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Kissinger: These are the main geopolitical challenges facing the world right now 

Klaus Schwab in conversation with former US Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger

Klaus Schwab in conversation with former US Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger Image: World Economic Forum

Lukas Bester
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, joined Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, for a conversation on the most pressing issues facing the world.
  • Kissinger says the conflict in Ukraine can permanently restructure the global order.
  • How the USA and China navigate their relationship in this complicated world will be telling for future generations.

When former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, spoke for the first time at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 1980 he said that "we are in an age of global-interdependence". This statement was repeated by World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman, Klaus Schwab, in a discussion with the Nobel-prize winning diplomat at Davos 2022.

Pragmatism and long-term peace

Known for his Realpolitik, Henry Kissinger cemented a global reputation as a pragmatist amidst the Cold War, steering US foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s. Pioneering the policy of détente, Kissinger sought to reduce tensions with the then-USSR and orchestrated US diplomatic relations with China.


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Asked about his perspective on the major issues facing the world today, Kissinger emphasized how the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine could reshape the world as we know it: "Parties should be brought to peace talks within the next two months. Ukraine should've been a bridge between Europe and Russia, but now, as the relationships are reshaped, we may enter a space where the dividing line is redrawn and Russia is entirely isolated. We are facing a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere. This may lead to Cold War-like diplomatic distances, which will set us back decades. We should strive for long-term peace."

Klaus Schwab in conversation with former US Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger
Image: World Economic Forum

Established and emerging powers

In speaking about the rise of China, Kissinger reflected on his experience in negotiating with Beijing: "When we opened diplomatic relationships with China in the 1970s, we did it with a sense that we're starting a permanent relationship. That was a very different country. Today, it is a powerhouse with significant economic and strategic interests. How the US and China conduct their relationship in coming years will depend on the patience and diplomacy of its leaders." Henry Kissinger noted that the potentially adversarial aspect of the US-China relationship should be mitigated and common interests should be pursued and upheld. "The US," he says, "must realize that China's strategic and technical competence has evolved. Diplomatic negotiations must be sensitive, informed and unilaterally strive for peace."


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Military technologies

"We are faced with the reality that modern technologies are putting countries in situations that they've never been in before," said Kissinger. Nuclear powers and new military technologies, without established criteria for limitations, could spell catastrophe for humankind."

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Full Transcript:

Klaus Schwab: [00:00:02] Hello, Dr. Kissinger. Greetings from Geneva- I should say from Davos. Do you hear us?

Henry Kissinger: [00:00:13] Yes, I hear you very well.

Klaus Schwab: [00:00:15] You know, you have here a great assembly. Everybody is interested in hearing your views. And I don't have to introduce you, Dr. Kissinger. I just would like to mention that I met you when I was at Harvard over 50 years ago. And actually, you came to Davos the first time. It was in (1980), so over 40 years ago. And I looked at your speech, which you gave in 1980, and I just want to quote one or two things.

In your speech, you focused and I quote: “It’s a constantly changing world.” Does it sound familiar? And you said, and I quote: “The age of global interdependence.” End of quote. And you warned of, I quote, “a delusion of confidence in classic models, a challenge to the system.” And you concluded your speech by saying all of those changes are global and would make ours a period of turmoil, even apart from any specific challenge that we have to face. 1980, and, wow, we are 42 years later. And of course, we are very keen to hear how you assess the situation of today. And I had the pleasure to visit you just some weeks ago. And we have chosen, as I mentioned to you at that time, history at a turning point. We are really at a turning point. And this is not a speech. This is a conversation of, I would say, a young student and an experienced professor. So, my first question to you, Henry, is if you listen to the theme “history at a turning point,” would you describe the new world which may arise after this turning point, which we are living through at this moment?

Henry Kissinger: [00:02:59] Let me thank you for letting me return to Davos, because it is such a crucial forum for the exchange of ideas all over the world. But the outcome of this turning point — it's not yet obvious, because there are a number of issues which are still under consideration within the realm of the decision-makers and of course, many evolutions that are going on that will affect the outcome.

Let me sketch the issues. The most vivid at the moment is the war in Ukraine, and the outcome of that war, both in the military and political sense, will affect relations between groupings of countries, which I will mention in a minute. And the outcome of any war and the peace settlement, and the nature of that peace settlement — it will determine whether the combatants remain permanent adversaries, or whether it is possible to fit them into an international framework.

