Henry Kissinger on the political consequences of the pandemic, China’s rise, and the future of the European Union

Mathias Döpfner | Die Welt

Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner sat down with former US Secretary of State and long-time diplomat Henry Kissinger. They discussed the pandemic’s effects on global politics, China’s rise as a world power, and the future of the European Union.

Mathias Döpfner: You’re looking great, and healthy too. So, is life enjoyable despite the pandemic?

Henry Kissinger: I wouldn’t say enjoyable, but I came through the period well. 

Döpfner: How has you pandemic experience been so far? How has your life changed over the last 14 months?

Kissinger: Well, my life has changed in that I took for granted seeing people socially or in the office. So I miss that easy contact. I have lost an intangible relationship with people around the world. I have a series of Zooms, but it’s not the same. The immediacy of human relationships has been lost.

Döpfner: You are living quite isolated in your country home at the moment?

Kissinger: Yes. We have had nobody over for dinner in over a year.

Döpfner: Do you think that we will appreciate personal interaction more once this pandemic is under control and people are vaccinated? Or do you think that, in the long run, it could change social interaction, with people traveling less, meeting less, having less personal conversations?

Kissinger: Videoconferences are going to replace meetings more than in the pre-pandemic period. Since I have been vaccinated, I am now freer to have an almost normal life. And my wife Nancy and I are planning to spend a month or so seeing friends. I have already had a dinner with old friends in New York. It was about a month of preparation. But things like that will be much more spontaneous from now on.

Döpfner: What is the pandemic experience going to change in the political context in the long run? Will safety win versus individual freedom? Will autocratic systems gain ground versus democratic centrist systems?

Kissinger: In this country, the majority of people have had health and safety concerns that they’ve never experienced before. And they have been very occupied with maintaining a lifestyle that they used to take for granted. At the same time, there are groups who are systematically urging a new governmental and national philosophy. And while they are not the majority or even close to a majority, they continue pursuing their convictions – while the rest of the country is focused more on day-to-day life, or on very short-term political issues.

Döpfner: Politicians had to make difficult decisions in the context of the pandemic. For example, legal restrictions concerning border controls and traveling that were considered to be impossible were suddenly possible. You might even say that authoritarian measures had to be implemented in order to save lives. The pandemic has reinforced political authority. And in a couple of countries, at least to a certain degree, people have been very supportive of that. Do you think that democracies are going to be more authoritarian?

Kissinger: A great deal will depend on the impact of vaccinations, where there is already a wide gap between America and Europe. In the US, daily deaths from COVID-19 have been receding; young people are now being vaccinated; businesses and restaurants are beginning to reopen. Much of Europe remains locked down and fearful. Vaccination is beginning to pick up in Europe, but it remains several months behind America. The exception, of course, is the UK. So, to return to the question of political stability, if vaccination successfully reduces the incidence of the disease then the pandemic will be perceived mostly as a health problem that was overcome. The danger is less that emergency measures taken to fight the pandemic will persist than that if infections remain high for a prolonged period, on either side of the Atlantic, we would then witness a crisis of confidence in leaders and institutions 

Döpfner: Talking about Europe, the EU has not been very successful, to put it mildly, in deploying vaccinations. The situation is pretty disastrous, and we are lagging behind America, England, even smaller countries like Israel or Chile. Europe seems to be a dysfunctional player in the crisis. Symbolically, it’s interesting that the Biden administration has restricted European travel to the US even more than Trump did. What impact do you think that will have on the current opportunity to re-establish a strategic transatlantic relationship between America and Europe? 

Kissinger: In America, there has been growth in national consciousness in this period. It was already developing, encouraged by the previous administration. But more in the sense of indifference to foreigners rather than an active hostility towards foreigners. By contrast, in the period immediately following World War II, and for about 30 years afterwards, the idea that America and Europe were fundamentally linked was widespread, certainly in the educated classes. And contact with foreign countries in that period, especially contact with Europe, was a matter of course. This idea is much less prevalent nowadays. You don’t read reports on European elections in American newspapers anymore, and of course they don’t cover them on television. So, in that sense, a certain psychological separation has taken place.

