Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

About Us

Henry Kissinger

Transcript of Remarks at the 14th Annual John M. Ashbrook Memorial Dinner

Ashland University – September 11, 1997

Dr. Sandberg, Mr. Schramm, ladies and gentlemen: You know when you listen to such an extraordinary introduction, it leaves me in a position in which I found myself once at a cocktail party where a lady walked up to me and said, “I understand you’re a fascinating man,” she said. “Fascinate me.” It turned into one of my less successful conversations.

But actually, if I may say a thing of two about the introduction. I do a fair amount of speaking, and I get introduced quite often. But it isn’t all that often that one gets introduced for the things one would like to be praised for. And I thought this was unusually thoughtful and very meaningful to me.

Now having said this, I must mention something about my books. I don’t know whether they’ve been getting any better, but they’ve certainly been getting longer. I had an English reviewer who wrote about one of my books that, “I don’t know whether Mr. Kissinger is a great writer, but anyone finishing this book is a great reader.”

I’ll just say one more thing about my books. I wrote one book that was actually fairly short which was called The Troubled Partnership. It was about the state of the NATO alliance quite a few years ago. And it was not a huge best seller except in one bookstore in Chicago where it sold like hotcakes. So they investigated how that could be. They had put it with the marriage-counseling books.

Now, I’ll talk to you for a bit about the state of American Foreign Policy, and primarily about the problems we face at this moment. I’ve been an academic and I’ve been a policy maker. And as a policy maker, I’ve had a lot of trouble from academics. Especially from the Ivy League, and I’m going to say one thing about academic politics to which Mr. Schramm referred. I formulated the rule that the intensity of academic politics and the bitterness of it is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject their discussing. And I promise you at Harvard, they are passionately intense and the subjects are extremely unimportant.

But at any rate, the difference is this. An academic or any outsider, journalist, academic, anybody can pick his subject. He can write, work on it for at long as he wishes. And he’s responsible only to his own conscience, and he has the privilege of changing his mind.

A policy maker doesn’t have that privilege. The most overpowering experience to anybody in high office is that he cannot possibly do all the things he is supposed to do. That there are always more things to deal with than you can address and therefore, in a way at the end of each day, you have to decide which problems you can defer until you can deal with the most urgent ones. So most of your problems are imposed on you. They are not selected.

Secondly, you do not have unlimited time. You have to react to them like an athlete — rather quickly.

Third, as an academic, you can afford to write about the best things that might happen. As a policy maker, you are responsible also for the worst things that might happen.

There are a lot of great ideas kicking around, which, if they worked, would be terrific. But which if they failed, would be catastrophic. As a journalist, or as a professor, you can always say you’ll go back and write another book. As a policy maker, you don’t have this privilege.

I can tell you, I found when I wrote my memoirs, and I kept, because I saw of say myself as a historian, I kept excruciating the detailed records, I didn’t tape anybody but I had note takers present, physical note takers. So I had pretty good records of most of the conversations in which I participated. And all of the memos that came across my desk may amuse you. Mine are copies. The originals are in the State Department. But the State Department can’t find the memos. So when they want to find out about something, they have to go to my files in the Library of Congress, which tells you something about modern bureaucracy.

But there are a lot of memos that when I reread them I said, by God, that was pretty good stuff. They sort of floated across my desk and I would just look for the operative paragraph, and couldn’t really think about them. That is the reality of policy making.

I used to see academic delegations that kept saying, “Why don’t you end the Vietnam War?” First of all, we inherited the Vietnam War from another administration that joined the peace movement after they left office, which was easy to do. And our problem was, that as Americans, you want to make a compromise. But our enemies wanted victory. And that was the problem. It has nothing to do with our desire. I know that this is of a past period. At any rate, this is what you have to keep in mind when you think of publishing.

Now the great contribution of Richard Nixon was that he could distinguish the important from the urgent. He didn’t like to see too many people. He didn’t like too many people. But he’d sit in his office and he would think, which is almost forbidden now among politicians.

I was addressing the other day a group of Chinese-American, it was something about Chinese-American friendship in anticipation of the visit of Jiang Zemin. And I said, we get a lot of credit for having open relations with China. That would of happened one way or the other. That was necessary. We did it perhaps a little faster, a little more elegantly. But the real contribution that we made, for which President Nixon deserves credit, is that in our discussions with the Chinese, he focused the discussions on important subjects. And he didn’t permit us to be deflected. Anybody whose ever been in the State Department knows, I can tell you in that particular case.

