84. Interview With Secretary of State Kissinger1

Q. A number of serious charges have been made against you, and the Times thought you should have the opportunity to answer them. The first charge is that in a solemn world you tried to be funny.

Secretary Kissinger: In this job you have only two choices: you are either funny deliberately or you are funny unintentionally.

Q. Are you in a lighthearted mood, or do you want to be serious?

Secretary Kissinger: Frankly, I am more serious.

Q. What does it add up to? What legacy have you left behind?

Secretary Kissinger: Well, I really do not know whether on my last day in office I am in the best position to evaluate. Just before I came here I wrote an article in which I said the world is bipolar militarily, multipolar politically, and fragmented economically. When you talk of world order now you have to take account of each of these realities and also the fact that probably history will record this as one of the philosophical revolutions of history.

In the nature of things, this task could not have been completed—even without Watergate. That is the basic thing. I think in one way or another the relationship between China, the Soviet Union, the indus[Page 474]trial democracies, the United States, and the developing world—this five-sided aspect—is a permanent feature of the future.

I think that in our relations with the industrial democracies, what I proposed in 1973 has been more or less accomplished. The method I chose as a formal declaration turned out not to be the right one, but the reality is that now the industrial democracies talk not just about their military security but their political and economic future has been achieved.

Now, this has to be strengthened, because if the cohesion can be increased, then both the dialogue with the East and the dialogue with the South can be conducted with enormous confidence.

We, the industrial democracies, transfer 90 percent of all the real resources that go to the developing world, so if we can develop a unified approach we, and only we, can make a significant contribution to development.

In the East-West dialogue I refuse to be mesmerized by Soviet strength. It is real, but there are also real weaknesses, and I think a combination of diplomacy, negotiation, and strength can keep this in check.

Q. When you look back on this do you look back with pride, with sadness, anger, or what?

Secretary Kissinger: Certainly not with anger. I look back with some pride.2 I think if you compare the world report in 1969 with the world today, you must consider it more peaceful, more hopeful, and with more chance for progress. On the other hand, I look back with sadness because of the anguish that the country suffered during this period, the bitterness of the debate on Vietnam, in the disintegration of authority on the Watergate, the destruction of some people I knew, and in the sense of things that one would have liked to accomplish and didn’t quite finish.

Q. What in particular?

Secretary Kissinger: Well, I would have liked to have finished the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] agreement.

Q. Why wasn’t it finished?

Secretary Kissinger: I think it was partly the other side, partly the election, and partly internal disputes within the Administration.

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Q. How do you feel about the future of Western civilization?

Secretary Kissinger: I think the West has material strength to deal with all of its problems. It has the resources to deal with a North-South dialogue; it has the capacity, militarily, to prevent aggression; and it has the ability to conduct an effective diplomacy. What it needs is imagination, dedication, and a view of the future. I believe that is attainable.

Q. Do you think the prospects are better now than they were two years ago?

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, because we have gotten through Watergate and because we have made great progress in strengthening the dialogue with the industrial democracies, because unless the free peoples live together, we will not be able to solve either the East-West or North-South problem.

Q. When you look back, what are the four or five moments that you think about with most pride? Are there some things that come to your mind immediately?

Secretary Kissinger: Of course landing in China was a tremendous experience. When Le Duc Tho put on the table the proposal which I knew would end the Vietnamese war, that was a tremendous feeling because I thought, not knowing that Watergate was coming, that it would unify the American people again, which, if you look at my press briefings between 1969 and 1973, was my overwhelming concern; the SALT agreement; the signing of the Shanghai communiqué; the first disengagement agreement between the Egyptians and Israel; and strangely enough, the first Rambouillet summit, because it meant that at least we were beginning to pull the industrial democracies together. Finally, I was terribly moved when President Kaunda got up at the end of my Lusaka speech and embraced me. I thought that was a moving occasion.

Q. The African diplomacy that you put so much effort into last year, has it sort of stalled and fizzled out because of the elections?

Secretary Kissinger: Well, I think the elections slowed it down because all of the participants are waiting to see what the new Administration is going to do and to see whether the terms of reference can be changed. But I think once Smith [Ian D. Smith, of Rhodesia] made his basic speech the course was set for settlement.

