Interview with Der Spiegel
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 84, has thrown his support behind John McCain. SPIEGEL spoke with Kissinger about Germany's Afghanistan mission, tepid European commitment to combatting Islamist extremism and whether direct talks with Iran should go ahead.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Kissinger, you have endorsed Senator John McCain as your choice for the White House. McCain, though, has said he would be prepared to stay in Iraq for another 100 years. Are you sure he is the right man for the job?
Kissinger: John and I have been friends for 30 years. I have great confidence in him.
SPIEGEL: Most Americans would like to see a rapid withdrawal from Iraq and possibly Afghanistan. But McCain has made his motto "No Surrender."
Kissinger: He was trying to make a distinction between American military forces in a country where they were there as part of a civil war and military forces that are part of an alliance accepted by the population, such as in Germany after World War II. He did not say we should stay in Iraq in a combat mission. He was trying to make exactly the opposite point.
SPIEGEL: The Democrats have promised a rapid withdrawal. Is this a realistic option?
Kissinger: The issue is: Are American forces withdrawn as part of a political settlement? Or are they withdrawn because America is exhausted by the war? In the latter case, the consequences of an American withdrawal would be catastrophic.
SPIEGEL: Do you think there would be another eruption of violence?
Kissinger: There would be a high possibility of killing fields. Radical Islam won't stop because we withdraw. A rapid withdrawal would be a demonstration in the region of the impotence of Western power. Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaida would achieve a more dominant role, and the ability of Western nations to shape events would be sharply reduced. The virus would have huge consequences for all countries with large Muslim populations: India, Indonesia, and large parts of Europe.
SPIEGEL: That is not how many Europeans see it.
Kissinger: Some Europeans do not want to understand that this is not an American problem alone. The consequences of such an outcome would be at least as serious for Europe as for the Americans.
SPIEGEL: What does Europe not understand? Paris, London and Berlin do not see the "war on terror" as a common challenge for the West?
Kissinger: I don't like the term "war on terror" because terror is a method, not a political movement. We are in a war against radical Islam that is trying to overthrow the moderate elements in the Islamic world and which is fundamentally challenging the secular structures of Western societies. All this is happening at a difficult period in European history.
SPIEGEL: Difficult why?
Kissinger: The major events in European history were conducted by nation-states which developed over several hundred years. There was never a question in the mind of European populations that the state was authorized to ask for sacrifices and that the citizens had a duty to carry it out. Now the structure of the nation-state has been given up to some considerable extent in Europe. And the capacity of governments to ask for sacrifices has diminished correspondingly.
SPIEGEL: Thirty years ago, you asked for one phone number that could be used to call Europe.
Kissinger: … and it happened. The problem now is: Nation-states have not just given up part of their sovereignty to the European Union but also part of their vision for their own future. Their future is now tied to the European Union, and the EU has not yet achieved a vision and loyalty comparable to the nation-state. So, there is a vacuum between Europe's past and Europe's future.
SPIEGEL: What do you expect from European leaders? Should German Chancellor Angela Merkel step up and ask the Germans to make sacrifices in the fight against terrorism?
Kissinger: I think Angela Merkel, like any leader, has to think of her re-election. I have high regard for her. But I do not know many Europeans who would deny that the victory of radical Islam in Baghdad, Beirut or Saudi Arabia would have huge consequences for the West. However, they are not willing to fight to prevent it.
SPIEGEL: For example in Afghanistan. Does NATO need more German troops in the southern part of the country?
Kissinger: I think it is obvious that the United States cannot permanently do all the fighting for Western interests by itself. So, two conclusions are possible: Either there are no Western interests in the region and we don't fight. Or there are vital Western interests in the region and we have to fight. That means we need more German and NATO troops in Afghanistan. What I am not comfortable with is that some NATO members send troops primarily for non-combat missions. That cannot be a healthy situation in the long term.
SPIEGEL: Many Germans say we have to stand up to the terrorists, but that Germans can't do the actual fighting, partly because of our history. You are intimately familiar with German history — your family left Germany when you were nearly 15 years old. Is it fair for today's Germany to refer to the constraints of history?
Kissinger: I understand it, but it is not a sustainable position. In the long run, we cannot have two categories of members in the NATO alliance: those that are willing to fight and others that are trying to be members à la carte. That cannot work for long.
SPIEGEL: Do you think the Germans can be persuaded to change their approach?
Kissinger: The Germans have to decide that for themselves. But if they stick to that attitude, Germany would be a different kind of nation than Britain or France or others
SPIEGEL: Isn't German and European opposition to a greater military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq also a result of deep distrust of American power?
Kissinger: By this time next year, we will see the beginning of a new administration. We will then discover to what extent the Bush administration was the cause or the alibi for European-American disagreements. Right now, many Europeans hide behind the unpopularity of President Bush. And this administration made several mistakes in the beginning.
