Kissinger: U.S.-China Ties Hold Promise And Peril Forty years after the U.S. and China resumed formal relations, the man who did much to advance the reconciliation tells NPR it's "of crucial importance" how the relationship between the powers evolves. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's new book is On China..
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Kissinger: U.S.-China Ties Hold Promise And Peril

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Kissinger: U.S.-China Ties Hold Promise And Peril

Kissinger: U.S.-China Ties Hold Promise And Peril

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Forty years ago, Mao Zedong's China loomed as an implacable enemy of the United States. The world's most populous country remained among its poorest, convulsed by the cultural revolution that killed tens of millions. The People's Republic brutally crushed Tibet and regularly threatened to invade Taiwan, which the United States and most of the rest of the world still recognized as the legitimate government of China. Beijing also supported North Vietnam and communist forces in Laos and Cambodia, which fought the U.S. in the long, bloody war in Indochina.

But there proved to be something more important: a common enemy, the Soviet Union. A delicate and dramatic diplomatic dance eventually took President Richard Nixon to the Forbidden City to shake hands with Chairman Mao and change the world. Now one of the architects of that coup has a new book out that summarizes China's long history, details his role in the opening to China and his continued discussions with Chinese leaders in the decades since. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and commentator Ted Koppel join us in just a moment.

If you have questions about the many interests or our many differences with China, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ted Koppel joins us from his home in Maryland. Ted, always a pleasure.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And Henry Kissinger joins us from our bureau in New York. His new book is called "On China." And Secretary Kissinger, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

HENRY KISSINGER: Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And we see China in yet another wave of political repression today. In the long run, do you think the Chinese Communist Party can survive the political pressures created by the country's economic successes?

KISSINGER: I believe that the Chinese political system will have to be adapted to the economic changes that have taken place and the enormous transformations of Chinese society. And it has already been stated by several of the leading Chinese that some adaptation of the political system will be necessary.

CONAN: It's been stated, but it hasn't been enacted. It's still pretty rigid.

KISSINGER: No. But there's a new administration coming in, and right now, it is in a very defensive mode.


KOPPEL: As I read your book, Dr. Kissinger, I get the sense that you have developed a great admiration, if not affection both for the Chinese people, speaking historically, but also in terms of what they've accomplished over the last few decades. Would that be an overstatement?

KISSINGER: No. That would not be an overstatement. But one has to distinguish respect for what the Chinese people have accomplished historically: the longest unbroken record of self-government of any society in the world today, of any society we know anything about, and also the economic transformations that have taken place in the last 30 years.

KOPPEL: As you look back, when did you begin gathering pieces of string for this book? When did you come up with the idea that you wanted to write this history?

KISSINGER: I have been, of course, talking to Chinese leaders for 40 years, now. And I began to be concerned with the evolution of the two societies. We are going to be the two strongest societies in the world - countries in the world. We're going to impinge on each other in every part of the world. And there are many problems that have arisen that can only be dealt with on a global basis. So what - how this relationship will evolve will be of crucial importance. So about three - two, three years ago, I began to consider whether I could draw, from the conversations that I have had or participated in, some conclusions with respect to these questions.

As I reflected about that, it seemed to me necessary to go back to the history, so that it is not a book about my experiences in China, but it is a book about the way two societies that have had a different cultural background and a different trajectory in their history can interact with each other. And that evolved over the last three or four years.

KOPPEL: If you look back at the moment in 1969, just before the first moves were made by Mao and then responded to by Nixon, or the other way around - I mean, President Nixon made a couple of very tentative moves toward the Chinese. At that moment, there were a million Soviet troops on China's northern border. There had actually been some rather fierce battles - I remember reporting on them from Hong Kong in 1969. And at the same time, on their southern border, in Vietnam, you had half a million U.S. troops.

Had you looked at things differently - you had just come into your new office as the president's national security advisor. Had you looked at things from more of a Chinese point of view back then, I am forced to the conclusion that we could have been out of Vietnam a lot sooner. I'd like your response.

KISSINGER: Well, it's a conclusion that was certainly hidden from us, and I don't remember anyone arguing that point. But how exactly could we have accomplished this?

KOPPEL: Well, what I'm saying is, if you - if instead of looking at China as being the threat, where Chinese communism was going to, first of all, overrun Vietnam and then eventually move westwards until they reached Hawaii, you might have looked at China as being a country that regarded itself as being threatened by the Soviets in the north and by the Americans in the south.

