One-on-One with Henry Kissinger

In an exclusive interview, Henry Kissinger, U.S. secretary of state for two presidents, offers frank perspective on doing business in China, building trust, and his legacy in the Vietnam war.
Betsy Wiesendanger |  April 25, 2012
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It’s difficult to know how to assess Henry Kissinger. During a recent visit to Columbia Business School to receive the George S. Eccles award for Economic Writing for his book On China, the former U.S. secretary of state was affable and self-effacing, chatting easily with a reporter about his favorite sports team, the New York Yankees, and joking that his friends in policy circles would be surprised to hear he had won an award for economic writing. At 88, his mind is still steel-trap sharp. He can recount hour-by-hour the events preceding the historic meeting between Nixon and Chairman Mao in 1972, even pausing in the interview to correct a detail about whether medical equipment shipped in advance to Beijing was left behind for Mao’s use.

Still, debate rages to this day about whether he and President Nixon needlessly prolonged the Vietnam war, a conflict that cost 58,000 American lives. But even Kissinger’s detractors concede that he was instrumental in opening diplomatic relations with China and, over the last half-century, has been a major force in shaping American foreign policy. In an exclusive interview for Chazen Global Insights, Dr. Kissinger offered frank perspective on doing business in China, building trust, and what he hopes his place in history will be.

Chazen Global Insights: When you first went to China in 1971 to do advance work for President Nixon’s visit, only a handful of Americans had seen the country firsthand. Were you surprised by what you found?

Henry Kissinger: If you had looked at my curricula vitae in 1968, you would have said I’m an expert on Europe and on strategy. I had really done no work on China. But I became interested in China because of its importance. I was foreign policy advisor to Nelson Rockefeller, and I urged him to advocate opening to China about the same time Nixon did, but these were totally independent of each other. So starting in 1969, I began exploring on behalf of Nixon possible avenues to communicate with China. By the time I finally got there in 1971, I didn’t really know what to expect. The only communist countries I knew were the Soviet Union and East European countries. So I expected a variety of junior Soviets. But the Chinese, due to their different cultural background, are totally different.

For example, when I arrived in China, I was greeted by an aide who said, “why don’t you go to bed; you have had a long ride. The premier [Chou En-Lai] will come and see you at five o’clock” which was four and a half hours away. That wouldn’t have happened in Russia. They would have taken me to a meeting. So there was a much more leisurely pace in China and a much less confrontational manner.

CGI: From what I’ve read about those dialogues, they were in aphorisms, and you had to decode them later.

HK: That’s right.

CGI: Had you expected that?

HK: I really didn’t know what to expect. Before I went to China I went to Harvard for two days to learn about China, and I met with a bunch of experts. But I wanted them to tell me about Chinese culture. They wanted to tell me how to conduct the foreign policy of the UN admission to China. That was the one subject I did know.

CGI: So you really had to think on your feet while you were over there.

HK: And I was separated from Nixon. I had no communication so I couldn’t report to him and tell him “it’s going well” or “it’s going bad” or “what do you think?” There was practically no telephone communication. It took hours to place a call. I tried to call my wife on the October trip, and it didn’t work.

CGI: To fast-forward to the China of today: If I’m a company that wants to manufacture in China and I’m worried about the theft of my intellectual property, is there a diplomatic solution to that? Or does the CEO go in and take his or her chances?

HK: Businesspeople operate in shorter time frames than the government does. They are not necessarily affected by the strategic distrust that mixes between governments unless there is a crisis that wrecks the whole relationship and affects all future investments that may be made in either direction. Certainly the government should talk about it, but the CEO should look at the realities of sovereign countries. You cannot really take them to court, so it’s more risky in a foreign country than in your own.

CGI: It sounds like you’re encouraging CEOs to think longer term, to be policy-makers almost.

HK: Absolutely. But I would do that anyway. I don’t think much of going to China if one wants to make a killing in two or three years.

CGI: Or because it’s a huge market and I want a piece of it.

