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What Henry Kissinger thinks about Obama, Trump and China

November 21, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
At 93, Henry Kissinger is still one of the most influential -- and controversial -- foreign policy figures in America, says Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic editor-in-chief. The former secretary of state recently joined Goldberg for a conversation about the Obama legacy, the president-elect and more. Judy Woodruff reports as part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier this year, we reported on “Atlantic” magazine editor Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “The Obama Doctrine.” The lengthy piece gained widespread attention, including that of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who quietly let it be known that he’d like to share some thoughts of his own about President Obama’s foreign policy.

So, Jeffrey Goldberg and Kissinger sat down to talk.

This is a report on part of an ongoing partnership between the “NewsHour” and “The Atlantic.”

JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The Atlantic: He’s still really the most influential foreign policy thinker in America in a lot of ways.

And so, in my experience with him, there’s always something to learn, even at the age of 93, maybe especially at the age of 93. There’s always something to learn from him. And so we wound up spending hours talking about not just the Obama doctrine. We talked about the order of the world currently, and we talked a lot about the election.

He, like a lot of people, thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. We talked about both candidates. And, well, here we are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the news right now is the election of Donald Trump, and we’re going to talk about that.

But let’s go back to how your conversation with Henry Kissinger came about. What does he think about the legacy of Barack Obama’s foreign policy?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: He thinks that the president is too passive in his approach to foreign policy, that the American president has a responsibility to make more order in the world, especially as it relates to the other great powers, Russia and China in particular.

He also thinks that the president is too burdened by the alleged sins of the past — Kissinger would think of them more as alleged sins — of American behavior during the Cold War in various places, including Vietnam and Cambodia.

But, mainly, it has to do with a passivity that he sees in the present, a lack of strategic thinking, a lack of assertion. And, obviously, the president, when I was interviewing him on these subjects, Kissinger was almost sort of a specter in the room at various points, because the president would talk about the red line in Syria, for instance, and talk about how one of the worst reasons to bomb someone is to prove that you’re willing to bomb someone.

And I felt as if he were addressing Henry Kissinger and Kissinger’s role in Cambodia, using bombing to enhance American credibility at the negotiating table.

So, I found — it was a totally fascinating process for me, because I was moderating, non-chronologically, an argument between President Obama and the most important and most controversial foreign policy statesman of the modern era. And so — and so there was that piece.

The other piece is that Obama, in some ways, resembles Henry Kissinger. Kissinger recognizes this to some degree. I think the president recognizes it to some degree. Neither man particularly obsesses about human rights as a key issue in the way America organizes its relationship with other countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But when it comes to Cambodia and the bombing and during the Vietnam War and connecting that to what’s happening…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … right now in Syria, Kissinger is still defending the decisions that were made during the early part of the Nixon administration in the Vietnam War.


And I don’t think he will stop defending them. He feels as if his decision-making is misunderstood in the country, and he wants to make his point.

And the interesting thing, if I may, is, on Syria, he noted to me that John Kerry, the secretary of state, guy who had — who has the job that Henry Kissinger had, who started his public career as a Vietnam protester, had been arguing to the president that we have to bomb the Assad regime, in order to focus their attention on the necessity of negotiation.

And so you see these very interesting echoes throughout history, these unsolvable problems, these challenges that are in front of policy-makers. I have a feeling that John Kerry and Barack Obama today have slightly more understanding for the decisions that Nixon and Kissinger made in Vietnam. They might not agree with them, but they have a little bit more understanding.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other point that you make where you see some connection between Kissinger and Obama is the fact that human rights is not at the top of their list of priorities.


JUDY WOODRUFF: One wouldn’t expect that to be the case, would you?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: In Obama’s case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Obama’s case.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, that’s one of the interesting things. Like, hope and change is limited to within American borders in a lot of cases.

He is — this is — you know, I don’t think that President Obama would appreciate being called a neo-Henry Kissinger, but Obama’s view is: I, as president, have to manage my relationship with China, and me spending a lot of time lecturing them, and “punishing them” — quote, unquote — for their human rights violations, that’s not going to advance my immediate and long-term national security interests and economic interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, you spent a good bit of time with Henry Kissinger talking about President Obama’s approach to China, what is right about it and what Kissinger finds falls short.


First of all, I asked him what grade he gives Obama for managing the China portfolio, and he said B-plus. And I said, that’s a pretty high grade. That’s not a bad grade. And he said, yes, it’s a B-plus on tactics. It’s lower probably on strategy, on thinking through strategy.