Döpfner: You once said that, if Europe and America do not re-establish an intense transatlantic relationship, Europe will end up as an appendix of Asia. Do you see a concrete danger at the moment that this might happen?

Kissinger: On the American side, there may be a temptation – certainly in the immediate post-pandemic period – to believe that we can operate in a more isolated manner on the basis of our reasonably good performance towards the end of the pandemic period. The current administration has been making useful pronouncements – with which I agree – about the importance of relinking America and Europe. That’s important, but I don’t think we’ve found our way yet to a new practice of the Atlantic relationship. The nature of that linkage is often defined as a return to American leadership. But it may turn out that what Europe seeks is collaborative autonomy, not guidance.

Döpfner: But do you think that we might be facing disappointment ahead because we have naive expectations for the re-establishment of the transatlantic axis?

Kissinger: At the moment, what we are seeing from the administration is more the expression of an attitude than a detailed policy. There is a general desire to be linked again, and there is an amorphous concept that if we link in dialogue, then some level of operational cohesion will emerge automatically. But the differences between Europe and America did not just appear in the Trump administration. They had been growing already in the previous period, and on both sides.

Döpfner: In a way you could say that Obama took office at the start of America’s Pacific period?

Kissinger: Yes. In the immediate post-war period, there was a common thread, and there was also the common task of rebuilding Europe and of redefining the American attitude to its foreign policy. These were important national endeavors. But even in the Nixon period, when attempts were made to redefine formal links, it proved relatively easy to do that in the strategic field. But it proved difficult to develop an Atlantic Charter of political objectives. There was no hostility, but there was also a reluctance by Europe to define an organic relationship. Now this problem will reappear in relation to the fact that the challenges of the world have become global. There is no localized threat to European identity. So, in defining our global roles, I could foresee a possible temptation on the part of Europe to pursue a kind of separate policy from the United States.

Döpfner: What are the consequences?

Kissinger: In the short run, I can actually see many benefits for both sides. But in the long run, my fear is that an emphasis of both sides on autonomy will do two things. It will reduce Europe to an appendage of Eurasia. And through this, Europe will become preoccupied by the tensions that derive from the competition of Asian and Near Eastern countries with each other. And Europe could become exhausted by these efforts. At the same time, if that happens, America could strategically become an island at the conjunction of the Pacific and the Atlantic. It would then conduct the foreign policies typical for island countries vis-à-vis continental land masses, that is to play off the weaker against the stronger, which means there will be more focus on divisions than on the construction of the world. And even if that separation between Europe and America is very friendly, we and Europe should not exhaust our energies in a struggle about how to define common purposes. We don’t have to agree on every economic policy on every local issue, but we should have a common concept of the direction we want the Atlantic regions to go, historically and strategically.

Döpfner: The EU has not delivered on its promises: no over proportional growth for its economies, weak in managing security challenges, disappointing in its management of the euro crisis. Most importantly, the two big international challenges of the recent past have been very poorly managed by the EU. One is the refugee crisis. And the second one is now the pandemic, particularly vaccination. Could that become an existential threat for the EU?

Kissinger: The EU has not yet managed to create a political identity and a political consciousness as an organic unit. The decisions are made by balancing political preferences in an essentially administrative manner on a case by case basis. So, at least from my perspective, there is no vision that can be described as a specifically or uniquely European vision.

Döpfner: What could the European vision be?

 Kissinger: For hundreds of years, Europe has contributed ideas about political structure and political vision. Many of the great ideas about freedom and democracy originated in Europe. At that time on the philosophical level, Europe was largely unified. Now, it seems the EU has a greater ability to concentrate on economic and technical issues than on historic issues. But if Europe is to participate in some unified sense in international affairs, it needs to develop the capacity to generate ideas that are at the same time specifically applicable to European circumstances and also of relevance to the rest of the world. My vision and dream of the European-American relationship has always been that we will manage to establish a unique conceptual relationship within which tactical differences can exist – and should and will exist – but in which they do not become the anchor point of the policy on each side of the Atlantic. 