SPIEGEL: What do you see as the biggest mistakes?
Kissinger: To go into Iraq with insufficient troops, to disband the Iraqi army, the handling of the relations with allies at the beginning even though not every ally distinguished himself by loyalty. But I do believe that George W. Bush has correctly understood the global challenge we are facing, the threat of radical Islam, and that he has fought that battle with great fortitude. He will be appreciated for that later.
SPIEGEL: In 50 years, historians will treat his legacy more kindly?
Kissinger: That will happen much earlier.
SPIEGEL: Will the next president of the United States ask for a greater European commitment?
Kissinger: It is not impossible that a new administration will say that we can't go on without more European commitment. And that they would use this as an excuse for withdrawal from Iraq or Afghanistan. I don't think John McCain would do that, though.
SPIEGEL: Barack Obama also says the conflict in Pakistan is the war Americans really need to win. Is he right?
Kissinger: You can always say there is some other war I would rather want to fight than the one I am in. What does it mean to fight the war in Pakistan? Should we use military power to control the tribal regions in Pakistan and to conduct military operations in a region which Britain failed to pacify in over 100 years of colonization? Should we use military force to prevent a radical take-over of the Pakistani government? Should we prevent the Pakistani state from splitting up into three or four ethnically based groups? I don't think we have the capacity to do that.
SPIEGEL: What about pushing for more military action against al-Qaida terrorists in the border regions with Afghanistan?
Kissinger: The audience listening to such exhortations believes that there is a master plan to bring another government there and that this democratic government will fight the tribal regions. In the short-term, this is an illusion.
SPIEGEL: What would be your advice for dealing with radical Islam and the governments in the region?
Kissinger: You cannot simultaneously attempt to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan in the name of democracy and fight radical Islam. The democratization processes and the war against radical Islam have a different time frame.
SPIEGEL: Is it time for a strategic reassessment? You have experience with that: In the 1970s, Richard Nixon and you stunned the world by flying to China and sitting down with the Communist dictator Mao.
Kissinger: We did not wake up one morning and say it would be beautiful to talk to Mao. Nixon and I both believed we needed to bring China into the international system. We tried to connect objective reality with moral considerations. And objective reality was changed by the Sino-Soviet tensions and the consequent commitment by Beijing to coexistence.
SPIEGEL: Times have changed, but such moral considerations still exist. Should the new US president fly to Tehran and sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Kissinger: Some believe that the mere act of conversation will alter the tension. I believe that negotiations succeed only if they reflect an objective reality. The key issue with Iran is whether it sees itself as a cause or as a nation. If Iran wants to be a respected nation-state in the region without claiming religious or imperial domination, then we should be able to come to some form of understanding. But we will not reach that goal unless Iran realizes that this is not a historical opportunity to resurrect Persian dreams of glory.
SPIEGEL: And the Iranians need to feel Western pressure to come to that conclusion?
Kissinger: We need a mixture of pressure and incentives. We must realize that painless sanctions are a contradiction.
SPIEGEL: Sounds like the old game of carrots and sticks. You think the US president should meet with an Iranian leader only after painful sanctions?
Kissinger: You would never start with such a step. Nixon sat down with Mao three years after we had initial contact. I think a meeting with an Iranian president would be at the end of a process, not the very beginning.
SPIEGEL: But looking at legacy again, will historians look back one day and write: The Iraq adventure prevented the US from focusing on other strategic challenges — such as the rapid rise of India and China? Is the Superpower distracted rather than over-stretched?
Kissinger: I think we face three challenges currently: The disappearance of the nation-state; the rise of India and China; and, thirdly, the emergence of problems and challenges that cannot be solved by a single power, such as energy and the environment. We do not have the luxury to focus on one problem; we have to deal with all three of them or we won't succeed with any of them. The rise of Asia will be an enormous event. But we cannot say that we should therefore keep other challenges, such as the fight against radical Islam, in abeyance.
SPIEGEL: Is China still a partner or primarily a rival?
Kissinger: China has to be treated as a potential partner. We must use all ingenuity to create a system in which the great states of Asia — which really are not nation-states in the European sense but large conglomerates of cultures — can participate. We have no choice.
SPIEGEL: Does the fact that "guided democracies" like Russia or China are currently more successful in economic terms undermine the attractiveness of Western-style democracy? Is that a new model that is becoming attractive for young people?
Kissinger: The problem of guided democracies is that they have great difficulties solving the problem of succession and of giving access to the widest possible pool of talent. China has come closer to solving that problem than any other undemocratic system. I believe that the democratic model is better and more durable for the future but not automatically. It depends on our vision and determination.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kissinger, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.
© DER SPIEGEL 8/2008