I cannot tell you what the exact terms will be, but those are not as fundamental as the fact that Smith is committed to majority rule.

Q. What were your nightmares during this period?

Secretary Kissinger: One nightmare that I am sure my successors will have as well is to make sure that some crisis does not escalate into nuclear war and that unthinkingly we contribute to a massive conflagration.

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The second nightmare was that the Vietnam war would so split our country that reconciliation would be totally impossible. That was immediately followed by the nightmare of preventing the collapse of executive authority from leading to foreign challenge, of managing a major crisis in the Middle East when our own executive authority was under assault.

In the last period my nightmare was that America might become so absorbed with itself and so purist and so critical of itself that it would forget that it is the key element for security, progress, and freedom in the world. I think all of these nightmares are on the way to being solved.

Q. And the agenda for the rest of 1977?

Secretary Kissinger: I think for 1977 we have some rather positive prospects. I think in 1977 a SALT agreement ought to be attainable. The objective conditions for making progress in the Middle East are better than they have been probably at any time since the creation of Israel.

I do not want to put my successor on the spot by pretending it will be easy. It will be a murderously difficult, complicated effort. All I am saying is the conditions exist for a heroic effort.

I think we can make a breakthrough on law of the seas this year. I think we have already made major progress, and we can consolidate and extend it, on nonproliferation. I think we can carry the Rhodesian and Namibian matters to a conclusion this year. I do not see any overwhelming crises in 1977 unless things in Africa get totally out of control, but I don’t really expect that.

Q. Panama?

Secretary Kissinger: Panama is another matter that I think will be settled this year.

Q. You were talking earlier about getting together with the industrial democracies. What about energy supplies and our relations particularly with the Arab world? We have a respite for six months because of the Saudi decision on prices, but we really have not settled that problem.3

Secretary Kissinger: On energy we created the International Energy Agency, which I believe is an extremely useful institution. We have worked out within it a common policy to prevent selective embargoes and to obligate industrial democracies to support each other. It has a good program for developing alternative sources and for conservation. The missing link has been the refusal of the United States to implement what this program foresees in the area of alternative sources, [Page 477] of conservation, and since we consume 40 percent of the energy of the industrial democracies we can write whatever plan we want, but unless we implement it, it will not really help.

We must work to prevent a situation from continuing where every six months or a year the West waits impotently while a group of nations that do not have identical interests decides about its economic future.

We got through the last OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] meeting, but unless we have changed the objective conditions in which energy is being dealt with, we will face the same problem again. The key is for the nations that are assembled in the International Energy Agency to develop a major program of alternative sources, a significant program of conservation, and to use all other political tools to encourage restraint among the oil producers. Otherwise, as you look four or five years ahead, it is frivolous to assume that sometimes decisions will not be taken that could be potentially catastrophic for our economy.

We were lucky this year, or skillful or able, but you cannot do it every year.

Q. Would you agree that until very recently the perception of other countries, particularly in the Third World, was that this country and its leadership did not care much about their problems?

Secretary Kissinger: It is forgotten today that until the end of 1972 we were heavily preoccupied with the war in Vietnam and with the relationships it took to extricate ourselves. For example—putting aside the Third World for a moment—we could not really make great progress in relations with Western Europe as long as in every Western European country the issue of Vietnam was an inhibition to closer relations with the United States. So the war had to be ended first. I think it is true that until 1973 we did not give it systematic major attention.

From the end of 1973 on, and in the last three years, I think the Third World has been a focal point, and if you look at the agenda of these discussions in food, in financing, and in the development and the transfer of technology, the entire international agenda was put forward by us. There is almost no other agenda.

Q. Is there any validity to the argument that essentially what this record is that you have left here is essentially a brilliant negotiating record, tactically very good but strategically weak?

Secretary Kissinger: Well, I am not the best judge of this; but I have to say that I pass on a world that is at peace, more at peace than in any previous transition, in which, in addition, in every problem area solutions can be foreseen even if they have not been fully achieved and the framework for solutions exist, in which the agenda of most interna[Page 478]tional negotiations was put forward by the United States. Therefore it cannot be entirely an accident, and it cannot be a series of tactical improvisations.