Everybody talks about my secret trip to China. That came about because we despaired of the bureaucracy. We were discussing through bureaucratic channels with the Chinese. And then we got recommendations what should be discussed; and we got a laundry list of every conceivable topic that ever had ever crossed some bureaucrat’s mind. Claims and assets, communications. They had briefing papers, we were suppose to have briefed twenty people. And Nixon said, “We are going to kill this baby before its born.” And then we talked about important subjects: relations with the Soviet Union, future of stability in Asia, how we could coordinate, where we would differ — things that effected the future of war and peace in Asia.

I mention that to point out, that is the most important job of a high executive — to understand what is important. And it’s a particular problem for the United States at this moment because we have had a blessed past. We are the only major country in the world that is almost entirely populated by immigrants who could therefore create the kind of society which reflected their image of liberty, humanity. No other society has ever been explicitly created for that purpose.

We are the only country that never had a mortal threat. We are the only country that could pick its involvement in world affairs. And that has created a certain legacy. Every problem we’ve encountered, even the cold war, had a dramatic conclusion — had an end to it. Our enemy collapsed. And if you compare with what American leaders were saying in the 50s with what happened around 1990, you’ll find that we achieved almost everything we set out to do.

George Burnashovan once said, “There are two tragedies in life. One is to fail to fulfill your hearts desire. The second, is to fulfill your hearts desire.” Then the question is, what do you do now? And that is one intellectual problem we face.

Secondly, for the first time we face, in any country faces, a world which is really global. Up to very recently, world affairs were always regional. Europe dominated the world for 300 years. Then there was a earlier period where Islam was dominating in many regions. And in any event, the regions of the world conducted their politics in isolation from each other.

In the 18th Century, you could not compare the power of China with the power of England because they had no way of interacting and they knew very little about each other. Today, economics have become global. A banker in Singapore by manipulating derivatives, brought down one of the oldest banks in Britain and nearly created a international financial crisis.

A few years ago, Mexico nearly produced an international financial crisis. In fact it did produce an international financial crisis. And now Thailand has started a sequence of events that hasn’t ended yet in Asia. That is totally new, that has never happened before. Of course it has never happened before that you could see contemporary events on television as they occur. And this creates unheard of necessities

On the other hand, political loyalties are still national. And in many parts of the world, they’re shrinking down to ethnic. So policy making is becoming extremely complex, and it has one other component which is: we now are living through an intellectual revolution that is unheard of. There’s no precedence for it. Which is when you shift from the age of books to the age of computers, you create a new mentality.

I write all my books in long hand. In another few years, they’ll exhibit me in the circus. My grandchildren will not be able to write three pages in long hand. Most of the young men and women that I know who are in there teens or early twenties cannot write. They know how to use word processors. I was brought up, my generation was brought up on books. That is the significant experience was in books. And when you look at the history of knowledge, in the medieval period before printing, you had to learn by memory because there was no established texts. You learned by memory, you needed texts that people could agree on, so these were religious texts and epic poems. Then printing came along and expanded the age of knowledge.

But to handle the printed word you needed concepts, concepts that show comparable events. Now you have computers. You don’t need concepts. You punch a computer, it gives you all the information you could possibly imagine. Now that is a great asset. On the other hand, it creates, makes it very difficult, anything that requires knowledge, contemporary knowledge, the computer age is fantastical. Anything that requires protection into the future, anything that makes you understand comparable events, which happens to be the essence of politics, the computer educated people have much greater difficulty with.

And on top of it, the modern politician is a different type from the politicians with whom I grew up. Richard Nixon would sit all the way in an office and he would keep writing down ideas and he wanted to figure out what is the right thing to do. A modern politician doesn’t want to know what is the right thing to do. A modern politician wants to know what gets them on the evening news. And he’s got focus groups. So to tell him this, so when they get into office, they don’t have the sort of attitude that a Margaret Thatcher would have, who has her own ideas and her own knowledge. This is one of the problems in dealing with the situation.

Now let me apply it to, let me explain some of the issues we face. And since you all need to get home at some reasonable hour you will never know whether I could solve them.