HK: Well, it’s huge and it’s based on relationships. If you get too much of a unilateral advantage, you pay for it down the road. If one goes into China, one should do it with some attitude of mutual benefit.

CGI: Not mutual distrust?

HK: Well, one has to be realistic. You can’t base it on mutual distrust because in the end you depend on the relationships.

CGI: As somebody who has built a lot of relationships with administrations both here in the United States and in China, what are the things that have enabled you to build that enduring trust?

HK: In the political world, where I mostly operate, I believe that one has to start with understanding the other side’s point of view. You don’t have to yield to it, but you need to understand it. Secondly, my negotiating method almost invariably is that I tell the opposite member in the beginning exactly what I’m after. I don’t believe in salami tactics of slicing off a little bit at a time. Because against a formidable opponent you’ll get at that last forkful anyway. And then you have used up a lot of confidence.

In the business world, from what I have seen, one has to understand the nature of Chinese society. One cannot operate in China with the CEO blowing into town and meeting his opposite member and expect a final arrangement, because everything has to be built, even for the other CEO, on a series of relationships, that sustains him.

CGI: You’ve won the Nobel peace prize. A lot of people, when they think of your career in diplomacy, think of Vietnam. What do you think will be your legacy concerning the Vietnam war?

HK: What I think we have to come to sooner or later, if we want to have a rational view of our possibilities and of our past, is to get an objective view of the Vietnam war. I don’t know whether it is clear to you, but the Nixon administration did not start the Vietnam war. We inherited it with 530,000 people in place. And we withdrew 150,000 people each year and brought it to an end. You couldn’t tell that from the academic debate.

What we tried to do was to end the war on terms which were honorable. What we did not anticipate was that the war would be followed by the overthrow of Nixon in the Watergate period so that we were in no position to enforce the agreement. If you have an agreement you cannot enforce, you are in a desperate situation; you are in effect surrendering.

But I don’t want to see an assessment of who did what to whom. For a while, it was standard in universities to talk of so-called criminal activities of the government and lying and cheating. I’ve seen a lot of administrations of both parties and they are always staffed by honorable people who are trying to serve their country. So the question people should ask is, “why did leaders act this way? What made them make this decision?” and to debate in a rational way whether it was the best decision. This is something one could always argue about.

But we really should put an end to this attempt to find a phrase, now with the internet, to find a sentence in some conversation and then use it as if you were some prosecuting attorney.

If you look at Iraq or Afghanistan, or Algeria for the French, you see that there is a cycle to these wars by which they are ended. And they always take a long time. Some day people will read the actual records of the conversations and they’ll conclude that it was an honorable effort.

CGI: When you talk about people pulling phrases off the internet, are there particular phrases that you don’t like to see used?

HK: Well, I don’t like the phrase war criminal. But you know, this started before Nixon came into office. They did the same to Johnson. This deterioration of our domestic debate in which the president of the United States could not go out and make public appearances in the 1960s the early 70s was a blot on our country and has affected some of the debate up to this point.

CGI: So the emotionally fevered pitch of the time has lingered as the debate goes on. Is that what you’re saying?

HK: What I’m saying is, in great national issues, it is possible always to have a debate on what the wisest course is. It should not be confused with turning it into a moral issue and personal attacks on the leaders. I can’t complain because on the whole I’ve been treated fairly well.

CGI: Getting back to China, you note in your book that in international issues, each apparent solution is generally an admission ticket to a new set of problems. Does that apply to doing business in China?

HK: You have to remember that until this generation, the Chinese have had no experience with the international system. Now we’re talking about the interaction of two huge economies that affect the prosperity and stability of the world. There are certain peculiarities of the Chinese system. One, the absence of a legal system in the American sense, so that everything depends on relationships rather than rule of law. Secondly, the emphasis on family relationships. Third, they tend to think of everything in terms of process rather than in terms of outcome. All of these are differences that we need to keep in mind as more interaction is taking place.

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