Henry Kissinger, Former Secretary of State
106th Landon Lecture
April 29, 1996
Different Histories, Different Conceptions: The New World and Our Role in International Relations
The President, ladies and gentlemen, whenever I hear such an eloquent and fulsome introduction, I'm reminded of a reception which I attended once, that a lady came up to me and said, "I understand you're a fascinating man," she said, "fascinate me." It was one of the least successful conversations that I have ever had. Sometimes when my various accomplishments are listed I like to point out that for a period of time I was both National Security Adviser and Secretary of State simultaneously. I mention that only because never before and never since have relations between the White House and State Department been as harmonious as they were in those days.
I asked one of the trustees of this university last week what he thought I should talk about, and he said, "You should talk about the food situation in the world." But I'm not foolish enough to talk about a subject that most of the audience know better than I do, so I will talk to you about the international situation, as I see it, from the point of view of the adjustments that are necessary in the thinking of, I would say, all countries in the world, but especially of our own in the new world in which we find ourselves.
People talk about a new world order as if it were already here, but a world order emerges only if most of the major countries -- and by major countries I mean those countries that are capable of threatening the peace or promoting general welfare -- if most of the major countries are satisfied enough with the conditions so that they will not try to upset them by force, when there is some standard of what is considered reasonable and some consensus on permissible aims and methods. Such a condition does not now exist. And it does not now exist because almost every country finds itself in a world for which little in its history prepares it.
I was talking to your president before I came here, and I made the point that in an understanding of politics, technical knowledge is not as important as an understanding of the historical forces that shape the world. The German statesman Bismarck once said, "The best a statesman can do is to listen carefully to the footsteps of God as he wanders through history, try to get ahold of his cloak and walk with him a few steps of the way." And I believe this to be true.
If we go around the world, the United States was brought up in an environment in which we have never had a powerful name, which we were protected by two great oceans, in which really until 1945 we did not have to conduct any foreign policy. Americans thought that whether they participate in international affairs was entirely their choice, and that they could participate and withdraw as they saw fit. The experience of almost any other nation in the world, which is of an environment that could be potentially hostile, in which decisions are imposed and not selected, has never been in foreign policy an American experience.
About 15 years ago at the height of the Cold War I gave a speech at Omaha to a business group, and I talked about the dangers of the Cold War. And in the question period somebody got up and said, "You can talk about the dangers of the Cold War, but what would anyone want from us here in Omaha?" Now, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command was just down the road, and the one city in America guaranteed to be attacked on the first day of the war was Omaha. That had not penetrated into the consciousness of the local leaders of the community.
So America at the end of World War II had close to 50 percent of the world's Gross National Product, and it had a nuclear monopoly. If you read carefully what we were thinking and saying at the time, we really conducted foreign policy almost like domestic policy, that is to say it was a question of allocation of resources. Any problem we recognized as a problem we could overwhelm with resources and we had dominant military power. Today we have some 20 to 22 percent of the world's Gross National Product. We are still the most powerful nation in the world. We still have the largest economy. We still have the most powerful military force, but mathematically with 22 percent of the world's Gross National Product, we cannot do everything, which means we have to be selective, which means we have to know what matters and what doesn't matter to American security.
When I see statements by our administration that we have an obligation to bring peace anywhere where it's threatened in the world, it is a violation of the reality in which we live. We can only do it where it affects our security or the security of indispensable allies, and we cannot go all over the world slaying dragons, and this is one fundamental change in our environment.
Secondly, when you have 22 percent of the world's GNP, you're in a situation where if all the rest of the world, or even all the industrial rest of the world were to unite against us, they could, over time, threaten our economy and threaten our security. So we have an interest in maintaining a balance of power in the world. That's a new experience for Americans.
We used to sneer at the British who did his with respect to Europe. We now have to have a concern with respect to the global situation. I repeat, all this is new to Americans. We have tended to believe that we could bring peace by spreading Democracy all over this with respect to Europe. We now have to have a concern with respect to the global situation. I repeat, all this is new to Americans. We have tended to believe that we could bring peace by spreading Democracy all over the world and we equated foreign policy with a kind of missionary work. And we have tended to divide our approach between those who thought foreign policy was a subdivision of psychiatry and others who thought foreign policy was a subdivision of theology, and neither of them is adequate to the present situation.
