Henry A. Kissinger

Speeches and Public Statements

The Intellectual Underpinnings of the Trilateral Partnership in the 21st Century

Remarks to the Trilateral Commission Tokyo Plenary Meeting

April 26, 2009

When the Trilateral Commission was started in 1974, the world was essentially bipolar. The idea of David Rockefeller and his colleagues was to bring Japan into a dialogue with what was then the center of global thinking and power, namely, the North Atlantic area. China had just begun its relationship with the United States—it was not yet a significant economic factor—and Japan was an outpost in Asia for concerns that were evolved primarily in the North Atlantic context. Since then, the international system has changed fundamentally.

Let me talk about the nature of the international order and the issues in relation to the international order that I see emerging and which require some global group to address them. Since 1974, we have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, the rise of China, and the replacement in India of non-alignment in favor of active participation in global affairs. We have also seen the rise of nongovernmental organizations—some terrorist, some nongovernmental organizations that undertake positive work, but all of them active in a manner that was marginal or nonexistent in the administration in which I served. Terrorism was a very marginal phenomenon. We dealt with governments and we thought we had a difficult time, but those governments were only very indirectly affected by the groups that avowed terrorism.

One of the major themes of this new period is the shift of the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The other is the collapse of the financial system that had been believed to be—in the 1980s and 1990s— the pillar of the economic financial order.

Some of the discussions with respect to the economic system create the impression that, at the end of the current crisis, we will go back to a slightly improved version of the previous system, with perhaps some more regulation. I do not believe that that is possible. There are a number of reasons why it will be possible or desirable to restore the dominant position of the United States. One of the key issues that needs to be discussed in this group and others is how to develop and then operate an international economic system that is multipolar.

One of the consequences of the financial crisis is a certain loss of confidence in the United States across the board. Many governments had become used to the proposition that in the political world America has flights of inspiration that prove transient. But in the economic world it had been assumed that the US model was correct and would be permanent. The fact that this has proved not to be the case will affect the American ability to prescribe solutions in a fundamental way.

For better or worse, the role of government in the next period will be much larger and attention will have to be paid to the fundamental flaw of the globalized economic system as it existed before the crisis. This was that the economic model and the political model of the global order were out of sync with each other. The global economic model assumed that there were principles that could be applied universally and that it was self-regulating. For that reason it was not believed to be necessary to have a political safety net for the economic system. But the fact was that whenever a crisis occurred, or whenever any group felt significantly disadvantaged, they would go to the political institutions with which they were familiar and these were the national governments. Therefore, inherent discontinuity emerged between the way economics was dealt with and the way politics would react. In the first round of the contemporary crisis, most of the solutions attempted were on a national and not on a global basis.

So, all of these matters will need attention and they will need attention in a very special context. Every country that holds the views I described - which is most of them - has two contradictory motivations. On the one hand, they want to make themselves independent of the forces that produced the crisis and, to a certain extent, the US. At the same time, they recognize that the solutions require a global answer. The result will have to be the evolution of some kind of multipolar leadership of the international system. Let me now turn to that issue.

The political world is in a period of fundamental change. When I taught international politics, we dealt with the concept of sovereignty as the organizing principle of the international system, both for foreign policy and for domestic policy. But now the notion of sovereignty is under attack or in the process of change in many parts of the world. Europe, which originated the concept of the nation-state, has voluntarily surrendered part of its sovereignty to the European Union. But the European Union has not been able, up to now, to generate the political loyalties that the nation-state did. Therefore there is a gap in Europe between the way foreign policy used to be conducted when the nation-state was the repository of political loyalties and the current situation. On the economic level the European Union becomes stronger but has not yet been able to develop the kind of strategic foreign policy that used to be characteristic of Europe.

Some of the disagreements that have existed between Europe and the United States are due not 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 run risks on behalf of 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 ask its people for significant sacrifices and the European Union has not yet created the requisite 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 European attitude, but if we push that issue, we will weaken our relationship for no benefit. 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 collapsed for quite different reasons. In the Middle East, the notion of a sovereign state conducting an autonomous foreign policy was introduced at the end of World War I by the European countries. It, therefore, has not ever, and certainly does not now, attract 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. It has had an historic 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 there is a tendency to consider each other as potential strategic adversaries. A balancing of power of the various states is always in the back of the minds of Asian leaders.