Döpfner: Which America is Europe going to deal with? I am curious to find out how you see the conceptual changes of the current Biden administration, both with regard to domestic and foreign policy.

Kissinger: The leading groups driving foreign policy within the administration are trying to restore what they consider the traditional pattern of the European-American relationship based on frequent, even constant, consultation with some consensus emerging. They have not yet fully addressed the fact that significant internal changes have taken place in the last 20 years on both sides of the Atlantic. And that these changes emphasize national interest more than is common in American conceptual thinking about foreign policy. Thus the content of the dialogues with America has flattened out while they’re still taking place, and while the institutions remain. The previous administration accentuated differences because of its conviction that America could not be mobilized without an emphasis on national interest. The dilemma with that way of thinking is that in the present technocratic world, the national interest requires a global basis. It’s no longer possible to have a national interest that is confined to the immediate circumference of one’s own country. And that is a task in which America has to engage itself as it pursues the Biden-type policy.

Döpfner: What are you thinking about?

Kissinger: When I was in office, because of the Vietnam War which we inherited, the divisions were very intense and, for policymakers, occasionally painful. But in a way they were family divisions. The leaders of the liberal Democratic side were personal acquaintances with whom I had gone to Harvard and met regularly. In the present period, there is a systemic questioning of the historic values of America. There is a point of view to the effect that American society has been immoral from its very beginning. Advocates of this view maintain that the American internal challenge derives from the historic structure of American society and history. They believe America’s institutions – the Senate, the Supreme Court, perhaps even the Constitution itself – have to be remade from the ground up. This is a revolutionary frame of mind which is being pursued very systematically and very effectively. It is not a view that is held by close to 50% of the population. But it is a view that is intensely held and is perhaps dominant in the academic and media community. It is therefore becoming extremely influential.

Döpfner: Would you say there is a growing intolerance for different views in those circles?

Kissinger: With respect to the issues that the adherents consider most important, there is very limited tolerance. It’s a revolutionary view in the sense that it aims for victory, not compromise. And those who hold different views are ejected from participation.

Döpfner: By the year 2028, the expectation is that China will replace the US as the largest economy. A couple of days before Biden took office, the EU signed an investment and trade protection deal with China. That must have been perceived in Washington as a provocation. What does that tell us about the future of the American-European relationship versus China?

Kissinger: The administration is trying hard to keep the relationship within traditionally accepted limits. But it faces the situation now where public opinion has become convinced that China is not only a rapidly growing country, which is true, but also that China is an inherent enemy, and that therefore our main task is to confront it and to reduce its capacity to be a major country. But China has been a major country for thousands of years. And in different historical epochs. And so, the recovery of China should be not surprising, and its consequences are that America, for the first time in its history, is facing a country of potentially comparable capacities in economics, and with great historic skill in conducting international affairs. This was not the case with the Soviets. They were actually weaker than the United States in military capacities, and they had no economic position in the international field at all. So, with respect to the current crisis, there is almost a certain nostalgia for the issues of the Cold War.

Döpfner: Nostalgia?

Kissinger: Yes. The big issue to look upon is not just to prevent Chinese hegemony, but to understand that if we achieve that objective – which we must – the need to coexist with a country of that magnitude remains. Let me say a word about the assumed global domination of China.

Döpfner: Please.

Kissinger: There is a big difference between the Chinese perception of history and the Russian perception. Russian leaders have historically been insecure, because they have spent their history defending themselves against potential enemies on all sides. They have therefore, since becoming strong, identified influence with physical domination. China has a more complex view. The Confucian view, which shapes Chinese thinking side by side with Chinese Marxism, implies that if China performs at the maximum level of its capacities, it will generate a majestic conduct which will produce respect in the rest of the world – making it agreeable, at some levels, to Chinese preferences. In the Empire period, foreign countries were graded by the degree of their proximity to Chinese cultural precepts. There existed a department for grading these countries, and it conducted foreign policy. China has historically and recently supported this attitude with military actions to remind adversaries that this is not just a philosophical debate. But if you actually study the Chinese military actions, since the period that the communists took over, they’ve all been for psychological effect. They were often very tough. And we must be prepared to oppose Chinese hegemony. But we, at the same time, should remain open to a policy of coexistence.