KISSINGER: Well, first of all, the administration which I served was not the administration that made the American commitment to Vietnam. The administration in which I served came into office and found 550,000 troops already in place, and they had been put there on the basis of a theory in the two previous administrations, from a different party, which argued that there was a unified communist conspiracy moving from Moscow to Beijing to Hanoi that was threatening American security.

When the Nixon administration came into office, we concluded fairly quickly that this was not the - probably - the correct interpretation, and we began removing troops from Vietnam within the first three months. And in the first two years, we ended all combat involvement of ground forces in Vietnam, and withdrew at a rate of about 150,000 a year. And from the first months of the administration, we worked systematically to move China away from what had previously appeared like a unified communist bloc. So I think we attempted to fulfill the purposes which you outlined in your question.

KOPPEL: As you look back now, it seems as though Mao was trying - particularly through the American journalist Edgar Snow - to send some signals to the United States that were missed. Is that a fair statement?

KISSINGER: That's a fair statement. And the signals - one signal occurred in the Johnson administration, and the other signal occurred in the Nixon administration. But one shouldn't think of foreign policy like a detective story, in which the other side throws out vague signals and you have to guess at the answer.

What happened was that China and the United States had not had any contact with each other for 20 years. In each country - certainly in ours and probably in China, there were elements who believed that the relationship between the two countries would be irreconcilably hostile. So each side had the problem of how to make an overture without, at the same time, embarrassing itself by a rejection.

We went to Romania and asked Romania to pass messages to Beijing. Our reasoning was that Romania, of all Soviet satellite states, was the one that was conducting the most independent foreign policy, and was therefore most likely to pass the message on.

Mao went to Edgar Snow and made elliptical references. Both messages sort of failed. The...

KOPPEL: We have to remind people: Edgar Snow...


KOPPEL: ...was the man who wrote the book "Red Star over China" and was regarded by Americans as being something of a turncoat. And it was, in a sense...

KISSINGER: And sort of a fellow traveler.

CONAN: Yeah. You say we shouldn't regard it as a detective story. At times, it takes on the character of a Keystone Kops comedy. You have American diplomats showing up at a Yugoslav fashion show in Warsaw, trying to deliver a message to Chinese diplomats who don't want to receive it, so they start running away as soon as they see the American...

KISSINGER: That happened afterwards. I mean - anyway, that's right. I mean, what happened then, Beijing - or Mao didn't want to deal with us through a communist channel. We didn't want to deal with Edgar Snow. So neither of us were sure of the message. So we decided to tackle the Chinese directly and inserted our ambassador in Poland - which was the only place where there was any contact, and the only place where the Chinese still had an ambassador because of the Cultural Revolution - to approach the Chinese diplomat at the next social function, and then what you described happened. Our diplomats chased - went up to the Chinese. The Chinese ran away, because he had no instructions, didn't know what to do.

CONAN: And the American diplomats were shouting: We'd like to send a message from our president. Well, we'll talk more about the results of that message, when it was finally received, when we get back after a short break. Stay with us. You're listening to the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In his new book "On China," Henry Kissinger describes how he set up President Nixon's historic visit to Beijing. All that happened 40 years ago. Some details, though, are new, and interest persists. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation and read an excerpt from "On China" at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests, of course, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, recipient of the Nobel Prize for the Paris Peace Accords, author of 16 books - the latest, "On China." Of course, Ted Koppel with us, the former head of ABC's "Nightline," NPR commentator.

And Ted, there's a lot of exquisite detail about the conversations that Secretary Kissinger - then National Security Advisor Kissinger - had in China with his interlocutors, mostly Zhou Enlai. But I think you have some questions about some of the conversations he may have had with his own boss.

KOPPEL: Well, I do, because I can't help but feeling that when you came out after that historic trip to Beijing, you write a lot about the conversations that you and President Nixon had with Chairman Mao and with then-Premier Zhou Enlai. There is nothing about what the two of you must have said to one another when you got on the plane and you left and you were finally flying out of China. I mean, it had to be one of the most bizarre experiences of your life, and I'd love to hear what you were talking about.

KISSINGER: I would say the most significant conversation about the subject that you raise didn't occur on the plane. On the plane going out, the president was preoccupied with trying to deal with the public reaction to the visit and the various reports that were coming in about senatorial and congressional and media attitudes. But on the night after the final dinner, I - Nixon asked me to come to his room, and that had a veranda attached to it, overlooking Shanghai. And there, he was reflecting, and I would say we were both reflecting about the significance of this visit and the impact it might have on international affairs.

