That Henry Kissinger is still alive will be news to some people. He is hard of hearing, blind in one eye and has undergone several heart surgeries. Still, he says, he works about 15 hours a day. And – incredibly – it remains relevant on a global scale.
Koppel asked, “If one of your assistants here picked up the phone and called Beijing and said, ‘Dr. Kissinger would like to speak to President Xi,’ would he return your call?”
“There’s a good chance he’ll return my call, yes,” he replied.
What about Russian President Vladimir Putin? “Probably yes.”
“If a president came up to you and said, ‘Henry, would you fly to Moscow and talk to Putin?'”
“I’d be inclined to, yes,” Kissinger said. “But I would be an adviser, not an active person.”
“I wasn’t thinking of reinstating you as Secretary of State,” laughed Koppel. “Sure, you’d be a counselor.”
In anyone else, the arrogance would be astounding. But the nimbus of the photographs surrounding Kissinger showing the former US presidents (dead and alive) he served or advised are compelling, confirming the old adage: “If you can do it, it’s not bragging.”
Kissinger believes that the current crisis in Ukraine may be approaching a tipping point. “Now that China has entered into the negotiations, I think it will come to a head by the end of the year,” he said. “We will talk about negotiation processes and even real negotiations.”
One might think that, approaching his 100th birthday, Kissinger is sympathetic to an 80- or 76-year-old running for president. He is sceptical. “He It takes a certain ability, physically,” he said. “There are some benefits in maturity. There are dangers in burnout and a limited ability to work.”
Kissinger has been at the center of things longer than most Americans are alive. In July 1958, a young Mike Wallace asked an even younger Harvard professor to explain why the threat of massive nuclear retaliation (which was then US policy) made absolutely no sense: “It means that against almost any form attack we base our policy on a threat that will result in the destruction of all humanity,” Kissinger said later. “And that’s too risky, and I think too expensive.”
Today, Kissinger said, “One of the positive outcomes of the policy that has effectively been pursued by every US administration on both sides has been that nuclear weapons have not been used for 75 years, nor have they been used by any adversary. So , I think, is an achievement.”
In 1971, on a secret mission, Kissinger set the stage for President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China the following year. Over the past 50 years, China has evolved into a world power. Koppel asked, “If you look back now, is the world better off because of that openness? Or is it a more dangerous place now?”
“No, China’s re-entry into the international system would have happened,” Kissinger replied. “You can’t exclude it from the international system.”
Today, China seems ready to conquer Taiwan with military force and President Biden said that the United States would intervene in Taiwan’s defense.
“So, we have a problem,” Kissinger said, “which is that it could evolve into a general war between two high-tech countries. This is something that needs urgent attention.”
“But is it a dangerous period?”
“From that point of view, it’s a very dangerous period.”
As secretary of state in 1973 and ’74, Kissinger created a new style of diplomacy, sometimes spending weeks flying between capitals. “Shuttle diplomacy,” they called it. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was one of the first converts: “I like him first as a man. And then as a statesman. As a statesman, I really admire him.”
Kissinger laid the groundwork for an uneasy peace between Egypt and Israel that has now lasted nearly 50 years.
In 1974, Kissinger, the brilliant, but anonymous Harvard academic, was hot stuff. This is how Howard K. Smith of ABC News introduced a special titled “Kissinger: An Action Biography”: “he has been named the most admired American, [and] won the Nobel Peace Prize. A constitutional amendment has been offered that would allow him to run for president. It won’t pass, but what a tribute.”
By the summer of 1974, however, the American presidency itself was in crisis. The country was obsessed with Watergate, and Kissinger was determined (as he told a much younger Ted Koppel) that he and US foreign policy be seen as separate and separate.
Koppel: “Mr. Secretary, if you ever feel that foreign policy is being manipulated for domestic policy reasons, what would you do?”
Kissinger: “I would resign, and I would say so publicly. Foreign policy must reflect the enduring values of the American people, and cannot be the subject of partisan politics.”
It would have been Nixon who resigned. Kissinger remained secretary of state.
What will be the judgment of history? Kissinger’s career has been characterized by extraordinary achievements and relentless controversy. The bombing of Cambodia. The war in Vietnam. Argentina. Chile. Many of his critics were not even alive when the events they condemn occurred.
Koppel asked, “There are people on our broadcast who question the legitimacy of even doing an interview with you. They feel so strongly about what they consider, I’ll put it in the language they would use, your criminality.”
“This is a reflection of their ignorance,” Kissinger replied. “It wasn’t conceived that way. It wasn’t conducted that way.”
“There is no doubt, when you and President Nixon conceived the bombing of Cambodia, you did it to interdict…”
“Let’s go. We bombed every guerrilla unit we opposed with drones and all kinds of weapons,” Kissinger said. “It’s been the same in every administration I’ve been in.”
“The consequences in Cambodia have been particularly…”
“Let’s go now.”
“No, no, no, we were particularly…”
“This is a program that you’re doing because I’m going to be 100,” Kissinger said. “And you’re choosing a topic from something that happened 60 years ago. You need to know that was a necessary step. Now, the younger generation feels that if they can heighten their emotions, they don’t have to think. If they think, they won’t ask that question .”
Well past an age when most people are either unwilling or unable to learn about the latest technologies, Kissinger has become obsessed with the subject of artificial intelligence. He collaborated with two co-authors on a 2021 book, “The Age of AI and Our Human Future.”
Koppel asked, “In theory, the United States has declared that it will always maintain and insist on human control of artificial intelligence. From a practical point of view, it is impossible.”
“Well, it’s a highly desirable target, but the speed at which AI works will make it problematic in crisis situations,” Kissinger responded.
A wartime situation, for example, where AI recommends a course of action that the president and his advisers consider horribly unwise. “Relying on the answer, we can’t double-check it,” Kissinger said, “because we can’t review all the knowledge the machine has acquired. We’re giving it that knowledge. But that’s going to be one of the big debates. I’m now trying to do that I did with nuclear weapons, to call attention to the importance of the impact of this evolution”.
“But do you know that there will also be an AI arms race?”
“Yes, but it will be different. Because in previous arms races, you could develop plausible theories about how you could prevail. It’s a completely new problem intellectually.”
Just the thing to sign Henry Kissinger at 100.
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Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Publisher: Ed Givnish.
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