I think it would be more useful to debate the nature of the design than to deny that there has been a design. The denial shows lack of understanding of the nature of foreign policy.

The surface expression of our Middle East policy was shuttle diplomacy, but the conditions that made shuttle diplomacy possible were created over four years of a rather painful accumulation of new answers. There may be some people who remember an interview I gave in 1970 in which I said what our strategy would be in the Middle East and people laughed about it.4 So I think there has been a design, and my associates will certainly confirm that whenever a problem came up we would spend hours here every morning before we went into any tactics trying to figure out where this thing should go. So I disagree with that.

We would almost never accept here a discussion of a tactical move without accompanying description of what the implications were over a considerable period of time.

When you take the Lusaka speech,5 we spent weeks here analyzing where we should try to go in Africa and how we could balance our concern for majority rule with our equally strong concern to prevent the radicalization of all of Africa, and it was not simply a tactical device to get through a few weeks’ period. In fact there was no demand for it at all.

Q. On the strategic relations with the Russians and the Chinese, are they likely to come back together again? Is there something we have to worry about? Are there differences we can still exploit?

Secretary Kissinger: I think it is a mistake to define the Sino-Soviet relationships in terms of our exploiting their differences. Their differences came about without our comprehending it at the time. We did not create them; we cannot exploit them; we can only base our policy on the fact that China is doing us no favor, is not opposing Soviet hegemony as a favor to us; and therefore we have to understand the fundamental trends that affect these countries.

I believe it is important that the People’s Republic of China continue to perceive us as interested in maintaining a world equilibrium. If they feel we have lost our interest in it or our comprehension of it or our willingness to preserve it, then they will draw the inevitable conclu[Page 479]sion, which will be to make whatever accommodation they can get, or they will try to find some other means of protection, such as organizing the Third World against both of us.

You can take either one of those courses. I believe that of course the Soviet Union is a superpower and as such impinges on us in many parts of the world. It is a growing military power that in many respects has the capacity to threaten our survival.

I believe, however, that the military problem is soluble. I believe the Soviet Union as a system is beset by tremendous weaknesses. There is no Communist state in the world that has managed to achieve spontaneous support of its population.

The states of Eastern Europe have to appeal to a sort of bourgeois nationalism to maintain a modicum of legitimacy; and to imagine that societies that are doing well in certain high-priority areas of military technical knowledge but that have never solved effectively the problem of distribution and of even simple administration, that those societies can launch themselves on an indeterminate course of world domination without grave hesitation, seems to me unrealistic.

Yes, we have to build up enough military forces to resist them, but we have to know what forces are relevant. I believe that to achieve a usable military superiority in the field of strategic nuclear weapons is extremely unlikely and relatively easy to prevent and the obsession with it detracts us. I would say that if there is a conflict between the Soviet Union and us, it is much less likely to occur as a result of a Soviet attack, deliberate attack, on a vital interest of the United States than as a result of a conflict that maybe neither of us saw, into which we are drawn through a series of escalating moves.

In other words, I think World War I is a better guide to our dangers than World War II.

Q. In retrospect, should we have gotten into major economic deals with the Russians?

Secretary Kissinger: The curious thing is that when we came in in 1969 we developed the theory of linkage. The theory of linkage was that the Soviet Union would get economic concessions in return for political stabilization. At that time we were criticized because we were told that we should simply go ahead with the economic programs because they were produced as political stabilizers.

Q. Is it possible for our people to achieve the kind of security that they would like to have without creating such a sense of insecurity in the minds of our adversaries as to be dangerous to the world?

Secretary Kissinger: I think it is the essence of the new circumstances I have described that no nation can achieve absolute security. Absolute security for one nation means absolute insecurity for all na[Page 480]tions. We have to be satisfied now with relative security, with security that makes it extremely improbable that our vital interests are threatened but still one that is not totally predominant in the world.

The first time we gave a credit to the Soviet Union was after the Berlin agreement of 1971, and I would say without exception all the economic agreements we made with the Soviet Union were parallel to some political agreement. All of our economic agreements were tied to specific projects. We did not give general unrestricted credit, and the total amount was something like $400 million. As a result of our own domestic debate, in effect a freeze was put on this evolution. The truth of this has been that the Europeans and Japanese have given about $10 billion of unrestricted credit to the Soviet Union.

