On September 13, the Wilson Center hosted a gala event to mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and the 10th anniversary of its Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. Henry Kissinger, U.S. secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, was presented with the inaugural Spirit of Wilson Award and participated in a conversation with Ambassador J. Stapleton “Stape” Roy, founding director emeritus and a distinguished scholar at the Kissinger Institute.

This is a transcript of their conversation:

 

Stape Roy: Henry, we are really delighted that, through the power of your will, you were able to divert the hurricane further south [laughter], and make it here from New York. After that extraordinary introduction by Richard Ackerson, I feel I really should be asking you about copper prices and issues of that sort. But I'm not going to.

Fifty years ago, the same year when the Wilson Center was established, you were still a foreign policy advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, and the Soviet Union was our principal enemy. At that time, you wrote a very perceptive essay on "Central Issues of American Foreign Policy." Many of your observations at that time are still relevant today, even though the international system has changed enormously.

[To the audience.] You can find that essay online. I think you will be stunned to find how relevant his comments at that time are to the current situation. [To Dr. Kissinger.] You said then, "In the years ahead, the most profound challenge to American policy will be philosophical, to develop some concept of order in the world, which is bipolar militarily but multipolar politically." At that time, of course, the military bipolarity was between the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, 50 years later, many Americans see an emerging military bipolarity between the United States and China, while the political multipolarity involves countries economically and militarily much more powerful than the countries were 50 years ago.

Do you think that your observations at that time are still relevant today? Can the United States and China work together to create a stable new world order? Or are we doomed to end up in confrontational struggle with China over our differing views of what the world order should be? This is relevant to the current trade war looming between the United States and China, which is an important part of the existing world order.

Henry Kissinger: Well, first of all, let me express my appreciation for having been asked to come here, with so many friends and people from both of our parties with whom I've had the honor of working over all these decades. And Stape was my teacher about China. When I started on Chinese relations, I think my principal qualification was that President Nixon concluded, since I was on his staff, I was the least likely person to leak about it before I got there [laughter]. So, for me, relations with China have been a process of education and experience. And a fundamental conviction I developed, over the decades, is that our two countries have a unique historic opportunity.

We are two countries that have considerable destructive capabilities. We are two countries that believe they have an exceptional nature in the conduct of policy: we on the basis of the political system of democratic constitutionalism; China on the basis of an evolution that goes back at least to Confucius and centuries of unique practice.

This is the key problem of our time. Each of us is strong enough to create situations around the world in which it can impose its preferences, but the importance of the relationship will be whether each side can believe that they have achieved enough to be compatible with their convictions and with their histories.

But we are now in a position that goes far beyond what I wrote about in the article that Stape has been kind enough to mention. Because we're in a position in which the peace and prosperity of the world depend on whether China and the United States can find a method to work together, not always in agreement, but to handle our disagreements. But also, to develop goals which bring us closer together and enable the world to find a structure.

This is the key problem of our time. Each of us is strong enough to create situations around the world in which it can impose its preferences, but the importance of the relationship will be whether each side can believe that they have achieved enough to be compatible with their convictions and with their histories. That is a huge task. It's never been attempted systematically by any two nations in the world. But when I read about contemporary disputes, say, about trade issues, of course, as an American, I see considerable merit in some of the propositions we have put forward.

But I also hope that a way can be found by which, when an agreement is reached, both sides can believe that this is a basis from which they can continue to operate. And so, this really is a good question for the Woodrow Wilson Center to reflect on. The issue is not victory, here. The issue is continuity, and world order, and world justice, and to see whether our two countries can find a way of talking about it to each other. And they will not be able to fool each other; they're both intelligent enough to understand the implications of what they're doing.

The Americans have a list of things that they want to fix in the immediate future; the Chinese have an objective towards which they want to work. So we both can learn from each other, and we need to learn from each other.

So, that is the main message I want to leave, that China has a conceptual approach to policy. They look at it as a process, going back a certain period and going forward indefinitely. Americans are very pragmatic, and when American and Chinese negotiators meet, they usually have two different agendas. The Americans have a list of things that they want to fix in the immediate future; the Chinese have an objective towards which they want to work. So we both can learn from each other, and we need to learn from each other.

And we have one additional problem, which is: the rapid evolution of technology has put us into a situation where the world can be affected not only by the goals we set ourselves but the goals our machines decide to set for themselves, as they go along meeting what we think is our original design. An unprecedented challenge. So, I am confident that we will meet it, because we have no other choice.

