In his new book, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes about the dangerous rivalry between the great powers, the ideologization of foreign policy and what constitutes good governance in times of crisis. Read exclusive excerpts here in advance.
When he raises his voice, he is guaranteed global attention, for better or for worse. Henry Kissinger, ex-Secretary of State of the United States, is, it seems, the only surviving world politician of any standing, someone who in his 99 years lived through a world war that negotiated peace but also ignited conflicts. In 1973 he received a Nobel Peace Prize for the armistice with North Vietnam, but in the same year supported a military coup against the socialist Salvador Allende in Chile. Critics accuse him of repeatedly putting interests above the protection of human rights as a “realist politician”.
As recently, when his appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos caused outrage for allegedly asking Ukraine to trade territory for peace. That had been misinterpreted, he emphasized this week with his inimitably rough voice to journalists in London. “What I was saying was that there will be a time after the war when the situation will have to be assessed not only militarily but also politically.” Russia, in any case, should not be isolated. “It should always play an important role in Europe – as long as it respects the security rules for the continent.”
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Now the former politics professor has written a new book, less about Russia and more about good governance. “Far-sighted statesmen know that they have basically two jobs to do. For one thing, they should protect their society by influencing circumstances and not letting them overwhelm them. On the other hand, they should moderate their imagination and cultivate a sense of boundaries.” According to Kissinger, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar-al Sadat, Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew meet the criteria – he dedicates portraits to them. Adenauer, whom he met around ten times, impressed him because he “combined dignity with strength”. Most leaders would not have visionary skills. In times of crisis or war, however, the mere management of the status quo is the most dangerous course.
Read the following excerpts from the closing words of Kissinger’s book Staatskunst. Six Lessons for the 21st Century”, which appears in bookstores on Monday.
History is and remains a relentless teacher, especially as the technological revolution is accompanied by a political transformation. Currently, the world is bracing itself for the return of great power rivalry, fueled by the proliferation and advancement of amazing technologies. When the People’s Republic of China began its re-entry into the international system, it had enormous human and economic potential, but its technology and actual power were relatively limited.
Statecraft: Six Lessons for the 21st Century
Today, for the first time in its history, China’s growing economic and strategic capabilities are forcing the United States to face up to a geopolitical competitor with comparable resources — a task as unfamiliar to Washington as it is to Beijing, historically speaking has always treated other nations as tributary to Chinese culture and power. Both nations consider themselves exceptional, but in different ways.
Henry A. Kissinger emigrated to the USA in 1938. There he taught at Harvard University from 1952 and had great influence on international politics as a political adviser to all presidents since Eisenhower and as Secretary of State. He is seen as the driving force behind the policy of détente and the diplomatic requirements for a withdrawal from Vietnam and a peace settlement in the Middle East. In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The United States acts on the premise that its values are universally applicable and will eventually be adopted everywhere. China, in turn, expects its civilizational uniqueness and impressive economic prowess to inspire other societies to pay due respect to China’s supremacy. But both the missionary impulse of the United States and China’s sense of cultural superiority are ultimately aimed at subordinating the other. Due to the nature of their economies and their high technology, the two powers are clashing in areas that until now they had considered to be their respective core interests – partly driven by the dynamics of development, but increasingly also with full intention.
Twenty-first-century China seems poised to assume an international role that the country believes it deserves because of its achievements spanning millennia. If the United States is to maintain the global balance that has its roots in the country’s post-war experience, it must demonstrate power, determination, and diplomatic skill in all parts of the world in response to the tangible and conceptual challenges to that order.
These security requirements seem self-evident to the leaders of both sides. And in this they are supported by public opinion. But safety is only one side of the coin. For the future of the world, the key question is: will the two giants learn how to combine their rivalry with the concept and practice of coexistence?
As for Russia, it clearly does not have China’s market power, nor does it have comparable demographic strength or a similarly diversified industrial base. Because Russia spans eleven time zones and has few natural defenses, it will continue to act according to its own geographic and historical constraints. Russian foreign policy translates a mystical patriotism into one of imperial entitlement, but coupled with an enduring sense of insecurity that ultimately derives from a long-felt strategic vulnerability to invasions through the East European Plains.
Historically, Russia’s generally autocratic rulers have always sought to protect the vast territory with a security belt around its diffuse borders, and this priority is once again manifested in the present with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The interactions between these societies are shaped by their strategic considerations, which in turn result from their respective histories.