KOPPEL: Can you let us into some of the details of that now, 40 years later?

KISSINGER: Well, there was nothing spectacularly secret about them. We were not - we had discussed the details of the relationship already during the meetings with the Chinese. What we were mostly reflecting about is what impact it might have on Soviet relations, on the probability of ending the war in Vietnam, and what might happen if a triangular relationship, in fact, developed between China, the United States and Soviet Union, what consequences it should have for American foreign policy. And one conclusion to which we came was that it was in the American national interest to stay closer to each of these great communist powers than they were to each other.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from a listener, Kate, in Santa Barbara, California, who says: I'm a young reporter for all-news WINS in New York City, out in Queens, covering a hostage situation - big news. I'm catching cops, sneaking around the back of the project, begging locals for use of their home phones to plug in my alligator clips - remember them - going live three times an hour. Then I call in breathless to hear: Can't take you now. You can stand down. Henry Kissinger has just gone to China.

Let's see if we can get a call in. This is Gary, Gary with us from Campbell, in California.

GARY (Caller): Yeah. My question is for Henry Kissinger. If we believe in democracy and that legitimate representation only comes through the electoral process, does it work against our best interests by pretending that leaders, like in China, represent the Chinese people?

KISSINGER: We are not pretending - we are not making any claim, or we were - as to who represents the Chinese people. Our oblig-- necessity at that time was to deal with the Chinese leaders that existed and with the Chinese that had been in power for 30 years and that represented the impact on the security situation in the world. The United States...

KOPPEL: Neal, if I could...

KISSINGER: ...often deals with countries whose governments were not directly elected by the people.


KOPPEL: Let me just follow up on that, for a moment. When you talk about dealing with governments that were not elected by the people, we have to go a little bit further with Mao Zedong. He was, arguably, the greatest killer of the 20th century. During the course of both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, arguably, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million people or more died. And they died as a direct consequence of policies that he implemented. When you deal with someone like that, can you allow that even to become a part of the equation?

KISSINGER: We didn't know the exact magnitude of the deaths, but we know that a horrendous famine had occurred in China, and that the casualties were huge. Now, it - the problem that existed at the time was to deal with a situation in which the Soviet Union might attack China. China, which had been a fundamental enemy of the United States, was in a position in which, for its own reasons, it chose to soften relations and to take off the pressures where it was exercising pressures. And it was therefore thought to be in the national interest of the United States to deal with them. And every succeeding presidency from both political parties has come to the same conclusion.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much for the phone call.

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN: And if I could just follow up, as you know, your book has attracted some criticism, including - just to follow up on Ted's point - some who argue that you considerably low-ball the casualties in the Cultural Revolution, that it was, you say, more than 20 million. Others say at least 30, maybe 40 million people. And as you've probably read in the Sunday Times, the reviewer, Frank Dikotter, said the book comes alarmingly close to reading like an official Communist Party version of the country's history. Hard to avoid the conclusion that Kissinger is extraordinarily blinkered and apologetic.

KISSINGER: Well, I didn't see that particular review, because most of the other reviews did not make anything like that point. I fail to understand - I was saying that the casualties were over 20 million. This is not a book about the details. And I would make that you cannot make a moral distinction between whether it was 20 million or 40 million. The condemnation is equally great. I have no difficulty accepting the higher figure. I'll accept whatever figure is demonstrated. The research that I did led me to believe that over 20 million was accurate enough. I draw no moral conclusion from whether it's the difference is 20 million or 40 million.

And from the moral point of view, the condemnation is equally strong, whether it was 40 million or 20 million. And I'm happy to join the condemnation at the level of 40 million. That is not - I certainly made clear that it was an unmitigated disaster, and that there were huge casualties. And this, I think, is one of these reviewing points that people make to press home some other issue. It is not an issue with me.

KOPPEL: I think you can understand, Dr. Kissinger, that it's relevant in the current climate, when the question is raised: Should the United States be involving itself actively in what's happening in Syria, or in places like Zimbabwe? Or whether we should have involved ourselves actively in Libya. These are all issues in which the question of human rights is raised and the larger question is then raised whether, when human rights are being abrogated in a country like that, whether the United States has a moral or practical obligation to become involved. What would your answer be?