And so, when you read in the newspapers about a potential conflict, we should remember the history of World War I. Not one of the leaders who entered that war would have done so if he had known what the outcome would be like. Not one of the leaders thought that this would upset the structure of life as it had been. We know what conflict will do, and, therefore, I'm confident that we will make progress. And I'll make my other points shorter, for those of you who wonder whether breakfast will be served here. [Laughter, applause.]

Stape Roy: Let's jump ahead 50 years. Several weeks ago, The Daily Beast wrote an article claiming that you had advised President Trump to work with Russia to box in China. It brought to my mind the idea of putting China into a box, which I didn't think reflected your precise views. But was this an accurate depiction of your views, or were some important nuances somehow lost? What are your thoughts on managing US relations with Russia and China?

Henry Kissinger: I wish I had been invited, on some occasion, to tell President Trump, in front of the audience described, about my strategic views of that relationship. That particular article was a great piece – of fiction. [Laughter.] But the reason it's important to understand this, I've described to you before.

I visualize China as a potential partner in the construction of a world order. Of course, if that does not succeed, we will be in a position of conflict, but my thinking is based on the need to avoid that situation. So, our problem is not to find allies around the world with which to confront China.

Our fundamental problem should be to find solutions to some of the problems that concern us both. So, this particular approach of beginning a new administration with finding an additional ally against a country with which we should have a cooperative relationship is simply not correct. And the only reason to even talk about it is because it illustrates something important about the present world: neither China nor America need allies to fight each other. What we need is concepts by which we can work together to set limits to conflicts. So that is my basic view.

All of us are patriots, and if a conflict arises, we will support our country. But the task is to prevent that conflict, and to transcend it.

Stape Roy: Thank you. [Applause] I have thousands of more questions to ask you, but I am told that I have a responsibility to get you back to –

Henry Kissinger: Well, let's go for another.

Stape Roy: Okay. [Laughter, Applause.] Well, let's try another easy one for you, so you can rest for a moment. [Laughter.] There have been a variety of recent claims that U.S.-China policy has been a failure, because one of its central tenets was that economic development would transform China into a liberal democracy, and that was presented as the goal of our policy. And that clearly has not occurred.

Yet, in that essay on central issues in American foreign policy, 50 years ago, you wrote, and I quote: "The dominant American view about political structure has been that it will follow, more or less automatically, upon economic progress, and that it will take the form of constitutional democracy." So, the concept was that economic development produces political change, and the nature of that change would be constitutional democracy.

But you went on to say: "Both assumptions are subject to serious question." In your assessment then, as you explained in your essay, "In every advanced country, political stability preceded rather than emerged from the process of industrialization. In fact, the system of government which brought about industrialization, whether popular or authoritarian, has tended to be confirmed rather than radically changed by this achievement." This was written 10 years before China adopted its reform and openness policies, which launched its decades of rapid economic development.

Do you believe that China's development over the last 40 years has confirmed your assumptions of 50 years ago?

Henry Kissinger: They're two separate questions. One, it's the one you put: what does Chinese development in the last 40 years prove about the process of evolution of politics?

Stape Roy: Right.

Henry Kissinger: And the second is: was it the purpose of American foreign policy that the specific measures we took would produce certain results?

There have been phases, here. In the first phase of Sino-American relations, I believe it is correct to say that both China and the United States saw in the other a counterweight against a threatening Soviet Union. We opened to China, with which we had no relations to speak of at the time, in order to introduce an additional element of calculation for the Russians, for the Soviets. And also, to give our own people hope that in the period of the Vietnam War and domestic divisions, their government had a vision of a peaceful world that included elements that had been excluded.

I would say our hope was that the values of the two sides would come closer together. But we felt we had an obligation, for the preservation of peace and stability, not to make the transformation of China such a goal that it would stop everything else.

Those were our two principal objectives. And they were achieved because China had the same objective from its side. As time evolved, China developed economically at a pace that was much faster than anybody predicted. And at the beginning, we made a number of deals which, in purely economic terms, seemed to be balanced in favor of China. But we made them because we thought growth in Chinese strength compensated for that imbalance in the Soviet Union.

Then, as time developed, the Chinese evolution was so rapid that it created possibilities for economic development nobody foresaw in the early period. And in the process, normal commercial considerations, which require some degree of equal balance, became more and more dominant. That is the basis for the present discussions, which I believe, when they are calmly considered, will lead both sides to a solution.

