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Nation: An Interview with Kissinger

8 minute read

“They should not dispatch proxy forces, not encourage coups. . .”

In his Senate testimony, Henry Kissinger exhorted the Congress and Administration to join in meeting what he believes is a very real Soviet threat. In an exclusive interview with TIME Diplomatic Correspondent Strobe Talbott, Kissinger expanded on the strategic themes of his testimony. Excerpts:

Q. If, as you suggest, the Soviets have been primarily exploiting targets of opportunity rather than pursuing some detailed master plan, why do you put so much of the onus on them to resist those temptations? Why is it up to them to avoid taking advantage of opportunities that come their way, such as the turmoil in Iran?

A. Clearly we cannot ask the Soviet Union in effect to police the world for us by preventing situations adverse to our interests. You cannot ask the Soviet Union not to take advantage of what is in effect being handed to them. I have never accused the Soviet Union of directly causing the events in Iran. However, I believe that some of the things the Soviet Union did contributed to a climate of insecurity that helped to demoralize the leadership of Iran and encouraged its opponents. The network of semiterrorist and guerrilla-trained organizations that the Soviet Union finances and supports has an impact on such situations. After all, Khomeini admitted—indeed avowed—that the PLO had been a major encouragement [in his revolution].

But Iran is not the principal example. The best examples of unrestrained Soviet conduct, in which they create the opportunity rather than simply reaping the harvest of our failure, are the dispatch of Cuban proxy forces to Angola and Ethiopia, the two invasions of Zaire from Angola, the Communist coups in South Yemen and Afghanistan, and the Soviet friendship treaty with Viet Nam just prior to Viet Nam’s occupation of Cambodia. Also, there’s the establishment of Soviet bases in Viet Nam and military depots in Ethiopia and Libya, the dispatch of air forces to Cuba to fly air defense missions so that the Cuban air force could operate in Africa. All of these cases are an assault on the geopolitical equilibrium.

So I’m not saying that everything that happens in the world that is adverse to our interests and which benefits the Soviet Union is up to the Soviet Union to avoid. But the Soviet Union can avoid exacerbating conflicts that may arise even if it did not cause them. That means they should not dispatch proxy forces, not encourage coups and create a general climate of insecurity, not sign friendship treaties under conditions that will lead to military operations. That burden we must assume, too, in any rational pattern of coexistence.

Q. Does not the Soviet-Vietnamese friendship treaty have to be seen in the dual context of the Sino-Soviet hostility and Viet Nam’s feeling of being directly threatened by China? Why was that treaty necessarily provocative against the U.S.?

A. Of course it has to be seen in that context. But under the practical conditions at the time, the signing of that treaty had the perfectly foreseeable consequence of throwing a lighted match into a powder keg. That treaty came about when the Vietnamese army was substantially concentrated on the Cambodian frontier, so the treaty gave the Vietnamese reassurance against a Chinese reaction to their aggression in Cambodia. Now I happen to believe that the Cambodian government [of Pol Pot] was a group of genocidal murderers. But that was not why the Vietnamese went into Cambodia; they went in because the Cambodian Communists wanted to be independent of Viet Nam.

The attack by Viet Nam had an enormously unsettling impact on all of the other countries of Southeast Asia. Therefore it affected our own longer-term interests. Such behavior is incompatible with a U.S.-Soviet relationship of genuine coexistence.

Q. What is the Soviet responsibility for the coup in Afghanistan?

A. Somebody who starts a rock slide does not have to be accountable for every last rock that hits a victim. The coup was heavily Communist in its organization, and since then the Soviet Union has taken operational control over many aspects of Afghan political life. That fact had an extremely unsettling effect on the Iranian government, which interpreted our acquiescence in it as potential collusion between us and the Soviet Union in creating spheres of influence. It also had an unsettling effect on Pakistan. I do not want to imply, though, that there was much we could have done about it locally. But the fact that the coup in Afghanistan seemed to have no influence on our relationship with the Soviet Union was upsetting to others in the region.

Q. In some ways, your approach seems to suggest a version of the spheres-of-influence doctrine: the U.S. has its friends, and the Soviets have theirs, and the Soviets are not allowed to make encroachments in our areas when our friends are in trouble.

A. Look at it from another point of view. It is simply impossible to have rules of conduct whereby we cannot encroach on the Soviet sphere while the Soviets exercise an unlimited right to create turmoil in our sphere. If that’s the situation, then over a period of time the defeat of free societies is foreordained.

Q. Why can’t we encroach in theirs?

A. Because we would immediately be accused of provocative conduct involving a high risk of war. If we started engaging in the sort of activities in Eastern Europe that the Soviets have engaged in in Africa, first it would lead to bloody repression, and second we would be accused of fomenting the risk of war.

Q. Are the dangers you see permanent?

A. Not necessarily. We are in a curious position. Let’s look at the future in a ten-year perspective. If we can solve our immediate problems of military security, energy and chronic unemployment caused by the rise of labor-saving technology—and I believe those problems can be solved—then I think the greater dynamism of the free societies is bound to tell. We have a major problem facing us now in setting an agenda first for the industrial democracies and second for the relationship of the industrial democracies to developing countries. I do not believe that the Communist states have an answer either to the questions about the internal structure and evolution of industrial society or to the problem of development. So I would expect that if we do our job on the immediate issues, by the late ’80s we could be in a period of tremendous dynamism, while the Soviet Union could be in a period either of serious domestic crisis or at least ambivalence.

The military danger I see in the early ’80s is this: I can imagine a new generation of Soviet leaders deciding that the structure of Soviet society must be changed. Look at the dramatic transformation being attempted by the post-Mao Chinese leaders in very different circumstances. Future Soviet leaders, however, may consider that they have a choice: Do they want to undertake to change the internal structure of their society with all the attendant turmoil and uncertainties while the international environment is unsettled? Or do they want to create what they might see as an absolutely safe international environment and thereby postpone the more painful domestic choices? That might mean taking advantage of their military potential, possibly toward China, in the Middle East, or perhaps even in Europe. This is why the military problem is so acute. In my judgment the Soviet Union will face that choice at the precise moment that the military balance [between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.] could be rather difficult for us and rather advantageous to them. In what I am proposing [as a strategic and military program to accompany SALT], I would like to compress the time period that is available to the Soviet Union for making that decision. That is the essence of what I have been trying to say in the Senate this week.

Q. You seem to feel if we can get over the bad period immediately ahead, the prospect for the longer term is quite promising. That is not the Spenglerian pessimism that is so often associated with you.

A. (Laughing) In my most Spenglerian moments, I have not said the sorts of things about America even comparable to what President Carter said on July 15 [in his nationally televised speech on energy].

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