In dealing with China, different schools of thought have to be sorted out. There’s a group who thinks the Chinese capacity for foreign policy must be confronted at all levels from economics to Chinese internal politics. It ascribes current Chinese policies to the current Chinese leadership and strives for bringing about a more accommodating group. I, on the other hand, believe that such an attitude generates a maximum of resistance. Of course, free societies must continue to conduct world affairs compatible with their principles and free of the threat of hegemony. But coexistence in the current world of technology is a necessity, because it is impossible to visualize a war between major countries who have significant AI technology that will not destroy cultural life as we know it. So that will be the debate in America and maybe in the world.

Döpfner: A truly reliable alliance between the United States and Europe would be essential for America. Do you think a strategic disagreement with regards to China can be a real threat to the transatlantic relationship?

Kissinger: If Europe pursues a policy of taking advantage of American-Chinese disagreement, it will make confrontations all the sharper and crises all the more overwhelming. I am not in favor of a crusade against China. But I am in favor of developing a common strategic understanding so that the situation will not be inflamed further by constant maneuvering for advantage.

Döpfner: But if China becomes the globally leading economy, it seems very likely that it will also have a major impact on political values and political systems in countries that are economically dependent on China – which will be almost all of the non-American rest of the world. 

Kissinger: Well, I don’t think it’s the entire world or even the dominant part of it.

Döpfner: We can debate about Russia. But Europe, Africa, Australia?

Kissinger: No, I am assuming that the societies you mention have enough self-discipline and confidence that they will not permit such an outcome.

Döpfner: You are saying Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has the power to have significant impact on our culture. The new instrument strategically and the new form of warfare is not weapons, it’s basically data. In that regard, China has an unfair advantage. They are collecting tons of personal data as part of their regulative system putting the interest of the Chinese Central State first. The likelihood that China is going to win the race of AI is not small. Are you afraid we might end up with a unilateral AI governance dominated by the Chinese?

Kissinger: Five years ago, I didn’t know anything about AI. 

Döpfner: Now you’re writing articles about it, you’re an expert in it.

Kissinger: I am a student of it. It is fascinating not only economically, but also philosophically, because it will change the nature of human thinking about reality, which will affect all of us. The U.S. needs to maintain a high level of performance in AI. But there are two levels: superior AI can mean you can crush any competitor who operates on market principles. But you’re wrong in saying that the Chinese are bound to be superior to us in the AI field. We have many of the assets of creativity in the AI field. But we have to understand AI in its totality. In the world that you envision, there will inevitably be a competition between AI powers. “High-tech powers” is a better way to say it. And the propensity of high-tech is towards monopoly. That needs to be overcome. 

Döpfner: Right!

Kissinger: And, therefore, there is this propensity to crush the opponent. Now coexistence depends on neither side seeking to destroy the opponent while maintaining its values and objectives, and each side needs to place coexistence ahead of a quest for domination. This requires an understanding between the leaders of high-tech societies. We must learn from history. Europeans in particular know the consequences of wars that can neither be won nor ended.

 Döpfner: But do you think there could be peaceful coexistence?

Kissinger: I know it is our duty to attempt it. Right now, in the West, high-tech is developed almost for its own sake. People are fascinated by it, and they keep building it. So, given our propensity for and our demonstrated ability in this field, I am confident that we should be able to maintain a competitive position. 

