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The Lessons of Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger

Challenges for the next president and how to avoid war with China

Question: What does Trump’s victory 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 and elite’s perception of the role of US foreign policy. I think the new president has an opportunity to reconcile the two but it is up to him to seize it.

Question: 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, then continuity is possible.

Question: What would you advise Mr Trump to do first?

HK: He should ask, “What are we trying to achieve, even if we must pursue it alone?” and “What are we trying to prevent, even if we must combat it alone?” The answers are indispensable aspects of our foreign policy, which ought to form the basis of our strategic decisions.

The world is in chaos. Fundamental upheavals are occurring in many parts of the world simultaneously, most of which are governed by disparate principles. We are therefore faced with two problems: first, how to reduce regional chaos; second, how to create a coherent world order based on agreed-upon principles.

Question: 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; it’s more likely that Putin will follow wait-and-see policy. Russia and the US 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 see what his options are.

Question: How should Mr Trump make his China policy?

HK: America was lucky enough not to be threatened with invasion as it developed, not least because we were surrounded by two great oceans.

As a consequence, America has conceived of foreign policy as a series of discrete challenges to be addressed as they arise on their merits.

Not until the post–WWII period did we begin to think of foreign policy as a continuous process, even in seemingly tranquil circumstances. For at least 20 years, we forged alliances as a way to put down markers as much as to design a strategy. Henceforth, we must devise a more fluid strategy adjustable to changing circumstance. We must therefore study the histories and cultures of key international actors, including china.

China is an illustration. For most of its history, China also enjoyed isolation. It did not have to continuously engage with the rest of the world, especially outside of Asia. But it was surrounded by relatively smaller nations incapable of disturbing the peace. Until the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, China’s relationships with other countries were managed by the Ministry of Rites, which classified each foreign country as a relative tributary to Beijing. China did not have diplomatic relationships in the Westphalian sense; it did not consider foreign countries equal entities. A balanced, peaceful world order depends on a US-China relationship.

Question: What a US–China war would look like?

HK: A military conflict between the two countries, given the technologies they possess, would be calamitous. Such a conflict would force the world to divide itself. And it would end in destruction, but not necessarily in victory. I am speaking of not merely the force of our weapons, but the unknowability of the consequences of some of them, e.g. cyberweapons. Traditional arms-control negotiations necessitated that each side tells the other what its capabilities were as a prelude to limiting those capacities. Yet with cyber, each country will be extremely reluctant to let others know its capabilities.

Question: How will Iran respond?

HK: Iran will probably conclude — correctly — that the nuclear agreement is more fragile now, 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 that.

Extracted from Dr Henry Kissinger’s Interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, published in the Atlantic.

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