The Europeans and Japanese are in a much worse situation than we to insist on a political quid pro quo, and I have always fully believed that economic programs allied to specific political foreign projects create the possibility first of making specific foreign policy agreements, and, secondly, creating incentives for cooperation, incentives for restraint.

If you think of some of these projects that would take 15 years to implement before there would be any return and if you think of the fact that in 15 years other powers would have risen that would take some of the load of containing the military threat, that is not something that one should simply ignore.

Q. What about a link with force reduction talks in Vienna?

Secretary Kissinger: Well, I do not want to prescribe to the new Administration what they should link it to, but they will find enough things to link it to if they analyze the situation. No, it is not dead, and I think Berlin should be actively pursued.

Q. If you were carrying on, is that something you would link, large-scale economic involvement, yourself?

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t know whether I would link it above all the restraints in peripheral areas.

Q. “Absolute security for one nation is absolute insecurity for other nations.” Would you use that principle in the Middle East as well as in a strategic relationship?

Secretary Kissinger: The problem in the Middle East is to balance physical security against legitimacy. There is no question that Israel’s physical security is best guaranteed by the widest extension of its frontier and at no other point are they as physically secure as at the maximum point of their extension.

On the other hand, politically and in the long term, they may be militarily even less secure if they do not achieve legitimacy. Now, how to balance these factors is the dilemma of the Middle East settlement.

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Q. How can our aid to Israel be balanced?

Secretary Kissinger: I believe that Israel must have a sense of security in the military field or it cannot negotiate effectively and we must not, in attempting to press for a settlement, break the spirit of Israel and its ability to defend itself.

Q. Let me ask you—I want to be personal because it is not just a tour of the horizon we are doing here, it is you who is leaving. What has this experience done to you?

Secretary Kissinger: It is going to be quite a sight when they carry me out at noon on the 20th, like Sewell Avery.6 That may be the only way they will get me out of here.

Q. Seriously, what did it do to you?

Secretary Kissinger: Again, I am sure I will be more thoughtful about that two months from now than now. I have said repeatedly, maybe too often in recent days, that the quality that most outsiders do not understand is the athletic aspect of decision-making so that you really have to react in very short timeframes that do not permit time for reflection.

I think I have developed great compassion for my successors. I do not think you can leave this office—before I came to Washington I thought it was very thrilling to be called down here as a consultant and I thought it was important for me to pick on the incumbents and for all I know I may wind up doing that. I have my doubts now on the utility of outsiders—I am sure I will do my utmost to avoid volunteering advice to my successors.

I really think what this country needs now is a period of tranquillity and confidence and that those of us who have seen this process have an obligation to help build that confidence. That is what I would most like to do.

  1. Source: Department of State Bulletin, February 7, 1977, pp. 102–107. All brackets are in the original. Kissinger was interviewed by James Reston, Hedrick Smith, and Bernard Gwertzman of the New York Times. The interview appeared in the Times on President Carter’s inauguration day. (“Excerpts From Interview With Kissinger: Eight Years in Washington Evaluated,” New York Times, January 20, 1977, p. 16)
  2. In a separate article, January 20, Reston quoted Kissinger as stating that it was his “fate” to be in office “when the United States had found a new approach to its foreign policy, one that understood the world’s currents and its number of complexities. The foreign policy that we inherited was the vestige of what was created in the 1940’s, but which no longer corresponded to the realities of the situation in the late ’60’s.” (James Reston, “Kissinger Looks Back on 8 Years And Expresses Pride in Record,” ibid., January 20, 1976, pp. 1, 16)
  3. At the meeting of OPEC Oil Ministers in Doha December 15–17, 1976, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates refused to go along with the decision to raise oil prices.
  4. Presumably a reference to Kissinger’s interview with Washington Post reporters on December 17, 1970. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969–1972, Document 83.
  5. Document 77.
  6. Sewell Avery, a former president of the Montgomery Ward department store chain. Kissinger’s reference is to Avery’s refusal in 1944 to comply with National War Labor Board unionization guidelines, resulting in his bodily removal from his office by National Guardsmen.