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 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 less likely is the emergence of global issues that can only be dealt with on a global basis—issues like climate, the environment, energy, trade, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and they impel a global approach. Moreover, the nations of Europe went to war with each other because they thought the consequences of defeat were worse than the consequences of war. No country possessing modern weapons can have any illusions about the drastic impact of war 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, Otherwise order 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 also include NGOs and other 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 by many intellectual groups.

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 had high office 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.

So, it is an enterprise that is not something that you can achieve with placards or in outbursts of pacifism. It is because when you ask yourself of the impact on the world of the reduction of nuclear weapons, each phase of this has its own aspects and each phase will lead to a very complicated political discussion on verification and consequences.

I have been very much engaged in putting Russian-American relations on a more stable basis. In dealing with Russian strategists one learns that the notion we had in the 1970s of a Russia with unlimited reserves of manpower, threatening Europe militarily with its conventional force that had to be opposed with nuclear weapons on the ground is totally reversed. Under current conditions it is Russia today that thinks that it is surrounded by countries with unlimited reserves of manpower and unlimited ideological commitment. Hence, Russia finds itself relying on nuclear weapons in an unprecedented manner. The issue of nuclear weapons and the zero option has similarities to the Schleswig-Holstein Question in the 19th century, about which Lord Palmerston said there were only three people who had ever understood it: one was dead, the second was in a lunatic asylum, and he himself was the third and he had forgotten all about it. We have to be the third on this issue and we have to learn about it. This is one of the great challenges before us.

All of us here have been affected by the rise of China. It has been an explicit and an unspoken aspect of many of our discussions. It has never happened before that a country of such magnitude entered the international system without conflict and yet this is precisely the challenge for our international order.

There are two aspects to this. One is, What is Chinese policy? Is it Chinese military policy to dominate the region? This is something one can affect, and must affect, by discussions. The second is the weight of China. Regardless of the intentions of Chinese leaders, the weight of China will increase. It is inevitable; it is a fact of life; and it must, therefore, be considered in any discussions we have about a new international system. This requires wisdom and restraint on the part of all parties. No conversation in the world today is more important than the American and Chinese strategic dialogue. This does not derogate from any of our alliances; it is not a way of governing the world. Quite the contrary, it is a dialogue that makes it possible to create a multipolar world based on the recognition by two of the countries that are the principal carriers of international economic and strategic power of the role that they must play in this. So what we need to think about is this. What matters can only be done, or can best be done, on a global basis? What matters should be done on a regional basis? What issues require specific, limited groupings to deal with them?

This afternoon, we have heard about the issue of Afghanistan, and that issue and the Pakistan issue involve, really, two problems. One is the traditional military problem of how do you deal with the challenge to order that has presented itself. But secondly, there is the necessity of creating a political system in the region that enables all of the affected countries to act in a unified manner over an extended period of time. India, China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and the United States need to develop parallel goals and to merge them into a common diplomacy to achieve what in the 19th century would have been considered a neutral status for Afghanistan.

Having described all of these complexities, let me leave us with a positive feeling. First, the international financial crisis so preoccupies every country with its own domestic issues that no country has a great surplus of resources that it can devote to international adventures. So, with strong political leadership this is a good objective circumstance. Secondly, we are living in a period in which, for the first time that I know of, no major country is challenging the international system. All of the challenges to the international system come from countries that, in relation to the overall order, are relatively fringe countries or from non-state actors. So, the opportunities that we can see in developing the global patterns that are inherent in this situation are very great despite the fact that the surface knowledge is the opposite.

To all of this I think this Trilateral Commission can make a significant intellectual contribution. It can raise issues; it can define them in a long-range point of view; and it can help with one of the great needs of this period, which is that governments are so preoccupied with the immediate issues that there is sometimes no focal point for a consistent application of long-range visions. So we can raise issues, we can indicate directions, and in this way we can fulfill the vision that created the Trilateral Commission when it operated in a smaller framework and when one of its primary purposes was to bring Japan into a North Atlantic framework. Now it can help bring Asia and Russia into a coherent global framework.

Back to Speeches »