Lunch with the FT: Henry Kissinger
I choose Bravo Gianni, an elegant Upper East Side restaurant, for my lunch with Henry Kissinger because it is in a quiet residential area close to his office. When I have eaten out in busier places with the former secretary of state, we have been interrupted – sometimes many times – as friends and strangers come over to greet him.
Here, in a discreet and calm dining room, we will be undisturbed. The owner Gianni Garavelli greets me warmly as I sit down at one of the large tables and wait for Kissinger, who on Tuesday celebrates his 85th birthday. He strides in briskly, dressed as always in a dark suit and sombre tie. Kissinger is a man from an age when open-necked shirts were never acceptable at lunch.
I remind him of another forthcoming anniversary – it is almost 58 years since we first met in 1950 as Harvard graduate students. We agree that the years have flown.
Now, as then, Kissinger shows little interest in wine or spirits and orders sparkling water. My Campari and soda is already on the table. Gianni brings our menus and we decide on a light lunch fit for men seeking to control our weight – both choosing a fresh green salad and linguine con vongole.
Though Kissinger’s graduate studies were in Harvard’s Government Department, what other universities call political science, and the world knows him as a controversial statesman, history was and is Kissinger’s passion.
He bears no trace of the sadness and lack of purpose that hangs over many formerly powerful men in their later years. Perhaps it is because he is still in demand. When we meet he is just back from Asia, before heading off again to Israel and Europe. This summer he will attend the Olympic Games as a member of its board. Kissinger spends little time relaxing at his country home in Connecticut as a man of his years might be tempted to do.
As we make small talk, my copy of his 1994 book Diplomacy is lying open on the restaurant table. I decide that I will approach our lunch conversation as one historian to another. This birthday meal triggers my memory of another, far less grand, lunch we shared together in November 1963. We were talking in Kissinger’s office at the Harvard Center for International Affairs when his secretary burst in to tell us that John F Kennedy had been shot, returning minutes later to tell us that the president was dead.
When I ask how he sees the Kennedy era and its legends, he speaks predictably about the inconclusive nature of Kennedy’s thousand-day administration. Then he pauses and talks on, very surprisingly, about the “might have beens” that historians love to debate. If Kennedy had lived, Kissinger recalls, then Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York (and Kissinger’s great friend and supporter), might have been the Republican party nominee in 1964 instead of the ill-starred Barry Goldwater. Had this happened, Kissinger might have come to the international stage years before he finally became Richard Nixon’s national security adviser in 1969.
Had there been a Rockefeller v Kennedy contest in 1964, Kissinger says, “I would of course have supported Rockefeller”, but, surprisingly, he makes it surprisingly clear that a Kennedy victory would not have dismayed him. Kennedy and Rockefeller, he says, “agreed on major foreign policy questions, with no ideological issues separating them”.
The real political division in the 1960s – a tragic one in his view – came later when the landslide winner of the 1964 presidential race, the Democrat Lyndon B Johnson decided to expand the war in Vietnam. The decision aroused violent opposition among intellectuals, students and others.
But Kissinger’s anger, verging on contempt, is reserved not for Johnson but for the protesters, who, he feels, wished to see their country defeated. Many still see those demonstrators as heroes but for Kissinger it is this split – into the pro- and anti-war factions – that has proved the most enduring legacy of that time.
I take the conversation on to another presidency now held in revered regard by many Americans, that of Ronald Reagan. This is a potentially tricky subject. Many Reaganites see themselves as repudiating what they feel were Kissinger’s “amoral” policies.
We talk about 1989-91, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and whether the Reagan foreign policy achievement was as great as is now commonly portrayed. Reagan, Kissinger says, “was a major president for a particular period. Eight years earlier he might have failed, eight years later he might have been less relevant.”
At a time when the country felt humiliated by the collapse in Vietnam and the taking of American hostages in Iran, Reagan restored the nation’s confidence and Kissinger regards this as his great achievement. It is not a small tribute but scarcely the exaggerated one so common among ardent Reaganites today.
We pause to munch through a generous shared serving of prosciutto and cheese, brought with the compliments of the house, although both of us avoid the basket of rolls and bread.
Fearing we have dwelled too much on the past, I ask how he would answer if those contending for the presidency in 2008 asked him to prioritise the country’s foreign policy goals, numbering them one, two and three.
“That’s an unanswerable question if put in that form,” he replies. Kissinger argues that there is no one issue that deserves absolute priority. “Still,” he goes on, “if we give attention to our values, are candid about the nation’s capabilities, and are prepared to deny the cherished American ideal that every problem has a solution that can be realised in a specific time-frame, some major problems can be managed.”
This word “managed” is key for Kissinger and recurs frequently in our conversation, perhaps second only to the word “values”.
Kissinger believes that Iraq, while undeniably important, gives the US no excuse for neglecting its relations with China and Russia, with its European allies and Japan, and with other countries essential to American security and well-being in today’s global society.
He has made his way slowly but enthusiastically through the delectable pasta placed before us. It prompts me to recall a 1960s jibe – that the German-born Kissinger’s passion for Wiener schnitzel made visits to Michelin three-star restaurants in Paris superfluous. I wonder whether that still holds or whether he has developed a craving for food that carries no trace of his middle-European childhood.
