idealists are presumed to be the noble people, and the power-oriented people are the ones that cause all the world's trouble. But I believe more suffering has been caused by prophets than by statesmen. For me, a sensible definition of realpolitik is to say there are objective circumstances without which foreign policy cannot be conducted. To try to deal with the fate of nations without looking at the circumstances with which they have to deal is escapism. The art of good foreign policy is to understand and to take into consideration the values of a society, to realize them at the outer limit of the possible.

SPIEGEL: What if values cannot be taken into consideration because they are inhuman or too expansive?

Kissinger: In that case, resistance is needed. In Iran, for example, you need to ask the question of whether you have to have a regime change before you can conceive a set of circumstances where each side maintaining its values comes to some understanding.

SPIEGEL: And your answer?

Kissinger: It is too early to say. Right now I have more questions than answers. Will the Iranian people accept the verdict of the religious leaders? Will the religious leaders be united? I don't know the answers, nor does anyone else.

SPIEGEL: You sound very skeptical.

Kissinger: I see two possibilities. We will either come to an understanding with Iran, or we will clash. As a democratic society we cannot justify the clash to our own people unless we can show that we have made a serious effort to avoid it. By that, I don't mean that we have to make every concession they demand, but we are obligated to put forward ideas the American people can support.The upheaval in Teheran must run its course before these possibilities can be explored.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
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