Global Disorder

Henry Kissinger: Diplomacy Has its Limits

Henry Kissinger in NY Kai Nedden HB
Henry Kissinger during an interview with Handelsblatt in New York.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Henry Kissinger, now 92, remains a powerful voice in the global foreign policy debate.

  • Facts


    • Henry Kissinger is a former diplomat who served as secretary of state to U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
    • He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.
    • Mr. Kissinger published his latest book called “World Order” in September 2014.
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Henry Kissinger is famous for his political realism, and prefers diplomatic solutions to military conflict. In an exclusive interview, the former U.S. secretary of state under presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon made it clear that diplomacy has its limits even today.

Mr. Kissinger said he sees no chance of a “meaningful negotiation” with Islamic State and instead called for the group’s military defeat. That doesn’t mean diplomacy won’t play a role: The 92-year-old diplomat called for a broader coalition of Middle East and transatlantic actors to defeat the radical Islamist group.

When it comes to the refugee crisis created partly out of the war in Syria, Mr. Kissinger sees more opportunities. Despite the reluctance by many in Europe to accept the influx of more than a million asylum seekers, Mr. Kissinger took a more positive view: “The immigration issue in Europe is a very rare historic event where a region does not defend its borders, but instead has opened its borders. That has not happened for several thousand years.”

Mr. Kissinger, himself a refugee who fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1938 and came to the United States, said he had “great sympathy” for the difficult situation that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has found herself in when it comes to the refugee crisis, but urged her to be mindful of the impact on society. The United States, long “a country of immigrants,” could also do more to help.

Mr. Kissinger also sees a very different historic event in Europe as a potential road map for the Middle East. The 92-year old former diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner called for “something like the Treaty of Westphalia” for the Middle East, referring to the broad treaty that reset Europe’s borders, ended the 30 Years’ War on the continent in 1648 and became the basis for a new international order. Only with such a comprehensive deal could the “turmoil” in the Middle East today finally come to an end.


Handelsblatt: Dr. Kissinger, since you published your new book, “World Order,” it seems that every week the world has gotten into deeper disorder. It feels more archaic, more brutal, more chaotic. What are the main driving forces for our current situation?

Henry Kissinger: Of course, the book was not written as a prescription of the immediate future. It tried to describe a condition and indicate what the long term dangers were. So I am not surprised that there is more disorder in the world. I think the fundamental problems are these: It’s the first time in history that events are concurring contemporaneously. That means that people know what is going on in every part of the world, simultaneously. That accelerates processes and makes them more complicated. Secondly, there are a number of upheavals in different parts of the world. But they don’t have the same characteristics, so there is no unifying principle by which they can be solved.

The past confrontations between East and West, but also the North-South divide had in comparison an almost clear and calculable structure. What regions are you most concerned about today?

The Middle East! There you have in itself three or four different revolutions going on simultaneously. There are upheavals against the existing state, upheavals among various religious groups, between various ethnic groups, and upheavals going across national boundaries.  And there are attacks on the whole system. And this is only one region!

China is rising.

China is becoming increasingly powerful and thereby creating a new weight on the international scene. And they themselves are undergoing enormous changes.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rushing back on the world stage.

Russia is seeking a sense of identity in an unfamiliar environment. And then there is the problem with the Western world.

What do you mean?

The Europe existing today is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was a hundred years ago. It is attempting to define a new unity without it being able to give it a political expression yet. Europe is not able to generate long-range policy. So all these elements are coming together. I see a new quality of complexity here.

In “World Order” you write: “Chaos threatens side by side with unprecedented interdependence.”  Are Western societies overburdened and overextended?

It has not yet been possible to find an agreement as to the nature of the crisis or the solution. In that respect, we can talk about overextension. But the overextension is more psychological than substantive. One of the fundamental changes of the current world is the emergence of the internet. It means that knowledge is now acquired by looking at a screen, compared to looking at paper. So the knowledge acquired is more instantaneous and more emotional and less geared to reflection.

Could you describe the effects of the Internet on foreign policy?

When you learn from the internet, you know you can get the same answer over and over again, so there is less incentive to categorize, condense and conceptualize world affairs. The many facts often crowd out an analysis. Also the political leadership has more incentives to react to the mood of the moment. And all of this leads to a different way to deal with problems than was familiar as recently as 20 years ago. I am not saying it is worse, just different.

Angela Merkel and Henry Kissinger in September 2007. Source: Getty Images


Help us to bring some order into the complexity of today’s world. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that he believes the war in Iraq to be connected to the rise of Islamic State. Do you agree? 

The 9/11 crisis was the beginning of the attack by militant Islam on the Western structure. It was considered by the West as terrorist event, conducted by a limited group. Since then the character of the conflict has changed. The essence of Isis is different than Al Qaeda’s. Isis has a territorial base and from that it acts on the one hand like a traditional state, with an internal administration, but also like a religious movement in its external application, as an ideological entity, not as a state.