The Ukraine conflict also proves this. After the disintegration of the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and their emergence as independent nations, the entire territory from the Iron Curtain in the center of Europe to the state border of Russia was opened up for a new strategic configuration. Stability now depended on the ability of the newly emerging pattern of order to calm not only European fears of Russian dominance, but also Russia’s historic concerns about offensives from the West. Ukraine’s strategic geography symbolizes these concerns.
If Ukraine joins NATO, the security line between Russia and Europe would be less than 500 kilometers from Moscow – removing the historical buffer zone that protected Russia in earlier centuries when France and Germany tried to occupy the country. If the security line were drawn on Ukraine’s western border, Russian troops would be within striking distance of Budapest and Warsaw. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this egregious violation of international law, is therefore in large part the outgrowth of failed strategic or half-hearted dialogue. The fact that we are currently witnessing the military confrontation between two nuclear-armed units – even if they do not resort to their most potent weapons – underscores the urgency of the fundamental problem.
The triangular relationship between the United States, China and Russia will eventually be restored – but Russia will be weakened given the demonstration of its military borders in Ukraine, widespread opposition to its actions, and the scope and impact of the sanctions imposed on the country. But it will also continue to have its nuclear and cyber capabilities, enabling it for doomsday scenarios. The key question in US-China relations is whether – and how – two such disparate concepts of national greatness can peacefully coexist.
In the case of Russia, the challenge is whether the country can reconcile its self-image with the security and self-determination of the countries in the region it has long considered its near abroad (meaning primarily Central Asia and Eastern Europe), and whether it will do so as part of an international order and not through the exercise of power and dominance. It seems quite possible today that the liberal and rule-based order, no matter how worthy its concept, will be replaced in practice by an at least partially decoupled world for an indefinite period of time.
Such a split could lead to an intensification of the search for spheres of influence on the fringes. If so, would states unable to agree on global rules of conduct still be able to act within an agreed equilibrium pattern? Or will the desire for dominance overwhelm the case for coexistence? In a world where increasingly potent technology can either fuel or disrupt human civilization, there is no ultimate solution to great power competition, let alone a military one.
An unrestrained technological race, based on an ideologization of foreign policy in which each side is convinced of the other’s malicious intentions, will eventually create a similarly devastating cycle of mutual distrust that sparked World War I, but with incomparably more horrific consequences. All sides are therefore required to review the guiding principles of international conduct and bring them into line with the possibilities of coexistence.
For the leaders of high-tech societies in particular, the moral and strategic imperative is to engage in an ongoing debate – both within their own and with potentially adversary countries – about the implications of the technology, and also about how to tame its military applications. The issue is too important and must not be neglected until crises arise. Just as debates about arms control in the nuclear age contributed to constraints, high-level talks about the implications of emerging technologies could help cultivate shared thinking and encourage accustoming to reciprocal military self-control.
It is ironic in our contemporary world that some of its glorious achievements – the revolutionary advances in technology – have come so suddenly and with such great optimism that there is little critical reflection on their dangers and few systematic efforts to understand their vast potential . Technologists create wondrous devices, but have neither the background knowledge nor the motivation to explore their meaning within a historical framework. Political leaders too often lack an adequate understanding of the strategic and philosophical implications of the tools and algorithms at their disposal.
At the same time, the technological revolution also affects people’s consciousness and perception of reality. The last such major transformation, the Enlightenment, replaced the age of belief with repeatable experimentation and logical deduction. Now that is being replaced by reliance on algorithms that work in the opposite direction, offering results that seek an explanation. Exploring these new frontiers will require serious efforts by political leaders to narrow and hopefully close the gaps between the worlds of technology, politics, history and philosophy.
In the introduction to this book, I already identified the ability to analyze, strategy, courage and character as the touchstones of political leadership. The challenges that the leaders described here had to face were comparatively similar in complexity to those of today, albeit less far-reaching. However, the criterion by which politicians are judged historically is and remains the same: to overcome the given circumstances with vision and dedication. The leaders of the great powers do not necessarily have to have a precise vision of how they could resolve the dilemmas described here as quickly as possible. However, you should be aware of what to avoid and what absolutely must not be tolerated.
Wise leaders must address the challenges they face before they can pile up into crises. The modern age is losing its anchor because it lacks a moral and strategic vision. The vastness of our future still exceeds all comprehension. Menacing wave crests and troughs and treacherous shoals make orientation difficult and call for helmsmen with creativity and strength who can lead their societies to as yet unknown but more hopeful goals.
Under these ominous circumstances, the two questions that Konrad Adenauer addressed to me in 1967 during our last meeting, three months before his death, take on new topicality: Are political leaders still capable of truly pursuing long-term politics? Is real leadership even possible today?