Kissinger’s focus in global affairs has always been, what are the needs of the great powers, how do those needs align with our needs, how do we organize that? The opening to China, of course, was the apogee of this theory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You really cannot, I think, overstate the importance that Kissinger places on China and on China-U.S. relations in the world going forward, can you?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: No. No. It was his greatest achievement, and it was a world historical achievement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In 1971, when Kissinger was national security adviser to President Richard Nixon, he made a secret trip to the People’s Republic of China, which had not had relations with the U.S. in over 20 years.

Kissinger’s diplomacy paved the way for Nixon’s so-called opening to China in 1972. It was the beginning of China’s emergence as a world power.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: China is going to be the world’s biggest economy, if things keep going in the way they’re going.

Our future, our economic future, the American economic future, is in Asia. China believes itself to be the most powerful country in the world, the central kingdom. And so he’s saying that presidents have to have a strategic view and understand how to manage that aspect of Chinese relationships without coming to war.

The stability of the entire world depends on a constructive relationship between the United States and China. If that relationship deteriorates it’s bad for the U.S., it’s bad for the entire world.

So, it should be the number one priority of American foreign policy. But there’s chaos in the world, too. And American presidents have to deal with the chaos at the same time that they’re thinking about 10, 20, 30 years out how they’re going to deal with China.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how does he view Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s approach to…

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, in our most recent conversation, I said, so do you think that Donald Trump has matured? Do you think he’s become smarter, or more studious.

And he said, I’m not having that conversation. He’s the president-elect of the United States. And so what we should do is, essentially — I’m paraphrasing now — but we should wish him well, and be available to help him study, and help him understand the challenges before him.

Obviously, Henry Kissinger is a person, even at 93, who doesn’t like to be out of the game, doesn’t like to be out of the limelight, and so he’s basically saying: I’m here for you, Don, and I want to give you some sound advice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And last Thursday afternoon, Kissinger was able to do just that in a meeting with Trump, after which the president-elect said in a statement, “I have tremendous respect for Dr. Kissinger and appreciate him sharing his thoughts with me.”

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Kissinger’s basic rule, I think, is that, you know, know what you want to do, and know what things are unacceptable to you.

You have to know going into the presidency what things you cannot accept as the leader of the United States, and you have to reverse-engineer the problem. What could China do in the South China Sea that is not acceptable to U.S. national security interests? What could happen in the Middle East that is not acceptable?

So, first, you have to decide what your — to borrow a phrase, what your red lines are, and then you work back from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does he believe that someone who hasn’t had experience in world affairs and foreign policy can make a determination like that about what the red line should be before they come…


JEFFREY GOLDBERG: He doesn’t — he was very assiduous about not providing his opinion on where Donald Trump is on the learning curve right now.

I think it’s a universal truth that, if you’re not willing, or able, to take on board new information, new analysis, have long, involved conversations about these important issues, then you’re going to be operating at a real deficit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much, if not most of the foreign policy establishment in the United States has not been on board with Donald Trump.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Right. Quite the opposite.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How can he move ahead making decisions that are good for the country, when he hasn’t had these relationships with people?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Well, he’s going to have to do something that might be out of character for Donald Trump, which is to say bygones are bygones, pick up the phone, and say to Colin Powell, say to Madeleine Albright, say to to all these people come in and talk to me about what you know.

And, at the lower level, he’s going to have to be open to the idea that people who disagreed with him, disagreed with his candidacy, that they should come back into government and help.

And the flip side of that is that all of these people who were so nervous about Donald Trump becoming president now might have to say to themselves, well, Donald Trump is president, president-elect, and so I better make myself available to go back into government, because better me than some guy nobody ever heard of with no experience, because these are not un-serious challenges.

These are life-and-death issues. You want people who understand the global ISIS threat really well to be sitting next to Donald Trump when he actually has to make decisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you worried about right now? What do you — do you have expectations for this administration, or not?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I’m worried about everything, for starters.

QUESTION: Mr. Trump, do you feel ready to be president, sir?

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I’m worried about a willingness to hire the best people. I’m worried about temperament. I’m worried about his attention, his focus.

I am not entirely worried that he’s actually going to carry out all of the things he said he would do. I’m worried about accidents. Who do you want in the White House when the CIA director comes over and says the North Koreans now have the ability to deliver one of their nuclear weapons by intercontinental ballistic missile to the American mainland? What do you want to do about it, Mister or Madame President?

And I want somebody in that job, obviously, who can make reasonable, rational decisions, and take in the best advice.