Döpfner: I agree, that that dual competition will remain for the foreseeable near future. However, it is also a realistic scenario that one day a unilateral system with one force basically dominating, either the US or China, will emerge. In this context two questions raise. First, will AI serve the people, or will people be serving AI? Many people like Elon Musk and others, who know AI extremely well are worried about the latter scenario. Second: Is AI serving the economic well-being of big tech platforms and companies, as in the United States, or is AI serving the well-being of a central state, which basically controls and uses AI for the total surveillance and control of its people? And I think this is a very fundamental difference, and it has a huge impact on the consequences of AI.

Kissinger: In the competition between China and the West, a key objective has to be to prevent it from becoming an all-out AI conflict. Which means that, while both sides may have the theoretical capability of winning, neither side chooses to exercise it-they should limit it by some kind of understanding. I’m laying out a task, not a detailed program. Strive for it, because the alternative of an all-out conflict strains the imagination. The United States must always have an adequate defense. But in the high-tech world, it must also work for coexistence. We cannot do it as a unilateral act. This is the challenge of our time.

Döpfner: Europe and particularly Germany play a pretty irrelevant role in that context. A century ago, Germany wanted too much leadership, and today, it doesn’t want enough leadership or doesn’t take enough leadership. 

Kissinger: Well, in the 1930s certainly, Germany wanted too much – it wanted dominance. Since the end of the Second World War, Germany has rebuilt itself by reliance on the Atlantic Alliance, and I had the privilege of participating at the margins of that effort. But it has gone through the process of defining a new identity several times since the end of World War II. First to build the Federal Republic of Germany, then for Reunited Germany, then for a European Germany. And now the issue arises of a global Germany, and there is little historical precedent for that role. Germany has the resources and the history to be a major factor in the future. It needs to make up its mind on how it perceives its global role.

Döpfner: At the end, a pleasant topic. There has been one constant over the last almost 100 years and that is that your favorite soccer club is Greuther Fürth. Now, four days before your 98th birthday this year, there is the possibility on the last match day that Greuther Fürth could move up to the Bundesliga. Your favorite birthday gift?

Kissinger: A great birthday gift. I haven’t lived in Fürth in over 80 years. But I follow Greuther Fürth, and I have already made a tentative plan that, if Fürth makes it to the Bundesliga, which does not look very likely, but they are not without a chance, I will travel to Fürth to visit my grandfather’s grave and attend a game if the pandemic permits it.

Döpfner: You should come no matter what happens. If you look back to your childhood, was there a reading experience that was life changing for you? Is there one single book that you could mention that had a particularly strong influence on your way of thinking and your way of living?

Kissinger: No, in my childhood, the preoccupation of my family was how to survive, how to arrive at a situation where one could plan a normal future. Which is why America was such an important element throughout my life. Later on, when I was in America, Spengler’s “Decline of the West” had a major influence on my thinking. Not because of the prediction of decline, but because of the perception of looking at every civilization as a unit and not in terms of separate individual actions. And because of his analysis that the architecture, science, and every other aspect of our culture have certain basic themes. 

Döpfner: If you had to decide for the politician of the last 100 years who left the most positive impact on the world who would that be?

Kissinger: Winston Churchill. He saved Europe.

Döpfner: You are, a German who had to leave his home country because Germans organized the Holocaust that killed millions of Jews and many members of your family. You made your career in America and became an international political figure of great influence. And throughout the decades, you have kept this very special interest in Germany and the importance of the American-German relationship. More than that, you have kept a deep emotional affection for Germany. Can you explain why and how that was possible?

Kissinger: I don’t know if I have ever formally addressed this issue. My family suffered more than I did, because I was younger. Despite the losses of close relatives and friends, my father always retained a nostalgic feeling for Germany. In 1965, I received an award from the city of Fürth, and my father came along. To my amazement, he chose to volunteer an extremely conciliatory speech in German emphasizing the positive things he remembered. I never really explored with him how he reached that decision. And in my own personal life at the end of the war, when I was a very young man in counterintelligence who had been entrusted with great powers, I decided that if it was wrong to treat Jews on the basis of their ethnicity, then it was wrong to do that to Germans too. And, by serving in Germany, I had an opportunity to start to work on a new relationship. And it evolved into an important part of my life.