Let me just mention a few issues. The most important question one has to ask when dealing with foreign policy is, “What are you trying to do? What is the end of the process? Where are you going to come out? This is where we went wrong in Vietnam and this is where I now am very worried. We are sliding ourselves into a crisis in Bosnia. Bosnia has never been a nation in history. It is composed of three ethic groups with an uninterrupted record of fratricidal war. The Serbs have considered themselves the defenders of Christianity against the Moslems. For 400 years, the Croats have considered themselves as the defenders of Catholicism against Serb orthodoxy and of the Christian religion against the Moslems.

So therefore to create a state in which any of these groups dominates the others is impossible. It is guaranteed to lead to conflict. It was a mistake ever to agree to the creation of a Bosnian state 10 years ago. It was bound to lead to a civil war. It has never existed in human history. It was an administrative subdivision of Yugoslavia. Now we’ve done a good thing in ending the war, and we should leave it at that. Stopping the killing is a useful mission. But trying to get these people to live under one government, now to let all the refugees come home, will start the whole thing all over again. And above all, it is not our mission. And therefore, I believe, we should rest on what we’ve achieved and not get ourselves in deeper.

If we can pick up the was criminals without losing lives, the trouble is, the place is not crawling with innocent people. They’ve all done a lot of killing; I don’t object to it. What I do object to, is to slide ourselves into a Balkan civil war, or to slide ourselves into where our actions start a Balkan civil war. Because I cannot define the American national interest or for that matter, the human interest, in trying to create a state where none ever existed. That’s the most immediate problem.

Let me make a few observations about two countries we have to deal with in which there have been huge upheavals. One is Russia; the other is China. We scored a huge victory in the Cold War. And it led to the collapse of communism in Russia and to the collapse of the Russian empire. Those are two different things. The collapse of communism was because of the unbelievable inefficiency of the communist economic system.

I remember when a general secretary of the communist party reported to the party congress that they had found a transgression where for years they had been carrying an oil refinery on their books which didn’t exist. If you have an economy, and you can lose an oil refinery, you know it isn’t going to prosper for very long. So that was one thing.

The second, though, is Russian imperialism. That’s been going from Peter the Great and has expanded from the area around Moscow to the Pacific, the Middle East, into the center of Europe, in which in every generation they acquired at least as much territory as a medium sized European country. And that has now broken up. Now the key issue in my view in Russia is can the Russians understand that in the modern world, you don’t have to conquer your neighbors to be secure and even less to be prosperous.

The present day Russia, Saint Petersburg is closer to New York that it is to Vladivostok. Vladivostok is closer to Seattle that it is to Moscow. They have eleven time zones in one country. They should not suffer from claustrophobia.

So, in the debate that is now going on about expanding NATO the key question is, the utility of this expansion, is to deprive the various nationalist groups in Russia of the idea that they can bring back these various countries under Russian rule.

If they ever think about it non-nostalgically they have to realize that Singapore, Israel, Austria , Japan, all have created huge economies with next to no resources. Russia has huge resources. And therefore, this is our challenge in dealing with Russia. And frankly, all these love feeds with Russian leaders are irrelevant. The Russians will go through a certain momentum of changes, which we can effect very little for a while. Can they become democratic? I hope so, but they have a different history from ours. Our democratic evolution was very much influenced by our religious tradition, by the tradition of churches that were separate from state control, by the tradition of churches that insisted on the importance of the individual conscience, and by the history of the enlightenment and by the history of capitalism, none of which has ever existed in Russia. So, the problem of Russia is not that they are going to start a war soon. There much too divided at this moment. The problem is
to discourage them from going on by momentum, from the history that they have had.

I can tell you from personal experience. One of the countries that broke away from Russia is Ukraine, a country with a population of 58 million, as large as France. I have never met a single Russian who accepts the independence of the Ukraine. And none of my experience have I ever met one. This is the mentality that has to change. And it’s bound to change. And that’s what we need to focus on.

