Henry Kissinger: Discusses diplomacy in the post-9/11 era

Historians in the News

"Whoever the next president is, the new administration will be extremely disappointed if it believes that our relationships will mend because its leader has a different name. . . . Personal diplomacy and relationship-building, although important, are rarely the paramount drivers of global affairs. These are shaped importantly by the long-term national interest."

Thus spake Henry Kissinger when I sat down with him recently in New York. Though I'd met him once or twice over the years, I had never seen him in situ--ensconced in his Park Avenue office. To be honest, I was expecting gilded furniture and sumptuous carpets--the kind of quarters Clemens von Metternich, one of Mr. Kissinger's own diplomat heroes, had in Habsburg Vienna.

I was, therefore, a little surprised to be ushered into a functional space with nondescript appointments, including a 25-year-old Sony Trinitron placed as if to emphasize he doesn't watch much TV. The man who negotiated the United States out of Vietnam, took Nixon to China, and initiated détente with the Soviet Union, received me like the college professor he once had been--surrounded by his books and mementos.

It is, of course, a rare opportunity to speak with one of history's makers and Mr. Kissinger remains one of the country's most prescient observers of world affairs. I began by asking him about the institutional atmosphere in Washington, the hothouse of American foreign policy. The capital is far more poisonous today than at any time in the recent past, I suggested--including Mr. Kissinger's heyday during the Vietnam War, when the early Cold War-era comity between the political parties and the executive and legislative branches was already degrading.
Mr. Kissinger leaned forward to answer my questions with studied deliberation. In part, he felt that this was institutional. Congress has itself changed. The "tradition of long-serving senior politicians from both parties who were devoted to a truly national service has passed, or largely so." The entire system, especially as it has been transformed by the communications revolution, "is now much more driven by short-term political calculations, the need to keep powerful and vocal constituencies happy, and an eye on the next election." This effect, Mr. Kissinger posited, has been enhanced by the 24-hour news cycle--"more information, and less content."

But Mr. Kissinger also dismissed the idea that there was ever some golden age for the domestic fundamentals of American foreign policy. With a wry smile, and a clearly bemused eye, he noted that the 1960s and '70s--when he served as both national security adviser and secretary of state under two presidents (holding both jobs during Nixon's second term)--were not "idyllic." "I thought," he said, "it was very rough."

The dominant theme of today's Washington battles is that most of America's current problems are self-inflicted wounds attributable to overly muscular and "unilateralist" Bush administration policies. Critics say that if only the U.S. were less eager to impose its will on other countries, whether in pursuit of traditional realpolitik goals or idealistic democracy-promotion, we would encounter a great deal less hostility. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of those critics and Mr. Kissinger's long-time intellectual sparring partner, puts it in his recent book, what much of the world wants from the U.S. is "respect" and recognition of its "dignity" defined as the ability to manage their own affairs as they see fit....

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