The other question is, has American policy systematically attempted to bring about democracy in China? That's a very difficult issue to answer.

As Americans, and particularly as an immigrant, as I am, American democracy is a wondrous experience. When I came to this country, I was 15, and I was asked to write an essay on what it meant to be an American. And I wrote, "The most important thing, to me, is to be able to walk on the street with my head erect," so that's important. But when you conduct foreign policy, you have to weigh, sometimes, the objectives that can be reached in the short-term against the objectives that require evolution. And the Chinese have conducted their own affairs for thousands of years.

So, I would say our hope was that the values of the two sides would come closer together. But we felt we had an obligation, for the preservation of peace and stability, not to make the transformation of China such a goal that it would stop everything else.

So, that is still my present view about the general attitude of the United States. We cannot solve all the problems of the world and the domestic structure of all the countries in the world. As a national effort, we must have objectives in that direction, and we must promote it where we can.

In my experience – not with China – we had a problem with Russia on the issue of Jewish immigration, which when Nixon came into office, amounted to about 700. And I called in the Russian ambassador and I said, "Immigration is not usually considered an international problem. But we will watch what you do, not as a condition, but we will watch and we will respond depending on your conduct." So, we tried to move it from a bargaining to a philosophical issue, and immigration went from 700 to 37,000, in 3 years. Then it became an issue of American domestic politics, and it went way down again, to 15,000.

So, my view on China has been that, in terms of our impact on the world, the American performance has been the best way to influence other countries. And, and while I prefer, of course – for the reasons I gave – our system, I also believe we must have faith enough in its lasting impact not to make it an issue of power politics between us and other countries, depending on the circumstances. That has been my general view.

But my view is importantly dominated by the fact that you should select objectives that promote peace and progress, that you must attempt to achieve cooperation, but you cannot undo historical evolution with short-term pressures.

I think as countries develop, there are certain realities – the impact of the movement of people from the countryside to the cities, the impact of adaptations of the educational system – and they were the ones that have produced changes. We will stand for what we have avowed, but we will not turn it into a power issue between us and China.

There are many people, whom I greatly respect, who have a different view. But my view is importantly dominated by the fact that you should select objectives that promote peace and progress, that you must attempt to achieve cooperation, but you cannot undo historical evolution with short-term pressures.

It's an important topic and it will be discussed in our country. I'd expect some have the view that we must permanently seek to impose our preference. The Wilson Center will have many seminars on that topic.

Stape Roy: One final simple question. It's a 'whether' question, not a 'how' question. Not long ago, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff testified to congress that, in 2025, China would be the principal threat to the United States. If you were secretary of state, would you accept that assessment as a foregone conclusion? Or would you believe that skillful diplomacy might have the possibility of enabling a stronger China to emerge that was not a threat to the United States?

Henry Kissinger: There are two levels of answering this. One, I would not want a situation to exist in 2025 where China is militarily stronger than the United States. And I would always favor a military policy that keeps us strong enough to deal with foreseeable dangers. And therefore, as China or Russia or countries grow, I would attempt to make sure that we will never get into that position. But simultaneously, I believe that it is essential that China and the United States, while looking for their security, are engaged in a dialogue in which they will seek to avoid threatening each other's interests, in which they will seek to develop some cooperative projects that bring the people closer together.

When I became National Security Advisor, I became conscious, of course, of our war plans, and I realized that the consequences of a war were monumental. And, therefore, in a way, we were driven to discuss these implications. Now we are many steps ahead of that. The danger is much greater.

Because, as a student of strategy, we cannot think of a war between advanced hi-tech countries, in anything like the patterns of previous wars. They involve a level of destruction and a level of communication and impact on each other that it is safe to say that the world will never be the same again. So, I would think it should be an objective of American foreign policy to achieve that political condition. I would also think we should never be in a position where we are not able to look for our security. So I would attempt to do both, but I would attempt to do the security element while keeping in mind a dialogue.

And I just want to come back to one technical point I made before. When I became National Security Advisor, I became conscious, of course, of our war plans, and I realized that the consequences of a war were monumental. And, therefore, in a way, we were driven to discuss these implications. Now we are many steps ahead of that. The danger is much greater. The complexity of the weapons is not even fully understood. So that discussion always has to take place, so that we don't drift by miscommunication or accident.

But I want to leave you all with the conviction that I think this is solvable, and I do not think it is inevitable, and I think it should be achieved without war. Those are the basic principles.

Stape Roy: Thank you. [Applause]