KISSINGER: The question - the issue is what you mean by being involved. I personally lived, in my childhood and in my early youth, in a totalitarian country as a member of a discriminated minority under constant threat. So in my personal life, I have a considerable, a great concern for human rights.

In office, one has to weigh the consequences one draws from that conviction against the consequences of another course. You take the issue of Syria: of course, what is going on is outrageous. And of course, our government is correct in pointing that out and taking what sanctions it considers appropriate. But then, when you go a step further and ask should we physically intervene, that then raises a whole set of other problems, including the willingness to fight an extended war and all the consequences that flow from that.

At the time of the opening to China, I don't remember that there was any objection to the fact - any significant objection to the fact that detaching China from the Soviet Union was in the national interest of the United States. Successive administrations have made their view on the issue of human rights in China clear. And I'm tracing that, in the book, through the various administrations.

But when you're dealing with a country which is a continuing element in the international equation, you have to consider the consequences, not just of your rhetoric, but of the specific actions you can undertake. A number of American presidents - President Bush, President Clinton - undertook sanctions against China in order to vindicate their human rights views. And in both cases, they were gradually abandoned because it was felt that the consequences - that the benefits did not match the price one paid for it. But that America should continue, publicly, to affirm its commitment to human rights. Also, with respect to China, that issue, it's not - that is not debated.

CONAN: Henry Kissinger is the author most recently of "On China." Also with us, Ten Koppel, NPR commentator. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And to follow up on that same point, Ron in Rochester, New York, sends an email. How do you think we should talk with China about Tibet?

KISSINGER: I think we should tell China that we are, in principle, for self-determination of peoples. And we also have to remember that for China this is a vital national interest. So if our government pursues that issue, it has to balance these two considerations.

CONAN: Let's see. We get Simeon on, Simeon with us from Rochester, New York. Simeon, are you there?

SIMEON (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

SIMEON: Hi. How are you? Yeah. Thank you so much for taking my call. I'd like to congratulate Mr. Kissinger for years, if not decades of work at trying to establish world peace. One of the points I'd like to make is that, I have been involved in politics for quite some time. And myself and the people that I'm associated, which are - by the millions - we recognize the one world government agenda, and we are very much opposed to it. We stand by our sovereignty and we proclaim death to the New World Order. And we will die for that ideology.

CONAN: And we thank you for your idealism. Thanks very much for the phone call. Let's see if we can go next, to - this is Nick, Nick with us from Houston.

NICK (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

NICK: Yes. I was wondering if Mr. Kissinger could talk a little bit about the end of the Vietnam War. So while we were kind of waiting for peace accords - with China, maybe a proxy war being fought, there were secret bombings of people going on in Laos. Victims are still dying of the cluster bombs that were left behind by the U.S. there. So, I just wonder what Mr. Kissinger would like to say to the victims of that that were going on while this - while the superpowers were having their meetings.

KISSINGER: Well, there are number of points here in which your information is, to say it mildly, quite inaccurate. There was no delay in the peace efforts in Vietnam in order to conduct diplomacy with China. On the contrary, we started negotiations with the Vietnamese almost immediately that the administration came into office. And these negotiations stalled on one point and one principal point only, which was the right of the people of Vietnam to choose their own future. The North Vietnamese insisted that we turn them over to a communist regime. And that is a condition we were not willing to meet. And once the Vietnamese accepted the principle of their free determination, we settled very quickly.

Secondly, let me tell you a bit about secret bombing. The so-called secret bombing took place in a strip 10 miles wide along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, in which four Vietnamese divisions sat, concentrated on the Cambodian side, launched attacks into Vietnam. The bombing occurred after 2,500 Americans had been killed in one month at the very beginning of the Nixon administration, before any peace movement could even have taken effect. And we were bombing Cambodia - Vietnamese concentrations on Cambodian soil, in territory that was essentially unpopulated, something we do every day in populated territory in Pakistan. And the issue is the same. When there are sanctuaries from which American and other forces are being attacked, what should do the United States do and what should a president do?

CONAN: We're talking with Henry Kissinger about his new book, "On China." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: Right now, we're talking with Henry Kissinger about his new book, "On China," the former United States secretary of state, former national security adviser. Also, of course, with us: Ted Koppel, NPR commentator. And, Secretary Kissinger, fascinating to read in your book about the long history of a China that was very largely self-sufficient and needed very little from the outside world. That, of course, is not the case today when China is terribly interested in acquiring all sorts of commodities - and, principally, oil - from many places in the world. And this has led to some disputes in places like the South China Sea. How do you see this new factor in China's foreign policy?

