Kissinger and Trilateral Commission – Part 2

The following excerpt is Part 2 of a recent speech by Henry Kissinger to the Trilateral Commission is fascinating. Part one was yesterday. Tomorrow’s post will be a continuation.


Dr. Henry Kissinger

Therefore, some of the disagreements that have existed between Europe and the United States are not due primarily to the personality of American leaders, though they were not aided by some of the arguments that the American leaders made. Their fundamental cause is the fact that European public opinion is very reluctant to engage in foreign policy beyond soft power. It is not a lack of loyalty to the alliance; it is not a lack of understanding of what the issues are; it is the fact that in Europe, the nation-state—based on its experience in two world wars—cannot conduct a strategic foreign policy involving significant sacrifices, and the European Union has not yet substituted a political concept.

Therefore, a wise policy will keep that in mind, and I believe the Obama administration has acted wisely in Afghanistan in not making an issue of the disparity between the formal NATO commitment and the willingness of the Europeans to support it. I would prefer a different attitude, but I think that if we push that issue, we will weaken our relationship. And in a more fundamental way, as we think of the way the international order is likely to evolve, we need to understand what Europe can and cannot do and how the North Atlantic alliance needs to be defined to fit the current circumstances.

In other parts of the world, the notion of sovereignty has also collapsed, but for quite different reasons. In the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East, the notion of a sovereign state conducting an autonomous foreign policy was brought in at the end of World War I by the European countries. It, therefore, has not ever, and certainly does not now, attracted the loyalties that the European nation-state had at its fully developed period. What has emerged is a concept of Islamism that challenges the notion of the secular state and, in some cases, the existence of the actual states.

The principal country in that area that is conducting a traditional foreign policy in some respects is Iran because it has the tradition of an empire. It has had a national identity, but it is now using it, at least in part, to support the Islamic movements that undermine the secular state.

The principal place where the traditional international system still exists in its more or less pure form is in Asia. The nations of Asia have the kind of national loyalties that were characteristic of the European states. Strategic conflict between the European states is practically inconceivable. In Asia, war is highly unlikely, but there is a tendency to consider each other as potential strategic adversaries. At any rate, a balancing of power of the various states is always in the back of their minds.

So, as the center of gravity of international affairs moves to the Pacific and to the Indian Ocean, there are, in a way, two somewhat contradictory approaches to international affairs that are being conducted, and, if other conditions had not changed, one would predict for Asia some of the kinds of conflicts that existed previously in the evolution of European history.

The reason that conflict is not likely is the emergence of global issues that can only be dealt with on a global basis—issues like climate, the environment, energy, trade, weapons of mass destruction—and they impel a global approach. And there is another element. The nations of Europe went to war with each other because they thought the consequences of defeat were worse than the consequences of war.

Nobody with modern weapons can have any illusions that the consequences of war will not have the most drastic impact on modern societies. And so, the rise of Asia has to be accommodated in an international system that is based on cooperation and on dialogue without the recourse to military measures that used to dominate international affairs.

But that raises the question of how does one do this? In history, international orders emerged either by consensus or by some application of a balance of power. Now, ideally, one would like to see order emerge out of consensus. But history teaches, and our own experience teaches us, that in groups based on consensus there is very often an unequal willingness to assume risks and, therefore, leadership groups emerge within the consensus group that assume responsibility, or the whole thing will gradually stagnate and fall apart.

But then, the question arises, how does one apply this in the multipolar world that I have described? How can one get either consensus or equilibrium when the various actors are states but they can also be NGOs and they can also be non-state groups. This is the challenge of our time, and this is where a group like this can be of great importance. This group can raise questions that the governments sometimes do not find it possible to address, and it can provide a possible consensus to which governments can repair or which they can use as they make their decisions.

This applies to a number of issues. Let me give one example that was raised by President Obama in Prague, the issue of a world without nuclear weapons. That is a goal every American president has avowed since the beginning of the nuclear age and it has attracted enormous support and been supported by any number of intellectual groups. But the fact is that as a practical matter it is extraordinarily difficult to reach and, in fact, impossible to reach under present circumstances.

At the Munich Security Conference, I quoted Senator Sam Nunn, who is a colleague of mine, on having talked about this project, together with George Shultz and Bill Perry. Senator Nunn puts it this way: “The project is like trying to climb a mountain that is covered in clouds. And you announce that you want to reach the summit but you have no idea what the summit looks like.

On the other hand, you will never understand what the summit looks like until you begin the journey and start going into the clouds, and in that process it may become clearer to you. In fact, you cannot do it unless you undertake that journey.” Now the reason I and others who have been in my office and who were known as hardliners have cooperated in this project is that we have all had the experience of asking ourselves, “What would we do if we had to make the decision to use nuclear weapons?”

Each of us understood that this was a decision of a magnitude that goes beyond anything in previous political experience and probably of a magnitude that can have no moral justification.

(continued tomorrow)

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