About eight years ago, when the idea of membership of Ukraine in NATO came up, I wrote an article in which I said that the ideal outcome would be if Ukraine could be constituted as a neutral kind of state, as a bridge between Russia and Europe. Rather than, it's the front line of groupings within Europe. I think that opportunity is now- does not now exist in the same manner, but it could still be conceived as an ultimate objective. In my view, movement towards negotiations and negotiations on peace need to begin in the next two months so that the outcome of the war should be outlined. But before it could create upheaval and tensions that will be ever-harder to overcome, particularly between the eventual relationship of Russia, Georgia and of Ukraine towards Europe. Ideally, the dividing line should return the status quo ante. I believe to join the war beyond Poland would draw- turn it into a war and not about the freedom of Ukraine, which has been undertaken with great cohesion by NATO, but into against Russia itself and so, that seems to me to be the dividing line that it is just impossible to define. It will be difficult for anybody to gauge of that. Modifications of that may occur during the negotiations, which of course, have not yet been established, but which should begin to be the return of the major participants as the war develops, and I have given an outline of a possible military outcome. But would like to keep in mind that any modifications of that could complicate the negotiations in which Ukraine has a right to be a significant participant, but in which one hopes that they match the heroism that they have shown in the war with wisdom for the balance in Europe and in the world at large — a relationship that will develop as a result of this war, between Ukraine — which will be probably the strongest conventional power on the continent — and the rest of Europe will develop over a period of time.

But one has to look both at the relationship of Europe to Russia over a longer period and in a manner that is separated from the existing leadership whose status, however, will be affected internally over a period of time by its performance in this in this period. Looked at from a long-term point of view, Russia has been, for 400 years, an essential part of Europe, and European policy over that period of time has been affected, fundamentally, by its European assessment of the role of Russia. Sometimes in an observing way, but on a number of occasions as the guarantor, or the instrument, by which the European balance could be re-established. Current policy should keep in mind the restoration of this role is important to develop, so that Russia is not driven into a permanent alliance with China. But European relations with it are not the only key element of this [unintelligible].

China and United States, we know that in the next years have to come to some definition of how to conduct the long-term relationship of countries, it depends on their strategic capacities, but also on their interpretation of these capacities. In recent years, China and the United States evolved into a relationship that is unique in each side’s history. That is that they, from the point of view of strategic potential, they are the greatest threat to each other — in fact, the only military threat that each side needs to deal with continuously. And so the challenge, the period in which I was involved in the creation of this relationship, in which it was thought that a period of permanent collaboration might emerge of the two countries becoming [unintelligible] has been partly jeopardized and for the period probably terminated by the growth in the strategic and technical competence of each other. So on that level, there is an inherent adversarial aspect. The challenge is whether this adversarial aspect can be mitigated and progressively eased by the diplomacy that both sides conduct and it cannot be done unilaterally by one side. So, both sides have to come to the conviction that some easing of the political relationship is essential because they are in a position that has never existed before — plainly, that a conflict with modern technology, conducted in the absence of any preceding arms control negotiations, so they have no established criteria of limitations, will be a catastrophe for mankind. Whatever

Their differences are within the context of historical politics, the leaders have an obligation to prevent this and ensure, at a minimum, permanent consultations, serious consultations on the subject, legal gameplays on a permanent basis. And then it's an evolution of this.

Of course, there are many unfinished periods in the future of world. The emergence of additional nuclear powers, of which the most urgent is the rise of Iran and the consequent divisions in the Middle East. And as in the period directly affected by the Ukrainian issue, but affected by the balance that will emerge, the rise of countries like India and Brazil and other countries, will have to be integrated into an international system. They seem to me to be the key issues, together with the fact that the Ukraine conflict has produced a rupture in the economic arrangements that have been made in the period before, so that the definition and operation of a global system will have to be reconsidered.

It is these challenges I put forward as an analogy, but I believe they must be overcome, if we not going to live in an increasingly confrontational and chaotic world.

Klaus Schwab: [00:19:02] Thank you very much, Dr. Kissinger, for this state of the world description. We have, and I know he's not prepared for it, but we have here someone sitting whom I most admire also for his ideas, and he just has also published a very significant book. So, Graham Allison, would you be ready to comment — and we need the microphone — could you be ready to comment and maybe ask also, Dr. Kissinger, a final question. What is prodding in your mind? But first, it would be interesting to have your comments.

Graham Allison: [00:19:55] Thank you very much.

Henry Kissinger: [00:19:57] I didn't get the name.

Graham Allison: [00:20:00] Your oldest student.

Klaus Schwab: [00:20:02] Graham Allison.

Henry Kissinger: [00:20:06] Oh Graham Allison, yes.

Graham Allison: [00:20:13] I think Henry often refers to me as his oldest student and course assistant, and I tell him that's because I've been the slowest learner. So, Henry, you're looking great. Though, Henry was supposed to be having a 99th birthday party tonight in New York, but the circumstances didn't permit. So I can see you're dressed up for the party, in any case and I'm sorry I'm missing you there, but it's good to see you here.