How should the Western world deal with IS? After the attacks in Paris, that question became ever more burning for the Europeans. 

I believe that we cannot find a diplomatic solution to the Isis problem. Isis has to be defeated. As long as Isis exists, it will propagate that all other societies are illegitimate and attempt to achieve a caliphate outcome in the Middle East. The diplomacy that will be most relevant will be to bring together the threatened societies in developing a structure that makes it much more difficult for Isis to attack them.

You have always been the man for peace talks and diplomacy. Do you think the states in the shadow like Saudi Arabia, Iran and others, maybe even Israel could help to broker a deal? Not directly with the terrorists but with the rich families and groups financing Isis? Camp David has always been a place where rare things were made possible.

I always believed that in order to have a meaningful negotiation there has to be some shared structure of objectives or values and I don’t see that with Isis. Is it possible for the West to come to some understanding with the Islamic world other than Isis? Provided the Islamic world accepts the legitimacy of a structure of the world based on states, then I would think yes, one should negotiate.

What advice would you have for the participants in that process?

This turmoil will not end in the Middle East unless there is something like the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the 30 Years’ War in which varying groups with different motives were conducting overlapping wars with each other and they finally introduced a state system that for several hundred years became the basis of international order. Even today it is still the fundamental concept on which international order is based.  Can that occur? Yes. But it will not occur through direct negotiation with Isis.

And should Syria’s dictator Assad and Russia’s President Putin be part of a solution for Syria?

Not necessarily Assad, but the Alawite group that he represents. Mr. Assad’s leaving the scene peacefully would be one of the components of the settlement. Putin would have to be a component. The West needs to acquiesce that without Russian consent the settlement will not be supported. A peaceful de-escalation of this and other problems won’t be possible without the participation of Russia.

Angela Merkel listened to you. She tried to broker a deal with Putin on her own to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. The results were the Minsk I and II agreements that substantially contributed to an easing of the tensions.

I think she played a very crucial and decisive role.

And the leadership of the White House?

They had more of a conception that Putin would have to be taught a lesson before you could have a negotiation.

Time and time again you preferred diplomatic solutions to the use of military force.  You have opened up the relationship to China that still today is cooperative and prosperous. You advanced the policy of détente that led to the CSCE process and ultimately to a peaceful co-existence between East and West Europe. Is it really that much harder to broker a deal with the stakeholders in the Middle East than with the former leaders of China or the Soviet Union? Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Mao weren’t exactly choirboys either.

No they were not. But there were specific circumstances. Our opening to China was made possible because for China at that point in history, we are talking about 1969, the threat from the Soviet Union overrode their previous ideological opposition to the West and especially to the United States. And in the periods in the last third of the 20th century, where many negotiations took place with China, Moscow or East Berlin there were of course considerable tensions. But they were tensions between states. And now the tensions are between groups on the basis of ethnicity and of religion and the conflict is in part between states and non-state organizations. So the entire conflict-laden situation has a different character.


Henry Kissinger with Gabor, Astrid in NY Kai Nedden HB
Henry Kissinger with Gabor Steingart and Astrid Doerner. Source: Kai Nedden


The Bundeswehr will join the United States, France and Great Britain and is now sending 1,200 soldiers for the mission in Syria. Is that Realpolitik?

Well, the word Realpolitik is often associated with me but you will not find it in any of my books…

Because it was used against you, especially inside your own party.

It was used against me. Critics have it easy when they make the argument he’s a German, he doesn’t have an American perspective.

Is there maybe some truth to that?

I believe in the conduct of foreign policy it is essential to have both elements, an element of ideals and the element of realism. You cannot conduct foreign policy without a good analysis of the problem you’re trying to deal with and the objectives you are trying to reach and that has to be based on realism. But since all the difficult problems are difficult because they are 50/50 or 51/49, you have to be convinced of the ethical intentions that you are pursuing. That is why I am impatient with people who say you have to be a pure realist or a pure idealist. I don’t think either of them can be carried out. Even Bismarck who is supposed to be a pure realist, he said: “The best a statesman can do is to listen carefully to the footsteps of God through history. Get a hem of his cloak and walk with him a few steps of the way.”

Western values like freedom, equality and constitutional democracy are often hard to reconcile with Realpolitik, which focusses on creating stability and preserving order.  

Well, you can probably never achieve both fully at the same time. That’s what keeps the process going. But you always have to pursue the ethical goals.

When it comes to fighting for Western values, do we need to focus more on not destroying the prevailing order since that could then turn into a threat to us? We are thinking of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

The significance of order must no longer be underestimated. Because when you begin analyzing the consequences of a lack of stability and analyze the weapons that now exist increasingly on all sides, you are constantly threatened with a catastrophe that was unimaginable to previous generations. I’m thinking particularly of nuclear weapons and cyber weapons.


