Transcript: Kissinger’s Remarks at 2009 Makins Lecture

Dr. Henry Kissinger’s remarks as delivered at the 2009 Christopher J. Makins Lecture.

HENRY KISSINGER:  Mr. Ambassador, Julia, members of the Makins family, it’s a great privilege for me to be asked to deliver this lecture.  When Fred started with his jokes – (laughter) – it reminded me of the day in the Nixon administration when I left a staff meeting and somebody said to me, I’m right behind you.  And I said, that’s the most threatening thing I’ve heard – (laughter) – all day.

One of the reasons I have not sunk into the oblivion which Brent claims usually befalls ex-secretaries of state is because I have very many very determined enemies.  (Laughter.)  And every year or so, somebody writes a so-called exposé, and that leads to a long discussion which at least prevents me from being forgotten.  This week on the eve of a new administration, one, above all, wishes it every success.  All of us who have experienced the travails of government, whatever our views were in the campaign, recognize a common stake in a successful and creative foreign policy.  For my part, I will do what we can to bring about a nonpartisan approach.

I was brought up on the Atlantic alliance.  I formed my ideas on foreign policy in the period at the end of World War II.  Europe seemed at the mercy of a potential aggressor.  Economic recovery was very slow.  Russia seemed overwhelming, and America was still basically isolationist.  In 1944, President Roosevelt said to Winston Churchill, whatever you do, don’t ask me to leave any American troops in Europe.

Yet, in a five-year period after the war, America and its allies created a structure that lasted for half a century, won the Cold War and, in a way, produced many of the challenges that the alliance now faces.  We live now in a different world, and we have to adapt our thinking to the new circumstances.  It is an extraordinary opportunity.  It could be an occasion for a period of creativity similar to the one that followed the Second World War.

What is it that unites opportunity and necessity?  The thinking on which foreign policy was based when I went to university is in upheaval.  In Europe, the nation state that brought about centuries of European sacrifice and political construction is giving up much of its sovereignty to the European Union.  But the national dedication that evoked the national effort has not been as easy to translate to the European structure as the economic prerogatives of the state.  Hence the national state is no longer in the same position to conduct a global foreign policy as has been traditionally the case.  Europe prefers to exercise soft power and is extremely limited in gaining consensus to go beyond it.  But America still has the historic nation-state view of foreign policy.  This gap, more than lack of consultation, explains some of the differences that have arisen between Europe and the United States in the past decade.

In the Middle East, the nation state is in a process of dissolution because the nation, as a concept, never established itself.  The states in the Middle East were created at the end of the First World War by the victors in the First World War with borders that reflected their competition.  These states are now challenged by a universalist philosophy which has its roots in the Islamic tradition of one Islamic nation.  The states have relatively weak and fragile foundations, and the challenge is how to construct an international order on the basis of cooperation and international law rather than jihadism.

At the same time, the center of gravity of international affairs is importantly shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  And it’s in that region that the nation states still exist, in more or less the form that classical textbooks describe.  As a result, policy-makers have to take into account three different historical periods simultaneously.  The evolution of the European entity, the disintegration of the political system in the Middle East, the emergence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as new centers of real politics, conducting their policies more akin to the strategic principles that characterized European politics of the 19th and early 20th century.  All of this is happening at a moment when a fourth dimension of issues has arisen for which there is no precedent and which can only be dealt with on a global basis.  Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, environment, climate change, energy can be solved only on a global basis.

Overshadowing everything in the immediate future is a moment of huge financial crisis.  There are many economic reasons for it, and there’ll be endless debates about the causes.  But one fundamental reason for the crisis is that the political system of the world and the economic system of the world had grown substantially out of phase with each other.  The economic system has been based on globalization, which was assumed to be self-regulating.  The political system has been based on the nation state or, in Europe, on the European Union.  If it turned out – as it did – that the economic system was not self-regulating, as it had never been in any previous period in history, the consequences would have to be dealt with by political systems not designed for or capable of handling global economic crisis.  Even now, a global crisis is still being dealt with largely by national policies chosen for different national reasons, the coordination of which has barely begun and the goal of which the relevant participants in the process have not yet adequately defined.  Much of what one reads about the economic crisis seems to assume that if the immediate panic is overcome, things will return much to what they were before.  I don’t believe that is possible.  The political and economic governance of these issues has to be brought into a much closer relationship with each other.