KISSINGER: Well, historically, as you correctly pointed out, China has been substantially self-sufficient and has never had to deal with an international environment in which it encountered countries of equal magnitude until well into the 19th century. Now China is part of a globalized economic system and is dependent on the acquisition of resources.

The South China - from around the world, the South China Sea problem is a different one. There are two different sets of issues in the South China Sea. One is freedom of navigation. And there are a lot of islands, little islands. Some are simply rocks. And if you put economic zone, which - around each of them, you can come up with a theory that freedom of navig - that South China Sea is a kind of territorial sea. The United States has always stood for freedom of navigation.

There were some disputes last year about this that seemed to be challenged from the China side. The Chinese defense minister in Singapore, at a recent conference at the Institute of Strategic Studies, seemed to pull back from these Chinese claims. And in any event, the American position will be - and should be - freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as in all other open seas.

The second issue is the allocation or who controls which islands in that region. And many of those issues are undetermined at - and they involve the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and China. And there the American position should be - and is - that we advocate a peaceful resolution of these disputes and international mechanisms to solve them.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another...

KOPPEL: Let me follow up on...

CONAN: Go ahead, Ted.

KOPPEL: Let me follow up on - Neal. Yeah. I just wanted to follow up on your question, Neal. The Chinese have shown themselves to be terribly effective in the projection of what's been called soft power. They are active in Africa. They are active in Latin America. They are active in the Persian Gulf, in the acquisition of not just oil but all kinds of other essential elements that they are going to need, and, quite frankly, that we and India and any number of other countries are going to need over the next decades - while we are engaged in a trillion-dollar, two-and-a-half wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now Libya. Do you foresee a time when we're going to come into conflict with the Chinese over the acquisition of those elements?

KISSINGER: The issue that you raise is one of the reasons why I wrote this book. If one looks at the relationship between China and the United States from the historic - from the point of view in which other nations dealt with rising societies and what - one would have to say that some conflict is inevitable. When one looks at the consequences of such a conflict, one has to draw the conclusion that an attempt at a collaborative solution is imperative.

So we have to make at least the attempt to avoid drifting into a series of confrontations on local issues, which will gradually escalate into a new Cold War-type situation, now conducted on an absolutely global basis and in a much more complex way. Yes, I can conceive that tensions will arise, and if they end - as I pointed out in the book - both sides has have to practice this collaborative approach for it to work. It cannot be done by one side unilaterally.

CONAN: Following up on exactly that point - and interestingly, on the same point you confronted 40 years ago in Beijing - Joe(ph) in Minneapolis sends an email: What's the future for Taiwan? What are the odds that it will come into conflict with Mainland China? Zero? Near zero? Could anything happen? What are the odds of their reunification? Never or maybe, if the right circumstances develop?

KISSINGER: Right now, the two sides are operating on three principles. The United States has accepted the notion of one China. It has also insisted on a peaceful solution, and it has also urged both sides to avoid unilateral acts that increase tensions. On the basis of these general principles and as they've been expressed in the Shanghai Communique, there have been 40 years in which the military tension has been minimal.

As time goes on, one can hope that negotiations between the two sides will take place in which the autonomy of Taiwan and its ability to develop in its own direction will be respected. And until that is achieved, the principles that I have outlined should govern our conduct. I see no American government that is - that will abandon the principle of a peaceful resolution.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get Mark(ph) on the line, Mark with us from Los Gatos in California.

MARK (Caller): Hello, Dr. Kissinger; Ted. Great to be a part of the conversation. I'd like to say, to begin with, I respect Dr. Kissinger tremendously. I think that his knowledge and prowess in the political arena is something that we could sorely use today. A very quick question to deviate from China, what are his views on the Middle East peace situation between Palestine and Israel, and how would he conduct things if he was in a position to do so at the moment?

KISSINGER: The - that's not a question that one can answer in a few minutes. The Palestinian issue is embedded in the overall Arab attitude towards Israel and in the Israeli perception of the threat to it. What is needed in a peace settlement, the basic outline, despite the disputes between the president and Netanyahu has been pretty well established, namely that the settlement will follow more or less the '67 lines except for the settlements that are located around Jerusalem so that some defensive depths can be created.

