Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at his home in Connecticut

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at his home in Connecticut

Foto: George Etheredge / DER SPIEGEL

Interview with Henry Kissinger "There Is No Good Historical Example" for War in Ukraine

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 99, experienced several Soviet leaders during his career in politics. Now, he says that Russian President Vladimir Putin is both calculated and resentful. And that Russia's future relationship with Europe will become a key geostrategic question.
Interview Conducted by Bernhard Zand

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Kissinger, when you were born, Lenin was still alive. You were 29 years old when Stalin died, 39 when Nikita Khrushchev deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba and 45 when Leonid Brezhnev crushed the Prague Spring. Which of these Kremlin rulers does Vladmir Putin most remind you of?

Henry Kissinger: Khrushchev.


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The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 29/2022 (July 15th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Kissinger: Khrushchev wanted recognition. He wanted to affirm the importance of his country and to be invited to America. The concept of equality was very important to him. In Putin’s case, this is even more acute, because he considers the collapse of the Russian position in Europe from 1989 onward as a strategic disaster for Russia. That has been his obsession. I don't really share the view of many people who think that he wants to regain every bit of territory that was lost. But what he cannot bear is that the entire territory between Berlin and the Russian border fell to NATO. And that’s what made Ukraine such a key point for him.

DER SPIEGEL: Khrushchev triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he ultimately gave in. Do you think the same is possible for Putin and Ukraine?

Kissinger: Putin is not as impulsive as Khrushchev was. He is more calculated and more resentful. It might be easier to settle with some other leaders one has known (from Russia’s past). On the other hand, it is unlikely that the transition from Putin to his successor will go very smoothly. But above all, the evolution of Russia is a Russian issue. The Western nations will have to analyze what they can do depending on that evolution and the military outcome in Ukraine.

About Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger was born in 1923 in the Bavarian town of Fürth before leaving Nazi Germany in 1938 with his parents for the United States. He became U.S. secretary of state in 1973 under President Richard Nixon and is widely considered one of the most influential statesmen of the postwar period. He has published numerous books on diplomacy and geopolitics, including "Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy," which was published at the end of June.

DER SPIEGEL: The first chapter of your new book, "Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” focuses on Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. You write that Adenauer’s policy was based on a view that his country’s division was temporary. Is this what you had in mind with your recent statement at the World Economic Forum in Davos, when you suggested that Ukraine accept a temporary division of the country, developing one part into a pro-Western, democratic and economically strong nation while waiting for history to reunite the country as a whole?

Kissinger: What I said is this: To end this war, the best dividing line would be the status quo ante, which means 93 percent of the country. That’s quite a different thing. If one identifies the status quo ante as the objective, that would mean that aggression has not succeeded. The issue, then, is a ceasefire along the February 24 line of contact. The territory still controlled by Russia, which makes up about 2.5 percent of Ukrainian territory in the Donbas as well as the Crimean Peninsula, would then be part of a general negotiation.

DER SPIEGEL: You added, however, that pursuing the conflict beyond the February 24 line of contact "would turn it into a war not about the freedom of Ukraine … but a new war against Russia itself.”

Kissinger: At no point did I say that Ukraine should give up any territory. I said the logical dividing line for a ceasefire is the status quo ante.

DER SPIEGEL: Many Ukrainians understood it differently. Parliamentarian Oleksiy Goncharenko said you are "still living in the 20th century" and that Ukraine would not give up an inch of territory.

"At no point did I say that Ukraine should give up any territory."

Kissinger: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not say that. On the contrary, within two weeks of my statement, he said in an interview with the Financial Times that regaining the status quo would be a great victory and that they will continue to fight diplomatically for the rest of their territory. That’s in line with my position.

DER SPIEGEL: In the introduction to your new book, you quote Winston Churchill: "Study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft." Which historical precedent do you think is the most instructive for understanding and ending the war in Ukraine?

Kissinger: That is a very good question to which, right off the top of my head, I cannot give a direct answer. Because the war in Ukraine is on one level a war about the balance of power. But on another level, it has aspects of a civil war, and it combines a classically European type of international problem with a totally global one. When this war is over, the issue will be whether Russia achieves a coherent relationship with Europe – which it has always sought – or whether it will become an outpost of Asia at the border of Europe. And there is no good historical example.

DER SPIEGEL: You, along with the six personalities you profile in your new book, have shaped the world we live in today. And it is not a stable world. In Europe, a war is raging in Ukraine. In Asia, a conflict over Taiwan seems to be looming. In the Middle East, Iran's nuclear program continues to cast dark shadows. Why should politicians follow the examples from your book?

