Today's date:
Summer 2010

Better to Remain Ambiguous on Nukes

Henry Kissinger is a former US secretary of state. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels about President Obama’s nuclear policies, how to deal with China and the new alliance of BRIC countries.

NPQ | You have said that you see President Obama as a chess player setting up his moves on the world stage in the first year and a half in office. How do you assess his moves of late on the new START treaty, the Nuclear Posture Statement and the just-completed nuclear security summit with world leaders?

Henry Kissinger | The START treaty is a significant step in achieving a reset in the Russian-American relationship. It replaces the first START treaty, which had lapsed in December. The announced reductions are marginal in substance and achieved in part by changing the counting rules. It is a useful step that deserves ratification.

I agree with the attempt of the Nuclear Posture Statement to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons where we can safely do so. Some of the assurances that were given to non-nuclear countries, however, seem to me too explicit. Especially the statement that the United States would not respond to biological and chemical attacks with nuclear weapons. That issue should be left ambiguous.

As for the recent summit of world leaders, controlling fissionable material all over the world is crucial, especially as the civilian use of nuclear energy spreads. Of these three initiatives on the nuclear weapons front taken by Obama, this is the most important subject. It will need continued attention to be effective.

NPQ | One of the stumbling blocks the last time the US and the then-Soviet Union discussed radical arms reductions at Reykjavik during the Reagan administration was the issue of missile defense. That is an issue this time as well, since the Russians oppose basing a missile defense in Europe aimed against Iran that could be directed against them. And, apparently, they reserve the right to withdraw from the START treaty if the missile defense issue is not solved.

George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, suggests that the US propose sharing the missile defense system with Russia, even basing radar sites on its soil. Is this realistic? Is it a good idea?

Kissinger | I favor developing a joint missile defense with Russia against Iran. But the US also needs missile defenses controlled by the US against strategic attack from other directions. So, let’s cooperate with Russia on Iran, but we cannot relinquish missile defenses aimed at other threats—especially unauthorized launches and accidental launches.

NPQ | When you made the opening to China with Richard Nixon, the country was flat on its back in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution. Since then, it has had double-digit growth for several decades; it has a large emerging middle class, the world’s fastest trains and vast currency reserves. It is the main holder of American Treasury securities.

As a result, one senses in China these days an inner-civilizational confidence that borders on arrogance. That has led China to assert itself strongly vis-à-vis the US on Google, Tibet, Taiwan and climate change, with more contradictory signals on Iran sanctions and currency valuation.

How should we read China these days? How should we deal with China?

Kissinger | I don’t agree with your catalogue of examples as reflecting what you call Chinese arrogance. Taiwan is a long-standing issue. I would argue that China has shown considerable restraint over a 40-year period in the dialogue over Taiwan. But it is important for both sides to cooperate with a long-range perspective.

It is true, of course, that the China of today is far more developed than at the time of the opening. One of the big challenges of the next generation is whether the American and Chinese perceptions of the world can be brought into some harmony. America has its own values and convictions, but so does China. We must learn to evolve side by side.

This is the big unresolved challenge in geopolitics today. I think there are prospects of a constructive approach on a whole series of new common interests that have never been dealt with on a global basis—climate and other environmental issues, nuclear proliferation—that will require an unprecedented scope for foreign policy in both countries.

NPQ | Will the Chinese end up joining the West on sanctions against Iran?

Kissinger | They have made some positive movement in the last few weeks. The issue now is how these sanctions are defined. The purpose of the exercise is not sanctions as such, but the impact these sanctions will have on Iran. I do believe China sees the danger in nuclear proliferation. The test will be whether the sanctions that emerge have a genuine impact.

NPQ | For the second year in a row, Brazil, Russia, India and China—the so-called “BRIC” countries—have held a summit of their heads of state to coordinate diplomatic and economic strategies on a global scale. It is almost as if the BRIC leaders see themselves as a “new non-aligned movement” of countries like we saw in the Cold War.

How do you view the BRIC initiatives? What role will they play globally?

Kissinger | We’ve been through this with the non-aligned movement. The question is whether the BRICs can align their policies into a coherent bloc. China and Russia, and for that matter Brazil, are not candidates for a group that excludes the US, much less to confront it. They are different from the non-aligned movement of the 1970s and 1980s because they are not really developing countries anymore.

Also, the non-aligned movement was attempting to place itself between the US and the Soviet Union. Between whom and whom are the BRICs situating themselves?

NPQ | They are defining themselves against the US and the multilateral institutions it dominates, such as the International Monetary Fund.

Kissinger | This is true more in rhetoric than practice. The BRICs will attempt to be a player on global economic questions. But I would be surprised if they could achieve a coherent political position on the international scene. In any event, the most hopeful prospect is cooperation between the BRIC states and America, not confrontation.