On the Palestinian side, it is necessary to give some content to the word peace. It isn't enough, simply, to recognize the state of Israel as a state. There has to be a reduction of the propaganda that seeks the extermination of Israel and some increase in local contact and contact within the region. These objectives, at times, seem close to realization.

At this moment, with the various revolutions sweeping the Arab world, it is very difficult to find a partner whose assurances can be extended over a long enough period of time to make up for the territorial reductions that Israel will suffer by withdrawing from most of the occupied territory.

CONAN: Doesn't Israel have a responsibility to do something on its behalf too? Is it all on the Arabs?

No, Israel's contribution will have to be withdrawing from much of the occupied territory and to participate in a cooperative Middle East pattern.

Would - Ted, you know, I can hear you try to get in there. Go ahead, please.

KOPPEL: No, no, no. I was going to go in another direction. Go ahead, Neal, and then I'll follow.

CONAN: Well, I'll go ahead in an unexpected direction to say, we're talking with Henry Kissinger about his new book, "On China," along with Ted Koppel. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Ted, please.

KOPPEL: I like to - yes, I want to go back to Libya. What is it about Libya that you think engages the U.S. national interest? And what is it about Libya then that engages it more, for example, than what is going on in Syria?

KISSINGER: Well, I have stated publicly that I was very uneasy about the Libyan enterprise. What engaged the American interest was the fear of a massacre in the Benghazi region and the conviction that we could not stand by in the face of the threat by Gadhafi that they would go house by house and cleanse out the opponents. It's gone, however, now from this essentially humanitarian mission to an attempt to - which will be successful - to overthrow Gadhafi. And my concern is that we will be obliged - will be obliged to go into another nation-building exercise in a state that has not been a state really for all of its history, that has been run as the personal possession of Gadhafi.

And having said all of this, now that we are engaged in this enterprise, we at least ought to achieve the objective of removing Gadhafi, although I probably would not have recommended this as a military operation.

KOPPEL: But if the humanitarian reasons for going into Libya were sufficient for U.S. engagement, why does not the same imperative apply to Syria and any number of other countries around the world?

KISSINGER: Because we don't have the resources nor the willingness to engage in every civil war. We have to understand it's about humanitarian intervention. If we intervene militarily in a humanitarian case, it will almost inevitably lead to an attempt to bring about regime change, because one is intervening against a government's action against its people. I favor that as a principle. But as a practical matter, one is then engaged in a war to the death with the government concerned.

Now, if the government is sufficiently small, if its - if the casualties we would suffer are acceptable to the American public, it is absolutely the moral thing to do. But if one is dealing with a country of the magnitude of China, and maybe even of Syria, then the idea of American military intervention as a general principle will exhaust us and draw us into the kind of conflict that tore us apart in Vietnam.

This is why we went into Vietnam. This is what we experienced in Iraq, when we were trying to create a government according to our principles, which I greatly share. And this is my hesitation in the Libyan case. But one also has to add that once the United States is involved, then you cannot rectify this by failing.

And, therefore, I think, the Libyan military part should be brought to a rapid conclusion, recognizing that at the end of it, we will face a very painful process of nation-building, which will - I would not have stated as the principal American goal three months ago.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left. I wanted to ask you, finally, about a - something you wrote in a Washington Post op-ed just as the U.S.-China summit began in January. President Obama and Premier Hu face an opinion among elites in their country that emphasizes conflict rather than cooperation, conflict rather than cooperation. Is the future going to be then dominated by those elites?

KISSINGER: Well, I hope that the elites will come to the realization that conflict between countries of this magnitude and of this impact will be catastrophic for the world.

I've often asked myself, what would have happened if, say, in 1910, the leaders of Europe had known what the world would look like in 1919, after four years of World War I. Would they have gotten into war or would they have try to find some means of settling the disputes that led to war and which had written out of a consciousness and a belief that conflict was the inevitable nature of foreign policy? And I say this as somebody who started on international relations by studying strategy and who is generally considered a defense hawk and maybe even a hardliner.

But the world that we are facing now obliges us to try to avoid sliding into this. And that is what my book was about and not some of the technical details.

CONAN: The book is called "On China." Secretary Kissinger, thank you very much for your time today. Also, thanks to Ted Koppel, NPR commentator, who joined us from his home in Maryland. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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