Henry, you hear overview, was as always wonderful. And I think Klaus did a good job in reminding us of the 1980 remarks where we can hear echoes. In 1980, though, China hardly figured in the picture the way it does today. So, as you look at the relationship between the US and China, which as you say, is inevitably inherently going to be rivalrous and adversarial, but at the same time, if unmanaged, may and in a catastrophic war. And as we watch what's happening in Taiwan and just to be timely in terms of the news, the comment of President Biden yesterday in Japan about Taiwan — you and I talked about this before — I think that seems to be about the fastest path to a general full scale war between the U.S. and China. So, I wonder how you are thinking about Taiwan in the context of the need for the constraints and rules of the road that you described the necessity for, but that we now see the absence of.

Klaus Schwab: [00:22:25] Henry, do you want to respond?

Henry Kissinger: [00:22:29] It’s been an unexpected pleasure to see Graham appear and to put me a question. He was my student and he is my friend and we have sewn along parallel lines over many decades.

I negotiated the understanding on Taiwan at the very beginning of the US-Chinese relationship. There had been hundreds of meetings on the subject between Chinese and American diplomat, and they always ended on the first day because the Chinese demanded the immediate turnover of Taiwan, and we insisted on the continuation of the use of [unintelligible] methods of achieving this objective. So, I will not go through the process of which it was achieved, but my understanding of the agreement has been that the United States would uphold the principle of one China, that we would now exist on a two-China solution, and the Western world was prepared to live with a long period in which this process would work itself out, and in which it was always understood that the United States was opposed [unintelligible] a military solution to that problem. I believe that these principles have enabled Taiwan to develop for 50 years as a democratic system.

And I think it is essential that these principles be maintained, and the United States should not by subterfuge or a gradual process, develop something of a two-China solution, but that China will continue to exercise patience that has been exercised up to now.

A direct confrontation. Should be avoided, and Taiwan cannot be the core of the negotiations between China and the United States. For the core of the negotiations, it is important that the United States and China discuss principles that affect the adversarial relationship, and that permit at least some scope for cooperative efforts. The Taiwan issue will no disappear, but as the direct subject of confrontation and adversarial conduct it is bound to lead to situation that may mutate into the military field, which is against the world interest and against the long-term interest of China and the United States.

These are the causes I address to my friends in the American government, but also to the friends that over the years I have had an opportunity with on the Chinese side. So, it is important to the overall needs of the world for the United States and China to mitigate their adversarial relationship by recognition that, if a World War 1 type situation were to arise, of sliding into a conflict, the consequences will be more dire than they were then.

So, how to manage between an existing adversarial relationship and the need for cooperation in the economic sense and [unintelligible] is a big challenge for both governments, and it will be affected [unintelligible] because China will have to re-analyse its relationship with its established- with Russia, because it could not have expected when it was made that it would evolve in the direction that it has. And it will also be important for the United States to go beyond its assessments of adversarial relations and to some concept of a world order in which the United States and China, partly due to the evolution of economies and partly due to the evolution of ideologies, in an ugly confrontation, and to turn it into something that is compatible with world order.

Klaus Schwab: [00:30:44] Thank you. Thank you. And we are coming to an end of our session, and it was fascinating to hear your still very visionary perspectives and to hear from you. Thank you very much.

I have a very unusual idea. You may forgive for me, but as we have heard also from Graham, Henry is celebrating his 99th birthday this week. So let's say all together: Happy birthday to you Henry.

Audience: Happy birthday to you Henry.

Klaus Schwab: All the best and thank you. So, we have we have one minute. And I would I would like to use this minute because Graham, you have written this book — keep the microphone Graham — you have written this book, arguing that if you take historical examples, a war between a competition which may end in a war, let's put it in this way, between the US and China is inevitable.

May you just in in in some very few sentences share with the audience. Do you still think this case is coming?

Graham Allison: [00:32:38] So, basically, I didn't come to speak. I came to listen to Henry. But this is an idea that emerged over some years.

Henry uses history to help inform and illuminate the present and the choices and the challenges. In my book The Thucydides Trap, I look at the last 500 years, we find 16 cases in which a rapidly rising power like Athens in classical Greece or Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, challenges a colossal ruling power like Sparta or Great Britain or the US today. So, 12 of those 16 end in war — so war is not inevitable, just it’s been the way that things have happened.

Several people since I've gotten there have asked me: “Well, so what would Thucydides say now?” since this book was written five years ago, just as Trump become President.

And I think he would say both the rising power and the ruling power seem right on script, almost as if each is competing to see which can better exemplify the typical rising power and typical ruling power. So, (Thucydides) is sitting on the edge of his seat, anticipating the greatest war of all time.

Klaus Schwab: [00:34:15] If you follow the advice of Henry that would be the-

Graham Allison: [00:34:23] The fifth of the four that escaped Thucydides’ trap- rather than the thirteen or the twelve that led to catastrophic outcomes.

Klaus Schwab: [00:34:34] So Henry, you have given us very valuable advice and thank you again and thank you also Graham. Thank you Henry. We wish you all the best, and this concludes our session.

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