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?

Kissinger: The basic cause of the war was Hitler. But insofar as the Versailles system played a role, it is undeniable that American idealism at the Versailles negotiations contributed to World War II. Wilson's call for the self-determination of states had the practical effect of breaking up some of the larger states of Europe, and that produced a dual difficulty. One, it turned out to be technically difficult to separate these nationalities that had been mixed together for centuries into national entities by the Wilsonian definition, and secondly, it had the practical consequence of leaving Germany strategically stronger than it was before the war.

SPIEGEL: Why? Germany was militarily disarmed and geographically decimated.

Kissinger: Territorial expansion and power are relative. Germany was smaller, but more powerful. Before World War I, Germany faced three major countries on its borders: Russia, France, and Britain.After Versailles, Germany faced a collection of smaller states on its eastern borders, against each of which it had a huge grievance but none of which was capable of resisting Germany alone, and none of it probably was capable of resisting Germany even if assisted by France.

So that from a geostrategic point of view, the Treaty of Versailles met neither the aspirations of the major players nor the strategic possibility of defending what had been created, unless Germany was kept permanently disarmed. It would have been correct to include Germany in the international system but that precisely what the victorious powers omitted to do by demilitarizing and humiliating the country.

SPIEGEL: Despite the failure of Versailles, this Wilsonian idea is remarkably prevalent. Is our affinity to the ideals of democracy perhaps naïve?

Kissinger: The belief in democracy as a universal remedy regularly reappears in American foreign policy. Its most recent appearance came with the so-called neocons in the Bush administration. Actually, Obama is much closer to a realistic policy on this issue than Bush was.

SPIEGEL: You see Obama as realpolitician?

Kissinger: Let me say a word about realpolitik, just for clarification. I regularly get accused of conducting realpolitik. I don't think I have ever used that term. It is a way by which critics want to label me and say, "Watch him. He's a German really. He doesn't have the American view of things."

SPIEGEL: Then it's a way to cast you as a cynic, isn't it?

Kissinger: Cynics treat values as equivalent and instrumental. Statesmen base practical decisions on moral convictions. It is always easy to divide the world into idealists and power-oriented people. The idealists are presumed to be the noble people, and the power-oriented people are the ones that cause all the world's trouble. But I believe more suffering has been caused by prophets than by statesmen. For me, a sensible definition of realpolitik is to say there are objective circumstances without which foreign policy cannot be conducted. To try to deal with the fate of nations without looking at the circumstances with which they have to deal is escapism. The art of good foreign policy is to understand and to take into consideration the values of a society, to realize them at the outer limit of the possible.

SPIEGEL: What if values cannot be taken into consideration because they are inhuman or too expansive?

Kissinger: In that case, resistance is needed. In Iran, for example, you need to ask the question of whether you have to have a regime change before you can conceive a set of circumstances where each side maintaining its values comes to some understanding.

SPIEGEL: And your answer?

Kissinger: It is too early to say. Right now I have more questions than answers. Will the Iranian people accept the verdict of the religious leaders? Will the religious leaders be united? I don't know the answers, nor does anyone else.

SPIEGEL: You sound very skeptical.

Kissinger: I see two possibilities. We will either come to an understanding with Iran, or we will clash. As a democratic society we cannot justify the clash to our own people unless we can show that we have made a serious effort to avoid it. By that, I don't mean that we have to make every concession they demand, but we are obligated to put forward ideas the American people can support.The upheaval in Teheran must run its course before these possibilities can be explored.

"A Unique Chance To Conduct Peaceful American Foreign Policy"

SPIEGEL: So you are calling for a kind of realistic idealism?

Kissinger: Exactly. There is no realism without an element of idealism. The idea of abstract power only exists for academics, not in real life.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it was helpful for Obama to deliver a speech to the Islamic world in Cairo? Or has he created a lot of illusions about what politics can deliver?

Kissinger: Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess and has opened his game with an unusual opening. Now he's got to play his hand as he plays his various counterparts. We haven't gotten beyond the opening game move yet. I have no quarrel with the opening move.

SPIEGEL: But is what we have seen so far from him truly realpolitik?

Kissinger: It is also too early to say that. If what he wants to do is convey to the Islamic world that America has an open attitude to dialogue and is not determined on physical confrontation as its only strategy, then it can play a very useful role. If it were to be continued on the belief that every crisis can be managed by a philosophical speech, then he will run into Wilsonian problems.

SPIEGEL: Obama did not only hold a speech. At the same time, he placed pressure on Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and to recognize an independent Palestinian state.

Kissinger: The outcome can only be a two-state solution, and there seems to be substantial agreement on the borders of such a state. Now, how you bring that about and what phases of negotiation, what issue you start with, that you cannot deduce from one speech.

SPIEGEL: Do concepts like "good" and "evil" make sense in the context of foreign policy?

Kissinger: Yes, but generally in gradations. Rarely in absolutes. I think there are kinds of evil that need to be condemned and destroyed, and one should not apologize for that. But one should not use the existence of evil as an excuse for those who think that they represent good to insist on an unlimited right to impose their definition of their values.

SPIEGEL: What does the word "victory" mean to you? After World War I, there was a victor and a victim, the Germans; and the Versailles Treaty was an effort to contain the power that had lost. Do you think it's a smart idea to claim victory over another country?

Kissinger: The important thing after military victory is to deal with the defeated nation in a generous way.

SPIEGEL: And with this you mean not to subdue the defeated nation?

Kissinger: You can either weaken a defeated nation to a point where its convictions no longer matter and you can impose anything you wish on it, or you have to bring it back into the international system. From the point of view from Versailles, the treaty was too lenient with respect to holding Germany down, and it was too tough to bring Germany into the new system. So it failed on both grounds.

SPIEGEL: What would a wise winner do?

Kissinger: A wise victor will attempt to bring the defeated nation into the international system. A wise negotiator will try to find a basis on which the agreement will want to be maintained. When one reaches a point where neither of these possibilities exist, then one has to go either to increase pressure or to isolation of the adversary or maybe do both.

SPIEGEL: Were the Western countries wise in respect to their dealings with the former Soviet Union after their implosion?

Kissinger: There was too much triumphalism on the western side. There was too much description of the Soviets as defeated in a Cold War and maybe a certain amount of arrogance.

SPIEGEL: Not only towards Russia?

Kissinger: In other situations as well.

SPIEGEL: What's the difference between the conflicts in Europe in the early 20th century and the conflicts we are facing in today's world?

Kissinger: In previous periods, the victor could promise itself some benefit. Under the current circumstances,that no longer applies. A clash between China and the United States,for example, would undermine both countries.

SPIEGEL: Would you go so far as to say what we are seeing is end of major wars?

Kissinger: I believe that Obama has a unique chance to conduct a peaceful American foreign policy. I do not see any conflicts between suchmajor countries, China, Russia, India, and the U.S., which will justify a military solution. Therefore, there is an opportunity for a diplomatic effort. Moreover, the economic crisis does not permit countries to devote a historic percentage of their resources to military conflict. I am structurally more optimistic than a couple of years ago.

SPIEGEL: The situation in Iran doesn't make you fearful?

Kissinger: Fear is not a good motivation for statesmanship. It could be that some kind of at least local conflict will happen, but it does not have to happen. Iran is a relatively weak and small country that has inherent limits to its capabilities. The relationship of China with the rest of the world is a lot more important in historic terms than the Iranian issues by themselves.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Kissinger, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Jan Fleischhauer and Gabor Steingart.