When we have finished eating, I ask him to outline specifically what his policy on Iran would be. He is firm in his response: “I have advocated that the United States have comprehensive negotiations with Iran … We need to have an open discussion of all differences.”
This, in his mind, requires Iran to decide “whether it is a nation or a cause. If Iran thinks of itself as a nation or can be brought to do so, it can be accorded a respected place in the international system.” America’s relations with the Shah – who was Kissinger’s friend – were never simply personal, he says; they were grounded in an understanding of the strategic importance of Iran, a situation that still holds today.
“Any serious effort to compromise differences between the United States must begin in bilateral negotiation, with each side seeking to understand the other’s perceptions. In the end the negotiations must become multilateral, leading to an international accord that will engage all of Iran’s neighbours.”
Kissinger sums up his position: “The challenge is to find a formula for resolving the Iran nuclear issue that allows for effective supervision and control acceptable to the international community.”
I still want to know whether Kissinger believes there must be some change from existing US policy in Iraq. Choosing his words carefully, he says: “It is not important simply to consider change from existing policy, we must consider what is possible at a particular time. What are we trying to achieve? We want to create a situation where existing institutions or new institutions leave room for manoeuvre, where decisions are made indigenously, and where a federalist solution is put into place once the militias have been reduced in their influence.”
He believes the military “surge” is working and says the next question is when to start to move away from an exclusively military option. “This is not a war of states,” Kissinger says. “If we withdraw from Iraq, the radical elements in all the neighbouring Arab countries will be greatly encouraged.” We will, he fears, be unable to maintain ourselves in Afghanistan, or to retain our present position in Pakistan.
He fears a rapid withdrawal could radicalise the vast Islamic community in India. I am fascinated by this statement – I have never heard anyone else say it so robustly – and suggest that he argued in a similar vein about the dangers of a departure from Vietnam. “Not at all,” he says, adding that the collapse in Vietnam was partly compensated for by the almost simultaneous and fortuitous disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Kissinger first went to communist China very early and few in the west can match his breadth and depth of knowledge. So I ask how he views China today, in the current climate of western criticism and concern. “Let me tell you how I see China. China is a country with a record of continuous self-government going back 4,000 years, the only society that has achieved this. One must start with the assumption that they must have learnt something about the requirements for survival, and it is not always to be assumed that we know it better than they do.
“Secondly, because they are likely to be a permanent factor in the world, the dominant or most influential actor in their region of the world that has become so important economically and geopolitically, it becomes the most serious challenge for us, as relations with the United States are for them.”
“Some here in the United States believe that if we democratise China, they will become more tractable. This assumes that we know what democratise means. Is it indeed likely that they will become more pliable?” Clearly, he doubts this.
“It is imperative to realise that we cannot do in China in the 21st century what others thought to do in the 19th, prescribe their institutions for them and seek to organise Asia. The Chinese people have undergone huge changes since 1971. The China of 2008 is totally different from the one I first visited. The Communist party is different and though we need not agree with every action taken by Chinese leaders, we cannot simply set ourselves up as their critics.”
I ask whether American competence in the study of China is comparable to that achieved in the decades after the second world war in respect to the Soviet Union. His oblique response is that relations between the US and China have been fairly well handled in recent years but that the need now is to gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Chinese situation.
Our intense discussion is interrupted by the menus, with an offer of a variety of very tempting desserts. Virtuously, we turn them all down but order black coffee.
As our meal ends, we talk about current US efforts to bring about the domestic transformation of diverse societies into western-style democracies. Kissinger acknowledges that during a presidential election campaign rhetoric will often substitute for policy but we will soon have to move beyond facile solutions.
I ask what must we aspire to do and he replies with a question of his own. “Do we split the world into a union of democracies and non-democracies, or must there be another approach keyed to regional and historical circumstance?”
Kissinger, the most prolific and widely-published former secretary of state, argues for policies tailored to a global world of highly differentiated states with traditions and histories that demand recognition – even when they scarcely replicate our own.
Though many think Kissinger a Machiavellian, and imagine his concern in old age is largely with that anomalous thing called “legacy”, as an old friend I see no evidence that he is departing from positions, political and geopolitical, he has long held. Indeed, I might almost say that the greatest danger to his reputation is that he may one day be accused of repeating himself.
Kissinger developed certain theories and attitudes early in his career and he has remained faithful to most of them, moving from a consideration of Europe and its leading politicians to concern himself with the wider world, Asia especially. Always concerned with the United States, and only rarely exaggerating its prospects, he has never given in to despair. The man I lunch with knows he has been fortunate. He remains a man at the centre of things, a dedicated historian unwilling to tailor his views to prevailing opinion.
Our lunch ends, and he bids me an abrupt farewell – he has kept his next appointment waiting. For Kissinger, even at 85, has an overloaded schedule. I am left to pay the bill, say farewell to Gianni, and set off for home.
Stephen Graubard is the author of ‘The Presidents’ (Penguin)