Now, when we go around the world we find other countries all in similar positions. The European nations dominated world affairs till 1945. It is now too small to play a global role, and it is trying to form a unified Europe, and then raising all the questions, "Where does Europe begin and where are the borders of Europe?"
Russia finds itself now in borders that it has not had since Peter the Great, for 400 years. It was composed of 15 republics which were really subjugated colonial regions, all of which have now become independent. Russia is by far the largest of these and has the vastest territory. But if you observe the Russian domestic discussion, it is really about regaining the empire, and the foreign policy problem we have with Russia is not the domestic politics of Moscow, which is what too many of our journalists and too many of our political figures say. The foreign policy problem we have with Russia is whether it can be kept within the borders that were established internationally after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
And you have to remember that is still a vast territory. St. Petersburg is closer to New York than it is to Vladivostok at the other end of the country. Vladivostok is closer to Seattle than it is to Moscow. So you would think the Russians could not be claustrophobic, but last week I came home from China on a private plane, and we landed at the Siberian city of Kaveric and an unbelievable haggle developed about whether we could get fuel there, which led me into a discussion with the local head of the customs department. And his basic concern was, when will Russia reacquire Ukraine, Azerbaijan and all these other countries that are now independent, and this is at the furthest corner of Russia you can almost be. So this is the adjustment Russia has to make.
Japan was isolated for 400 years, an empire for about 90, an economic institution for 50 after the end of the war, but is now coming back to playing a national policy. And China, humiliated in the 19th Century, isolated until 1971, has the fastest growth rate of any country in Asia and in the world. And India is also emerging as a major player. So those are the key countries about which I want to say something.
Now, Americans have a tendency to believe that all foreigners are the species of misunderstood Americans. I have a friend who is of the view that there is no such thing as an English accent. He thinks the English put this on to intimidate Americans, and that if you only can catch an Englishman unaware, like waking him up at 4 in the morning, he will talk like a normal human being. That is a little bit our attitude toward foreign policy, and we find it very hard to understand that different histories produce different conceptions.
Take Russia. Russia has never been a Democracy. Russia has never had a market economy. Russia has always been an empire. Russia has always dominated or tried to dominate its surrounding state. Russia has never had a separation of church and state, so that the church has really been a state institution. And all of these factors have produced a tremendous tendency toward a solitarianism and toward conquest. And when a nation behaves in a certain way for 400 years, you have to assume that it has a certain proclivity in that direction or they wouldn't be doing it.
I believe the outcome of the Russian election is marginally important. But we should stop being obsessed with domestic politics in Russia. We have for too long been obsessed with Gorbachev, now with Yeltsin. There is no magic cure for Russian foreign policy by America selecting a favorite candidate and then campaigning -- in effect, campaigning on his behalf.
What Russia is doing now is trying to regain great power status. The Yeltsin foreign policy is not significantly different from what alternative foreign policies will be, maybe a little less strident. The key in our relationship with Russia for the immediate future is to get across the proposition that in that vast territory that I have described they have a huge challenge to build up their own society, but that if they keep bringing pressure on all of their neighbors, sooner or later some version of international tension will reappear. And we have not gotten that across, because we have acted as if the relationship was an essentially psychiatric one between our president and the Russian president, rather than an objective one based on Russian conduct.
Now let me say a few words about China. I understand that there's some Chinese students here, and they know how much I like their country and how often I've visited it, but I always say in China as I do here, President Nixon did not open to China because he is sentimental and the last thing anyone has ever accused Mao Tse Tung of, they said he was sentimental. We dealt with each other across a vast ideological government for the reason that Mr. Landon mentioned in the inaugural Landon Lecture, "It is not possible to imagine a stable nation and a peaceful world without some effort to deal with China, and hopefully with a good relationship between China and the United States."
Now, China is a totally different society from ours. First of all, they've been around for 5,000 years, and, of course, we have to remember for over 200 of those we didn't exist, so they had to manage without American advice. There have been 22 Chinese dynasties, seven of those have lasted longer than the entire history of the United States. Six of them have lasted as long as the entire history of the United States. So you're talking about a different rhythm. If you ask an American or a European when something happened, he gives you a date. When you ask a Chinese when something happened, he gives you a dynasty. Now you are within three hundred years of when it happened.
