Kissinger: ‘We are in a Very, Very Grave Period for the World’

The 95-year-old elder statesman is slowly shedding his public reticence at the risk of the access on which he has built his fortune.

The elder statesman of American statecraft recently sat down with the FT’s Ed Luce to talk about the state of world affairs in the age of Trump. It was not easy getting him to open up. What he did say was quite scary, precisely because he has spent the past four decades saving his candor for his paying customers.

The piece is worth reading in full, partly because of Luce’s clever back-and-forth. But here are some highlights:

He loves to be in the thick of things. Persuading him to say what he actually thinks is another matter. Kissinger is to geopolitical clarity what Alan Greenspan was to monetary communication — an oracle whose insight is matched only by his indecipherability. It is my mission to push him out of his comfort zone.

[…]

As the co-architect of the cold war rapprochement with China and détente with the Soviet Union, Kissinger now surveys a world in which China and Russia are both challenging the US world order, often in concert with each other.

[…]

I sense I am losing my battle to get him on to Trump — or failing to detect his hidden message. Is he saying we are underestimating Trump — that, in fact, Trump may be doing us the unacknowledged service of calming the Russian bear? Again, there is a pause before Kissinger answers.

“I don’t want to talk too much about Trump because at some point I should do it in a more coherent way than this,” Kissinger replies. But you are being coherent, I protest. Please don’t stop. There is another pregnant silence. “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”

[…]

I cannot shake the feeling that Kissinger is trying to tell me something but that I am too literal to interpret it. Like a blindfolded darts player, I try a number of different throws. What would Germany become if Trump pulled America out of Nato? Kissinger likes that question but declines to give odds as to its likelihood. “In the 1940s, the European leaders had a clear sense of direction,” he says. “Right now they mostly just want to avoid trouble.” They are not doing a very good job of it, I interrupt. “That’s true,” says Kissinger with a cryptic smile. “One eminent German recently told me that he always used to translate tension with America as a way to move away from America but now he finds himself more afraid of a world without America.” So could Trump be shocking the rest of the west to stand on its own feet, I ask. “It would be ironic if that emerged out of the Trump era,” Kissinger replies. “But it is not impossible.”

The alternative, Kissinger adds, is not appealing. A divided Atlantic would turn Europe into “an appendage of Eurasia”, which would be at the mercy of a China that wants to restore its historic role as the Middle Kingdom and be “the principal adviser to all humanity”. It sounds as though Kissinger believes China is on track to achieve its goal. America, meanwhile, would become a geopolitical island, flanked by two giant oceans and without a rules-based order to uphold. Such an America would have to imitate Victorian Britain but without the habit of mind to keep the rest of the world divided — as Britain did with the European continent.

[…]

I decide to take a final stab at the bullseye. We have been talking for almost two hours. If there is one recurring criticism of Kissinger, I tell him, it is that he goes to great lengths to preserve access to people in power at the expense of not speaking plainly in public. Isn’t now — of all moments — the right one to burn a bridge or two? Kissinger looks crestfallen.

“I take that seriously and a lot of people, good friends of mine, have been urging this on me,” he says eventually. “It could happen at some point in time.” There is no time like the present, I say with a nervous laugh.

“It is clear the direction I am going in,” he replies. “Is it clear to you?” Sort of, I reply. You are worried about the future. However, you believe there is a non-trivial chance that Trump could accidentally scare us into reinventing the rules-based order that we used to take for granted. Is that a fair summary?

“I think we are in a very, very grave period for the world,” Kissinger replies. “I have conducted innumerable summit meetings, so they didn’t learn this one [Helsinki] from me.”

It is clear he will not elaborate further. I ask him which period he would liken to today. Kissinger talks about his experience as a freshly minted citizen in US uniform serving in the second world war. He also reminisces about what brought the young German refugee to these shores in the first place. After Germany marched into Austria in 1938, Jews in Kissinger’s home town were told to stay indoors. His parents left for America when they could. “There was a curfew and German soldiers everywhere,” he says. “It was a traumatic experience that has never left me.” His reminiscence is carefully chosen.

Kissinger is not, of course, the first high-powered foreign affairs expert to make these observations. Indeed, many have gone further before now. But, precisely because he is always so exceedingly careful not to burn bridges—he is routinely consulted by US Presidents of both political parties as well as world leaders of all stripes—his saying them should sound alarm bells. That Kissinger is willing to go on the record saying that “we are in a very, very grave period for the world” almost certainly means that he privately thinks that a vast understatement.

The world order generations of American leaders helped build, preserve, and lead for the last seven decades is in danger of collapse. Kissinger’s best hope is that Trump is simply a bumbling idiot rather than an active collaborator with our enemies and that his incompetence will somehow awaken our European allies from their long complacency over their security. I concede that this is possible and wish for it as well. But the notion that Angela Merkel or Emmanual Macron will fill the vacuum is a fantasy. They lack both the will and the means of doing so.

Alas, while our Congress has the means of curtailing this crisis, they also lack the will. And, thus far at least, the Republican electorate seems oblivious to, if not perfectly happy with, the current direction.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. We need more voices like Kissinger to speak out. James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and others come to mind but there are others. The Trumpidians and those in the GOP who have basically chosen to look the other way while this President continues to do whatever the heck he thinks he is don’t won’t listen, of course. However, I think that it is important for voices of reason to make themselves known as we head for whatever it is might be headed toward (and whatever it is, I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.)

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Both Baker and Scowcroft have spoken out. Indeed, Scowcroft endorsed Hillary.

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  3. @James Joyner:

    Yes, I recall that. I guess I mean something more recent, and perhaps they have and I’ve just missed it.

    It just seems as though that most of the criticism I’ve seen of Trump over the past week especially has come more from the left, or from people who were part of the Bush 43 Administration, rather than anyone remaining from the Cold War era. And, yea, I recognize that those guys are older and enjoying retirement.

