The Lessons of Henry Kissinger
The legendary and controversial statesman criticizes the Obama Doctrine, talks about the main challenges for the next president, and explains how to avoid war with China.
Over the past several months, I’ve interviewed Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, numerous times on the subject of America’s role in the world. Our conversations took place before this week’s election, but were informed by the foreign-policy differences between the candidates. The December 2016 issue of The Atlantic includes my article on these conversations, which you will find published below. In addition, a full rendering of our several interviews, on subjects including the future of Russia, the rise of China, and the chaos of the Middle East, can be found here.
On Wednesday, the day the country, and the world, were just beginning to absorb the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, I spoke with Kissinger by telephone to get his postelection thoughts. He told me that he was expecting other nations, particularly the great powers, to enter a period of intense study, in order to understand how they should respond to a Trump presidency. He also said he expected the Islamic State, or other similarly minded jihadist organizations, to test Trump early by launching attacks, in order to provoke a reaction (or, he suggested, an overreaction).
“Nonstate groups may make the assessment that Trump will react to a terror attack in a way that suits their purposes,” Kissinger said.
Here is the transcript of our short conversation, followed by the full article.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Are you surprised?
Henry Kissinger: I thought Hillary would win.
JG: What does this mean for America’s role in the world?
HK: Well, it could enable us to establish coherence between our foreign policy and our domestic situation. There is obviously a gap between the public’s perception of the role of U.S. foreign policy and the elite’s perception. I think the new president has an opportunity to reconcile the two. He has an opportunity, but it is up to him to seize it.
JG: Do you feel better about Trump’s competence, or his seriousness?
HK: We should stop debating that question. He is the president-elect. We must give him an opportunity to develop his philosophy.
JG: Are you going to help him?
HK: I will not reach out to him, but that has been my approach to every president since I left office. If he asks me to come see him, I will.
JG: What’s your biggest concern about global stability coming out of this election?
HK: That foreign countries will react with shock. That said, I would like to keep open the possibility that new dialogues could emerge. If Trump says to the American people, “This is my philosophy of foreign policy,” and some of his policies are not identical to our previous policies but share their basic objectives, then continuity is possible.
JG: How is China going to react?
HK: I’m fairly confident that China’s reaction will be to study its options. I suspect that will be Russia’s reaction as well.
JG: Do you think Trump is a Putin apologist?
HK: No. I think he fell into certain rhetoric because Putin said some good words about him—tactically—and he felt he had to respond.
JG: You don’t think that their relationship is prebaked in any way?
JG: So no short-term chance that Russia takes advantage of this situation?
HK: It’s more likely that Putin will wait to see how the situation evolves. Russia and the United States interact in areas in which neither of us controls all the elements, such as Ukraine and Syria. It’s possible that some participants in those conflicts may feel freer to take certain actions. Putin, then, will wait to see what his options are.
JG: So there is some chance of more instability.
HK: I would make a general statement: I think most of the world’s foreign policy has been in suspense for six to nine months, waiting for the outcome of our election. They have just watched us undergo a domestic revolution. They will want to study it for some period. But at some point, events will necessitate decision making once more. The only exception to this rule may be nonstate groups; they may have an incentive to provoke an American reaction that undermines our global position.
HK: Nonstate groups may make the assessment that Trump will react to a terror attack in a way that suits their purposes.
JG: How will Iran respond?
HK: Iran will probably conclude—correctly—that the nuclear agreement is more fragile now than it was, but it will demonstrate great resoluteness, even in the face of pressure, while it studies Trump. No one knows much about his foreign policy, so everyone will go into a period of studying. Actually, “a frenzy of studying” is more accurate.
JG: Why do you think this happened?
HK: The Trump phenomenon is in large part a reaction of Middle America to attacks on its values by intellectual and academic communities. There are other reasons, but this is a significant one.
JG: How would you advise Trump to present himself to the world?
HK: First, to demonstrate that he is on top of known challenges. Second, to demonstrate that he is reflecting about the nature of their evolution. A president has an inescapable responsibility to provide direction: What are we trying to achieve? What are we trying to prevent? Why? To do that, he has to both analyze and reflect.