When you travel in China you rarely come to a province that does not have a larger population than the largest European country. So one has to understand that governing a billion 200 million people, who on top of it are madly individualistic, is a complicated process. When Nixon met Mao, Nixon began the conversation by saying, "The chairman's teachings have changed a great civilization." Mao said, "No, I have not changed a civilization, I have changed Beijing and a few of its suburbs." So in China, how to make the wick of the central government run in that vast territory, with that huge population, has been a historic problem.
I mention all of this because we have had a tendency to deal with China as if our basic objective with respect to China should be social reform, to change its governmental institutions, to bring about a different perception of the role of plebes, women and other worthwhile objectives. But, of course, the Chinese do not consider it self-evident that we should tell them how to run what they consider their domestic affairs. And the reasons they want to talk to us is because of concerns with Japan, Russia, India and other neighbors. So the problem we have in relations with China is to go back to fundamentals, to separate the desirable from the important, and to recognize that if we want to take on China, as so many heroes of our domesticate debate in both parties seem to be eager to do, this is not the same as taking on the Soviet Union. No other Asian country will support us. We'll be alone, and we will be right back to the situation that Governor Landon deplored, and President Nixon overcame, namely, that a foreign policy in which we lose contact with China will undermine the flexibility of our American foreign policy around the world. It has nothing to do with whether one likes China or doesn't like China.
Now, I have mentioned China and Russia as examples, but one could apply this around the world. Within the next 15 years India will emerge as a major player, and it will apply some of the experiences of the colonial period when the foreign policy of the British Empire was run from New Delhi and not from London, east of Suez, which means that India will try to exert its influence toward Singapore and toward Asia. Now, I could go around the world, but this is not my -- my point is not to talk about individual policies. My point is that the United States, given the situation I have described, must learn a more sophisticated approach and a more nonpartisan approach to foreign policy.
We are in the position, especially in Asia, where we have fewer quarrels with any of the nations than they have with each other. And, therefore, we have the basis for a foreign policy in which we can maintain tolerable relations with everybody, and commit ourselves only after we know which is the real threat, the stability. We do not have to be in the front line of every confrontation. We have to be in the front line of an overall design that we understand.
Things are changing, not only nationally, but economically. Within 10 years we are bound to have an energy shortage. As China and India and Brazil and Indonesia industrialize, the existing energy resources will not be adequate and, therefore, energy reserves in areas that most Americans have never heard of, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan in the center of Asia become of great importance, and the direction of the pipelines will become potentially as decisive as what happens to Middle East oil.
Five years ago I saw studies that food would be in permanent surplus and that agricultural companies would have great difficulty unless they consolidated. Now in this year for sure there's going to be a global food shortage, and it may become congenital if certain weather conditions persist.
So we need a really much more general and sophisticated approach, and I must stress that while the existing administration would certainly be my second choice in this election, the approach should be evolved into a nonpartisan approach. And the problem we have as a nation is that we feel too secure. In a place like this it is hard to believe that what happens in so many different parts of the world can affect and will affect our well-being.
And we have another problem, which it's getting to be a global problem, and it is this: There's no doubt that computers and television have expanded the range of available knowledge in an extraordinary manner, but they also have made it so easy to acquire it that the ability to form contacts is being destroyed, and the imagination is being threatened. When you read a book you have to imagine it. When you see a television production it is handed to you and all you have to do is register it. So when you look in every country the type of person that was so dominant, say 50 years ago, under the older educational system, the number of people are shrinking. And the modern politicians are quick, flip, picture oriented, but can they hold together in their minds all of the elements that are necessary, and can they acquire the inward assurance to act like the great presidents have before it was obvious to everybody, because great leaders are not great technicians or intellectuals, they are the people who have a view of the future and the courage to go there.
I have a Chinese friend who claims that there exists the following Chinese proverb. I say claims, because I, frankly, do not believe that there exists as many Chinese proverbs as they lay upon us. But at any rate he says the proverb goes something like this: "When there is turmoil under the heavens, little problems are dealt with as if they were big problems, and big problems are not dealt with at all. When there is order under the heavens, big problems are reduced to small problems, and small problems will not obsess us."
Our big challenge is first to learn what is a big and what is a little problem. Second, to reduce the big problems to manageable problems. And with all the things I have said, don't misunderstand me, there's no other nation in the world, that with all the changes, nevertheless has the capacity to bring about order, to expand prosperity and to preserve the peace as the United States does. In fact, we are probably the only nation of which it can be said that the future of international relations depends largely upon ourselves.
Thank you very much.