Yet, having described all these issues, why am I saying that it is possible to create, to enter a creative period of foreign policy design?

First, because we are living in a crisis, but there is no major country that believes that it can benefit from this crisis.  No major country is deliberately undermining the international system – as was the case during the Cold War.  They may have varied approaches, but it is the first time, at least since the end of the Second World War, that every major country affirms essentially the same international system.  It is a tribute to America’s power and to a new American idealism that every major country is extremely eager to establish close relationships with the new administration.  This occurs at a time when the magnitude of the crisis no longer tolerates intellectual evasion.  Every country is obliged to examine how it got into this situation and its decision-making and procedures.  This will oblige hopefully all of them to raise their sights, much as happened in Europe and the United States at the end of World War II, for totally different reasons.  Finally, with resources shrinking, no country can believe any longer that it can alone solve its own problems or the global problems.  So every country is obliged to establish priorities, and every country will be required to bring its priorities into relationship with the priorities of other countries.  World order now means in effect the establishment of compatible priorities.

What do all these upheavals mean for the Atlantic alliance?  Traditionally, alliances were created for four reasons:  to define a threat, to assemble resources to meet that threat, to create an additional obligation for mutual assistance beyond that defined by what the national interests would produce anyway, and fourth, morally, to define common positive objectives to pursue.

Each one of these objectives is changed compared to the period when the Atlantic alliance was born.  The threat we faced then was land invasion across sovereign borders.  The threats we face today are partly military, partly ideological, and they’re not against the territory which NATO was designed to protect.  The forces we are assembling are not always relevant to many of our challenges.  The additional obligation created by the alliance suffers from divisions over how to define the threat and the forces that are relevant for dealing with it.

For example, over Iran, the debate is primarily over how to define the threat.  How much time is available before it materializes?  Is diplomacy or pressure the most effective tool for dealing with it?  What do we do if we cannot achieve our goals by diplomacy?  The disagreements in the alliance are partly conceptual and philosophical, and the challenge before us is not what is commonly described.  It is not primarily caused by lack of consultation.  In the first Bush administration, there were statements made that will not go into textbooks for unifying diplomacy.  But in the second Bush administration, under Secretary Rice, a considerable effort was made to emphasize consultation.  It did not change underlying attitudes towards the Bush presidency.  As it turned out, the issue we faced was not the frequency but the content of the consultation.  How do we visualize the evolution we are seeking to affect, and by what methods?  Unless agreed answers to these questions can be found, consultation will primarily define the parameters of a diplomatic impasse.

Let me mention three cases.  The first is Russia; second is Iran; the third is Afghanistan.

The future of Russian policy rests essentially on how one interprets the intentions and the evolution of Russian policy.  Is Russia going back to its Soviet or historic imperialism, or is Russia evolving in some more constructive way?  Secondly, does Russia have the capability to go back to its Soviet and Stalinist tradition?  And thirdly, what is it that we’re trying to promote with respect to Russia?  American foreign policy, at least since the Americans’ thinking about foreign policy, has been preoccupied with the intentions and the domestic structure of possible adversaries.  It defines the distinction between the so-called idealists and realists.

In much of the public discourse, idealists are described as representing the noble attitudes towards foreign policy.  Realists are people drudging along, obsessed with power – (laughter) – and just waiting for another weapon to be developed that one can integrate into strategic planning.  In fact, it seems to me the issue is something quite different.  It is impossible, as an American, not to believe in democracy.  An immigrant like myself has experienced the ideological importance of America.  But it is also impossible for the statesman not to consider the timeframe in which his objectives can be realized.  To state objectives that are not achievable within the timeframe of a political process is not being idealistic; it is being gradually, practically irrelevant, or it drives the international system into an increasing confrontation.