  4. James Pearce says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The Trumpidians and those in the GOP who have basically chosen to look the other way while this President continues to do whatever the heck he thinks he is don’t won’t listen, of course.

    I don’t remember where I saw it –Twitter, probably– but a guy mused that most of his really smart conservative friends have already accepted that the lights have gone out in the west and that liberalism is dead, and so they’ve started occupying themselves with pointless time-consuming hobbies like beer-making.

    With the right given over to Trump and the left turning away from liberalism, who’s watching the store?

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  5. dmichael says:

    Is this country great, or what? Only in America can a former advisor to Lyndon Baines Johnson give secrets to Nixon to purposely sabotage the peace talks then nearing a successful conclusion to end the Vietnam War, causing a million more deaths during the corrupt Nixon administration, assist Nixon in such such excellent adventures as the Christmas bombing, the secret Cambodia “Incursion” and Nixon’s enemies list and then go on to actively encourage the murder of an elected official in Chile (along with a top general) and cap all of this off with a blind eye to mass murder in East Timor, achieve such admiration for his wisdom for telling us that China now presents a geo-political threat when for the last several decades his consulting company received millions from China in order to promote its interests! Man, that is some achievement! I, for one, will not consider a single syllable from this toad as anything but self-serving blather. Oh, and my fervent hope is to out-live him so I can read the official records he has suppressed that will document in detail his crimes.

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  6. dmichael says:

    I follow up on my previous comment / diatribe with a quote from the current biography of Richard Nixon by John Farrell:

    “It was then illegal to sell arms to Pakistan or to use a third country to launder such a transaction. Nixon did so anyway, conspiring with Jordan, Iran, and Israel to have American-made fighter planes shipped from Jordan and Iran to Pakistan.
    “We’ll just close our eyes. Get the goddamned planes in there,” said Kissinger.
    “Is it really so much against our law?” Nixon asked.
    “What’s against our law is not what they do, but our giving them permission,” Kissinger explained.
    “We give the permission privately,” the president said.
    “That’s right,” said Kissinger.
    “Hell, said Nixon, “we’ve done worse.”

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @dmichael: It’s not obvious approval of Kissinger’s policy choices nearly half a century ago is necessary to heed his warnings now. He’s been rather consistently correct on China and Russia for decades. His 1994 book DIPLOMACY was extraordinarily prescient on both countries.

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  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    He’s a little arcane all right. I hope that if I visit the link I won’t find this article behind some paywall as I don’t do the bit torrent (?) thing to evade paywalls and such (lack skills, have (some anyway) principles, mostly tmw). What I am ferreting out of the interview is that he may believe that Trump reflects a sort of sea change in the ethos of nations and citizens that can neither be prevented nor altered.

    I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.

    Keep in mind that I don’t believe that Trump has any policy to speak of; he simply repeats what the thinks will resonate among his fanbois and often probably has no sense that what he says means anything–nor concern about what it means, either. He’s a reflection of a worldview Conservative elites have sold to the public without thinking about what it meant as they seem to see themselves living in a consequence-free sphere. And now, they are “shocked and appalled” to discover that the monster wants to burn down the village and they have no escape contingency.

  9. HomoCrusader says:

    So what Hank is saying is that 70 years of pushing globalism on the west is being knocked down by an orange wrecking ball. Hope he lives just long enough to see it completed.

  10. wr says:

    @HomoCrusader: Quick quiz, HC:

    In your other life, are you secretly:

    A) OneAmerican
    B)Lavaland
    C)TM01
    D) All of the above?

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  11. Hal_10000 says:

    I don’t know if you guys read Sullivan’s piece at the NYMag. It’s frightening because I think he might be right: Trump’s goal is to tear apart the world order we have — the one that’s given us almost three decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The scary thing is that there’s little we can do to stop him; the President has a lot of foreign policy authority.

    The only hope is that the rest of the world will pick up the mantle of leadership, prop us up (as they did economically during the 2008 crisis). But I’m not optimistic. Trump is a fool. And every day, he does more damage to the country.

  12. ptsargent says:

    @Hal_10000: This is the standard democrat party line. Trump is a “fool”, Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, Trump needs to go. What bunkum! For those who haven’t drunk the poison of democrat party socialism and its phony deliverance of globalism and American humility for past sins, just remember, we’re coming off eight years of that formula and look where it left us. Stagnant and moribund economy, paper tiger military, generally demoralized citizenry and probably the most corrupt political class since the 1930s. Do you really want more of all that crap? Trump is a disrupter and we’ve rarely been in more need of reforms and new ways of approaching the status quo. Trump may not, probably is not the one to lead us to a new promised land. He most certainly is the one to shake up the existing corrupt order. May the force be with him.

  13. Hal_10000 says:

    @ptsargent:

    Fascinating. Every word of that paragraph was wrong. Hearing about an “apologies” and “American humility” is laughable considering Trump’s groveling at the feet of Putin. The economy is actually slightly worse than it was under Obama; military spending increased under Obama; and you’ve replaced that corrupt political class with the most corrupt group of gonifs, thieves and swindlers since the 18th century. That “corrupt order” gave us three decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity; Trump now hopes to diminish us to a third-rate world power.

    And I’m not a democratic socialist; I’m a conservative/libertarian. Conservatism is this thing that existed before the GOP mutated into a form of deranged populism and cult of personality. You can read more about conservatism from Russel Kirk, for example, on the values of prudence, morality and freedom, none of which are evinced by your Orange Jesus.

  14. de stijl says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    We need more voices like Kissinger to speak out.

    There are plenty of smart voices with impeccable foreign policy bona fides. We don’t need criminally compromised Kissinger.