Kissinger: I’m not saying they should follow the examples of the people I portrayed, because they are very different from each other – and their situations are different from each other. But I think they can learn from the problems these leaders faced. That there is conflict in the world: This is not new. What is new is that in our period, we have for the first time the impact of different cultural regions on each other on a permanent basis. For some current conflicts, the examples from the book may be helpful. Others may be unique to our period. I didn’t write a cookbook for international relations.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think that foreign policy under the conditions you describe, and particularly as Richard Nixon and you practiced it, is still the most effective way of handling international relations – meaning that statesmen are preferable to visionaries and the preservation of stability is preferable to normative imperatives?

Kissinger: Statesmen and visionaries are simply two different types of leaders.

DER SPIEGEL: Your preference is obvious. In your book, you name Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kemal Atatürk and Jawaharlal Nehru as "statesmen,” while you identify Akhenaten, Joan of Arc, Robespierre and Lenin as "visionaries.” Do you think that maintaining the balance of power is still the most advisable path to take in international relations?

Kissinger: I think the balance of power is a precondition for other things, but it is not an end in itself. The balance of power by itself does not guarantee stability, but without balance of power, you cannot have stability.

Kissinger has been a significant voice on geopolitics for several decades.

Kissinger has been a significant voice on geopolitics for several decades.

Foto: George Etheredge / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: On the bookshelf behind you is a biography of Prince Metternich, who was the subject of your Ph.D. thesis and who is considered the architect of the European peace order of the early 19th century. Are periods of a few decades of relative stability, like then or like after World War II, the best we can realistically hope for?

Kissinger: No, I think the contemporary situation is unique in this respect. Looking at history, I would already describe World War I as an example of technology having outrun the capacity to manage it. But in our period, there is no doubt about this. We have had nuclear weapons for 80 years and trillions have been spent on elaborating them. Since 1945, nobody has dared to use them, even against non-nuclear countries. Today, these nuclear weapons are compounded by cyber possibilities, by artificial intelligence.

DER SPIEGEL: You mean that they have become even more dangerous because the algorithms and technical procedures controlling them are unpredictable in an event of crisis?

Kissinger: In any case, it has become extremely difficult for political leaders to control their own technology, especially in the event of war. It is an overriding obligation now to prevent a war in which such high technology could be used. And especially, a war between the two biggest high-tech countries, China and the United States. There has never been a comparable situation, because one could always imagine the victor gaining some benefit. In this type of war, that's impossible.

DER SPIEGEL: U.S. President Joe Biden has described the current geopolitical situation as a struggle between democracy and autocracy. The new German government has also set out to pursue a more "values-based” foreign policy. What is your response to this?

Kissinger: Given my personal history, a preference for democracy is self-evident. Genuine democracy is, for me, the more desirable system. But in the relations of the contemporary world, if it is made the principal objective, it leads to a missionary impulse that could result in a Thirty Years’ War-type military conflict. Now, President Biden has said simultaneously that he does not have any desire to change the Chinese government, that he is not attempting to interfere in the domestic situation. So I think he faces the same problem any major leader now faces. Of course, there are situations in which there is an obligation to defend yourself, and that is what Europe has perceived in this conflict over Ukraine. Statesmanship in this period has to be able to encompass the historic role of the balance of power, the new role of high technology and the preservation of essential values. That is a new challenge for this period.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you assess Biden's statement that President Putin "cannot remain in power"?

Kissinger: It was not a prudent sentence.

DER SPIEGEL: One of the basic assumptions of political realism is that the international system is ultimately anarchic and that there is no authority above that of individual states. Does your experience confirm this assumption?

Kissinger: No. The principle of sovereignty on which international relations were based in Europe, and via Europe, in the rest of the world, permits the evolution of the concept of legality in international law, on the one hand. But on the other hand, it also fragments the world, because the sovereign principles are believed to be paramount. This dilemma is very difficult to overcome philosophically, because the cultural differences between various regions of the world involve different hierarchies of values.

DER SPIEGEL: When you look at how the war in Ukraine has proceeded thus far, do you think it increases or decreases the desire of the Chinese leadership to solve the Taiwan issue once and for all?

Kissinger: I think neither. Putin obviously underestimated the resistance he would find. The Chinese, however, will use all-out force against Taiwan only once they have decided that no peaceful evolution will ever be possible. And I don’t think they have reached that point yet.

DER SPIEGEL: But if China were to reach such a conclusion one day, how would that conflict differ from the current one in Ukraine?

Kissinger: On the Ukraine issue, one aspect of the military problem is that two nuclear groups are fighting a conventional war on the territory of a third state, which, of course, has many weapons from us. But legally, an attack on Taiwan would bring China and America into direct conflict from the very beginning.

DER SPIEGEL: It has been 50 years since U.S. President Richard Nixon and you embarked on your historic trip to China. From today’s perspective, was it an achievement or a mistake to postpone the resolution of the Taiwan conflict at that time?