Americans cannot transform the worlds’governments into democratic political systems in the timeframe of any one administration.  Should other countries know that we prefer a democracy?  Of course.  We can and should translate that preference in clear terms.  But the transformation of a major country like Russia or China through pressure and confrontation is not achievable in a timeframe that is related to single presidencies.  The institutions of Russia have evolved over hundreds of years.  Should we encourage their further evolution?  Yes, when we can.  But immediate diplomacy and war must deal with the issues that affect the short- and medium-term prospects of peace like proliferation, environment and the operation of a peaceful order.

Is it possible for Russia to adapt itself to an environment it does not dominate?  That is impossible to predict.  It is, however, possible to say we should not operate on a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If one looks at the strategic situation from Moscow, one finds that its Chinese border is a demographic nightmare; in the six provinces along the Chinese border, there are 6 million Russians and 120 million Chinese.  The frontier with Islam is an ideological nightmare.  Russia’s Western border is a historic challenge because it represents independent states which have been part of Russia before.  This geopolitical situation makes it improbable that Russia can seriously attempt to return to global Stalinism.  Relationships along the western border of Russia are indeed problematic.  The desirable outcome is a relationship with its neighbors in which Russia feels neither threatened nor aspires to domination.  And the fact that Russia and the United States between them possess 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons calls for a serious dialogue.  That needs to be the essence of the dialogue, and that requires a reconsideration of some recent attitudes, especially with respect to membership in NATO of Ukraine and Georgia.

How important is it to prevent nuclear weapons emerging in Iran?  Secondly, can relations with Iran achieve the objective of Iran conducting itself as a country and not a cause?  Thirdly, can we overcome the danger of nuclear weapons in Iran, the appropriate diplomacy and the measures if diplomacy fails?  If proliferation is not stopped now, it will project us into a world that will become morally and strategically unmanageable.  There will be too many countries with nuclear weapons with too many varied incentives.  We are reaching a point where we are running out of time, and we have to be honest with ourselves.  What price are we willing to pay to stop an Iranian nuclear weapons program?  Failing that, how do we propose to organize a world of rampant proliferation?

A word about Afghanistan.  We have stated, as an objective, the creation in Afghanistan of a democratic state with elaborated rights and modern institutions of government.  We need to ask ourselves whether this is a conceivable objective.  Modernization has a different time scale than pacification.  The attempt to establish a central government in Kabul by foreigners has always been automatically resisted, regardless of the merit of the government.  And if that is true, we need a different strategy, one that is designed, possibly, to prevent what we fear most and what needs to concern us most – namely the reemergence of terrorist centers and the projection from Afghanistan of terrorists into other countries – at least within one presidential term.  But to achieve these objectives, it may not be possible or necessary to pacify the entire country or to turn it into a modern state.

Is it possible in the light of what I have described to enter a creative period?  I’m hopeful about a diplomatic outcome in Iraq.  We will need to reassess Afghanistan.  A dialogue with Russia will emerge, at the end of which we can decide whether we are facing a threat or the difficulties of bringing a country undergoing its own trauma into the international system.  Brent Scowcroft and I were just in China, and their commitment to a dialogue with America is enormous.  And when the immediate economic crisis is mastered, we need to create an international economic system that is relevant to the global nature of the relationships.  And, indeed, this will be imposed on the countries concerned.

It’s not often that people hear me make a relatively optimistic speech.  (Laughter.)  But I want you to understand that the difficulties I have described I did as opportunities and challenges, that the condition for a dialogue among all the nations is unusually propitious.  So the Atlantic nations that from a very unpropitious beginning at the end of the Second World War transformed their world will be able to face this crisis and give the Atlantic Community a new sense of mission.  Thank you very much.


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