The good old days. Henry Kissinger and then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1974. Source: DPA/Picture Alliance


We are the midst of sending troops to the Middle East. Will that help to solve the crisis or would that make the problem even worse in Syria?

I think it’s a good decision. And the French conduct is important. In fact one can see an opportunity to reconstruct the transatlantic relationship. But simultaneously one has to know what the outcome is. A necessary outcome has to be to destroy Isis’ control over territory. Isis will not disappear as a result but it will not have a territorial base which it can use as a substitute for statehood. But after that has been achieved there has to be a territorial settlement that does not repeat the problems that has led to this crisis to begin with.

As a result of a world in disorder a lot of refugees are coming to Europe.

What one is seeing in that the immigration issue in Europe is a very rare historic event, where a region does not defend its borders but instead has opened its borders. That has not happened for several thousand years.

Right or wrong?

The dilemma is that there is a humanitarian impulse, when one looks at the suffering of the refugees. But there is also a historic process that is taking place. When the composition of the population is changed dramatically and quickly as the result of outside forces, there will be historic consequences.

Everywhere in Europe we see the rise of right-wing populist parties. In France Marine Le Pen’s the Front National for the first time scored more votes than the established parties.

Such a historic event like this wave of immigration will have an impact on societies.

You have been a refugee yourself in a sense. You fled Germany for New York in 1938 at the age of 15. Did memories come up when you saw the pictures on TV? 

We were refugees in a much smaller stream, when the refugee issue was still mostly an individual one. What we see now is that whole populations move. But to answer your question: there is some understanding for the suffering of the people involved when you have been a refugee yourself.

Together with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former CIA directors and others, in early December, you gave your signature in an open letter to Congress, advocating for increasing the number of refugees from Syria and Iraq that are allowed to come to the United States.

Yes, because we feel that America can do more. The decision has to be defined by security and humanitarian considerations. He have traditionally been a country of immigrants and since the numbers for us are in the tens of thousands we do not face a transformation of society that occurs with a mass influx.

“Upper Limit” is the buzzword in German politics. Do you think Germany should make a cut for itself and others?

I have great sympathy for what the Chancellor is going through. Given German history and her humanitarian convictions – she doesn’t want to be the person that rejects people that want to enter the country.  But she also knows that there is some point at which the transformation of the social and political structures must take place. That is inherent. Particularly when you deal with groups that do not accept the basic values of Western societies.

Are you supporting the Chancellor on this or just criticizing her?

I have great sympathy for her situation. She has to balance the suffering of the refugees and the long-term impact on her people. The central question is: Can you as a German take the lone responsibility for closing the borders?  I have great respect for the Chancellor’s decisions.

When it comes to Syria but also other big crisis like in Ukraine, we are missing the leadership of the United States. What has happened to the world power in Washington? 

One has to understand that for a long period American leadership was taken for granted both in America and amongst other countries in the world. Now we are at the end of a period in which the United States was engaged in five wars in which the objectives have not been realized: Korea, which was ambiguous, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. So that has made participation in a war in America a very controversial subject. But in fairness one has to say that in Europe, too, the capacity of the government to ask their people for non-economic sacrifices has diminished enormously compared to what it used to be. And even economic sacrifices aren’t so easy to achieve. So when you live in a world in which tremendous upheaval is going on and the democratic people are partially paralyzed by their own internal processes, then you have a unique situation.

The presidential elections in the United States are already in full swing. Do you see America coming back more powerful?

Yes. If you look at the candidates, including Secretary Clinton, they are all asking for a stronger American foreign policy.

What has happened to your own party? To German ears there are a number of Republican ideas in this election that sound very crazy: Building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, registering Muslims in the country and banning other Muslims from entering the United States.

What you have is a reaction that may be going on all over the western world, which is a sense that the governments are not dealing with the fundamental issues. In America this is particularly strong, since it is used to the traditions that problems are dealt with. And so the Republican candidates, however different they are, they all assert they will do something. I spoke in DC the other day and somebody asked me: “What is the one thing you would tell all the candidates?” I said: “Stop saying what you will do on the first day in office.” Because what you have to do is to start a historic process and it is not a process of one day.

You met with Jeb Bush and Ben Carson and others. Have you met with Donald Trump, too?


Do you have a preferred candidate?

I prefer to stay out of the political debate at this time.

If you had one wish in today’s world of disorder what would that be?

I would hope the transatlantic community would find a common answer on what its purpose in the world is.


Gabor Steingart is publisher of Handelsblatt. Astrid Dörner is Handelsblatt’s U.S. correspondent. To contact the authors:,

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