Now let me say a few words about China. China is a country which has its own momentum. And I can illustrate this by a number of examples. If you ask an American or European when something happened, he gives you a date. When you ask a Chinese when something happens, he gives you a dynasty. There have been fourteen dynasties in the history of China. Ten of which has lasted longer than the entire history of the United States. So the best you do when they give you a dynasty, is now you are within 200 years of when something happened. That’s a different rhythm of thinking

When I met Mao Tse Tung, he told me a story that an American couldn’t tell. He said when he met — the Romanians sent a leader to Beijing to settle their differences with China, settle Soviet differences with China, Mao said we’ll fight them for 5,000 years, no sense arguing with them. So the Romanian complained. He said, “Okay I’ll make a concession to you. We’ll fight them for 4,000 years.” So the Romanian still complained, so he gave him another 1,000 years. And when the Romanian still continued, he said, “I’ve made by last concession.” So this is a mentality that is different.

When you travel in China, you rarely come to a province that is not larger than the largest European country. So, you’re dealing here with a billion plus people with a different sense of history. A totally different sense of proper organization of a country.

We believe that everybody’s idea is as good as everybody else. On the whole, the Chinese people believe that the smart people should govern and the others should obey. That’s Confucianism. That’s how they’ve been brought up.

So, I mention these things for the following reasons. What do we want from China? What I want from China is peace in Asia. Undertaking the reform of China as a major American enterprise will get us forever into the bogs of Asia. Where we can use our influence, we should of course do it. But, fundamentally, if we declare China as our principal enemy, we’re in for a long, long struggle. And all I ask is that before we start it, we define what we are trying to accomplish.

Asia is different from Europe. In Europe we are dealing with a group of societies among which war is out of the question under present conditions. In Europe and the Western Hemisphere, we can practice cooperation and democratic virtues. In Asia we have a security problem. The relation of the Asian nations to each other is like that of the European nations to each other in the 19th century. They think of each other as strategic opponents.

We as Americans have a huge advantage which is that their quarrels with each other are bigger than their quarrels with us. So, there’s a Russian story where somebody says, “Will you help this guy? He’s stuck up to his ankles in the mud.” “If he’s stuck up to his ankles in the mud, why are you so excited?” He said, “Well, he dived in head first.” That’s what we have to avoid in Asia. We have a good advantage in that we can have relations with each of these countries. We have to prevent that all of Asia unites against us. If that happens, we’ll have a problem. And we can do that better from a posture of flexibility. Now I say all of this because it’s easy to say that we’ve got to have another enemy, we’ve got to smash another country. Russia was a different problem. The Soviet Union had a corrupt economy and a corrupt leadership. China is moving at a different pace. And in Asia, we will see a more nationalistic Japan, a growing India, a growing Southea
st Asia. Those are the realities.

What all of this means is that we have to do something we have not had to do before. In the past, we could wait for some problem to arise and then, we would overwhelm it with resources. Now we have the whole world to deal with. First, we have to be able to choose priorities. We can not possibly solve every problem that exists in the world. The only problems, the top priority problems, are those that affect American security. The next priority problems are those that affect directly American values. And everything else we can do is a bonus.

That is a challenge that we have not systemically been able to meet because the current administration, in my view, is dealing entirely with tactics. Their effort is to get things off the front page. There not asking the question of where are we trying to go, what do we want this to look like five years down the road?

Our politics is concentrated almost entirely on domestic issues, and very much on short-term issues. And what concerns me is when I look at the reaction in the last few weeks to the death of Princess Diana. Leaving aside her qualities, it shows a hunger for some sense of direction, for some commitment, for some purpose, and it’s a paradox that at a time when politicians compulsively take public opinion polls, and therefore, they think they know what the public wants, they have not been able to give them ultimately what they want because otherwise an attractive, charming, intelligent, humane lady could not have had this overwhelming impact on a whole society.

Now I have a friend that lives in Singapore who claims that there exists the following Chinese proverb, which is supposed to go like this. I say supposed because I think the Chinese lay a lot of proverbs on us that they make up as they go along. But this one goes like this: When there is turmoil under the heavens, little problems are dealt with as if they were big problems. And big problems are not dealt with at all. When there is order under the heaven, big problems are reduced to little problems and little problems should not upset us. That’s our challenge.

First, can we identify what our real problems are? Can we then deal with the big problems and can we then reduce them to little ones? Now I have given, told you a lot of issues and a lot of challenges, but still, when you look around the world, there’s only one country where such a speech could be given. In almost every other country, they would be worried about their immediate problem. There’s only one country that I know, that can deal with some of the issues that I’ve described here. And so you should reflect about what I said as a opportunity that really only our country is in a position to deal with.

Let me stop here and perhaps take a few questions. Thank you very much.