Kissinger: 'Obama Is Like a Chess Player'

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 86, discusses the painful lessons of the Treaty of Versailles, idealism in politics and Obama's opportunity to forge a peaceful American foreign policy.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Kissinger, 90 years ago, at the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Is that an event of the past only of interest to historians or does it still shape contemporary politics?

Henry Kissinger: The treaty has a special meaning for today's generation of politicians, because the map of Europe which emerged from the Treaty of Versailles is, more or less, the map of Europe that exists today. None of the drafters understood the implications of their actions, and that the world that emerged out of the Treaty of Versailles was substantially contrary to the intentions that produced it. Whoever wants to learn from past mistakes, needs to understand what happened in Versailles.

SPIEGEL: The Treaty of Versailles was meant to end all wars. That was the goal of President Woodrow Wilson when he came to Paris. As it turned out, only 20 years later Europe was plunged into an even more devastating world war. Why?

Kissinger: Any international system must have two key elements for it to work. One, it has to have a certain equilibrium of power that makes overthrowing the system difficult and costly. Secondly, it has to have a sense of legitimacy. That means that the majority of the states must believe that the settlement is essentially just. Versailles failed on both grounds. The Versailles meetings excluded the two largest continental powers: Germany and Russia. If one imagines that an international system had to be preserved against a disaffected defector, the possibility of achieving a balance of power within it was inherently weak. Therefore, it lacked both equilibrium and a sense of legitimacy.

SPIEGEL: In Paris we saw the clash of two foreign policy principles: the idealism embodied by Wilson who encountered a kind of realpolitik embodied by the Europeans which was above all based on the law of the strongest. Can you explain the failure of the American approach?

Kissinger: The American view was that peace is the normal condition among states. To ensure lasting peace, an international system must be organized on the basis of domestic institutions everywhere, which reflect the will of the people, and that will of the people is considered always to be against war. Unfortunately, there is no historic evidence that this is true.

SPIEGEL: So in your view, peace is not the normal condition among states?

Kissinger: The preconditions for a lasting peace are much more complex than most people are aware of. It was not an historic truth but an assertion of the view of a country composed of immigrants that had turned their backs on a continent and had absorbed itself for 200 years in its domestic politics.

SPIEGEL: Would you say that America inadvertently caused a war while trying to create peace?

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