Kissinger: It was the only possible way to begin working with China, and that was imperative for ending the Cold War and essential to end the Vietnam War. And it created at least 25 years of peaceful evolution after the Korean War. The rise of China would inevitably bring with it the issues that we’ve discussed – that has been the nature of Chinese history. And with respect to Taiwan, I think it was quite an achievement to get Mao to agree to something China had never agreed to in the postwar period – namely postponing the settlement.

DER SPIEGEL: Not only the question of Taiwan remains unresolved, but also that of Iran’s nuclear program. You were originally against the nuclear agreement with Tehran, but also against the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty.

Kissinger: The essence of my concern about the agreement was that it did not preclude the military nuclearization of Iran. It provided a way of achieving it a little more slowly – from the Iranian point of view. Therefore, the danger of preemptive war in the Middle East continued and even increased, with the benefit of some extension of time. So now, to return to the same agreement one has rejected, without any improvement, is a kind of a moral defeat. It will remain an anguishing issue, because what I said about high technology applies there too: How do you avoid the dangers of preemption spinning out of control?

DER SPIEGEL: Do you fear a nuclear arms race in the Middle East?

Kissinger: No, I fear the use of nuclear weapons. Once Iran establishes itself as a nuclear power,countries like Egypt and Turkey may feel obliged to follow. And then, their relationships, plus the relationship of all of them with Israel, will make the region even more precarious than it is today.

DER SPIEGEL reporter Bernhard Zand speaking with Henry Kissinger at Kissinger's home in Connecticut.

DER SPIEGEL reporter Bernhard Zand speaking with Henry Kissinger at Kissinger's home in Connecticut.

Foto: George Etheredge / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Politicians have been seeking your advice for decades, including American presidents and German chancellors from Konrad Adenauer to Angela Merkel. But you have also been criticized for actions taken in Cambodia and Chile. When you look back at your own political record, where did you err and make miscalculations?

Kissinger: I will not enter now into a debate about Cambodia and Chile, about which I have written long sections in my memoirs. But journalistic fairness should include the fact that there was a framework within which this occurred. The first bombing of Cambodia occurred a month after Nixon came into office. The North Vietnamese had launched an offensive almost immediately, with four divisions that they had stationed in Cambodia, very close to Saigon, and killed a thousand Americans. They would come over the border at night, kill their quota of Americans, and return. So these bombings were not the expression of a leader eager to expand a war, but of a leader eager to end a war. Nixon had intended to end the war from the beginning – and had written to North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh even before he entered office. And the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende occurred as a result of internal Chilean developments. We were not happy with his coming into office, but at the time of the overthrow, every democratic party in the Chilean parliament had dissociated from Allende, and that created the conditions for his overthrow. But in a more general sense, statesmen always have the dilemma of balancing national interests in ambiguous situations. And it’s great fun for journalists to then point out mistakes that were made or focus on their results. No one can claim, obviously, never to have made a mistake in judgment, but to keep going back to things 50 years ago without ever presenting the context is not a fair way of debating.

"If taking on two adversaries means expanding the war in Ukraine into a war against Russia, while at the same time remaining in an extremely hostile position to China, I think that would be a very unwise course."

DER SPIEGEL: Fair enough. Since we were just talking about the Middle East, let’s go back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Was that a miscalculation?

Kissinger: I had been out of government for about 20 years when the invasion occurred. I was sympathetic to it. I felt the intention of President George W. Bush was to show that regimes that supported terror attacks were creating permanent insecurity. The removal of Saddam Hussein had many rational and moral justifications. But to try to govern Iraq similarly to the occupation of Germany (after World War II) was an analytic mistake, because the situations were not comparable. Trying to occupy the country went beyond our capacities.

DER SPIEGEL: Before the war in Ukraine, there was a debate about whether the U.S. should seek proximity with Russia to pressure its rival China. Now, the question is whether Washington should reduce tensions with Beijing in the face of the Russian threat – as Nixon and you did 50 years ago. Do you think America is strong enough to take on its two biggest adversaries at the same time?

Kissinger: If taking on two adversaries means expanding the war in Ukraine into a war against Russia, while at the same time remaining in an extremely hostile position to China, I think that would be a very unwise course. I support the efforts of NATO and of America to defeat the aggression against Ukraine and specifically to restore Ukraine to the dimensions it had when the war started. And I can understand if Ukraine continues to ask for additional adjustments. That could then be approached within the framework of a greater view of international relations. But even if this is achieved, the relationship of Russia to Europe needs to be addressed, namely the question as to whether it is a part of European history, or a permanent opponent based on other territories. That will become a main issue. And it is one that is independent of the conclusion of the war in Ukraine – which I have sketched out now innumerable times, and never once said that any Ukrainian territory should be abandoned.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Kissinger, thank you very much for this interview.

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