“We Didn’t Really Want to Weigh In”

An author defends his decision to write a new book celebrating Henry Kissinger.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Oct. 10, 2017, in Washington.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Oct. 10, 2017, in Washington.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Henry Kissinger may be 95 years old, with his crucial years of government service long behind him, but in many influential circles his reputation as a master diplomat remains undimmed. He offers advice to Republican and Democratic administrations; counsels presidential candidates of both parties; and is deemed a source of wisdom by a wide variety of media outlets and foreign leaders. This is in spite of the fact that he has been attacked by numerous commentators and historians for prolonging the Vietnam War, advising Nixon to bomb Cambodia, offering support for—and joking about—a genocide in what is now Bangladesh, and helping to overthrow the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, among other things.

In Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level, James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin examine a number of Kissinger’s diplomatic moves, from Vietnam to China to southern Africa. As the authors write, “Our purpose is neither to judge the man nor set the historical record straight. Instead … we seek to learn as much as possible from Kissinger about this vital subject. If successful, we will have extracted actionable insights into the art and science of negotiation at the highest levels.” (Kissinger wrote the foreword to the book.)

I recently spoke by phone with Sebenius, who is now a professor at Harvard Business School after a career spent advising private companies on negotiating strategy and serving in the federal government. (Burns worked as a diplomat; Mnookin is the chair of the program on negotiation at Harvard Law School.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the continuing controversy over Kissinger’s Vietnam diplomacy, whether public servants should be judged on the humanitarian consequences of their policy choices, and just how much credit Kissinger deserves for “opening” China.

Isaac Chotiner: What was it about Kissinger’s skill as a negotiator that you thought was worth writing about?

James K. Sebenius: When I looked at the great negotiators and the secretaries of state, I was really struck by how effective Kissinger was, and I was a little put off by all the controversies. After all, I was a college student during Vietnam and so forth. And yet, he seemed to have an approach that if you looked at the opening to China after so many years, and you looked at détente in the middle of the Cold War, and the first nuclear arms deal. … When the ’73 war broke out in the Middle East, he negotiated the disengagement accords among Egypt and Israel and Syria. And then, of course, got the U.S. out of Vietnam through the Paris negotiations [in 1973]. I had not really put those together. When we interviewed him, I was really struck at the sophistication of the approach.

The successes and certainly the failures suggested that there was a lot to learn. We didn’t really want to weigh in. There was no comparative advantage in joining the group that either says he’s terrible or that he’s wonderful. There are plenty on each side of that. But the question was, what could we learn? The short answer was: a lot.

Well, there could be advantages to weighing in, just in terms of standing up for what you perceive to be the proper course of action.

Yes. Well, I’m not quite sure what you mean by that.

You said there was no “comparative advantage” for saying he’s terrible or he’s great, but there might be some advantage to doing so to stake out some sort of moral claim about his leadership.

Yeah, we really wrestled with this because I’m deeply familiar with, whether it’s the Niall Fergusons and [Robert] Kaplans and Alistair Hornes and so forth, who line up on the more positive side, or [Todd] Gitlin or [William] Shawcross or [Christopher] Hitchens or Sy Hersh or plenty of others, who line up on the other side.* There’s plenty to criticize, but I found myself saying that just isn’t an area where I see much advantage. I don’t mean to sidestep your question. We’re certainly critical in a lot of respects in the negotiations.

If you’re talking about the negotiations over the end of the Vietnam War, those are premised on that Vietnam was in fact strategic, that U.S. credibility, broadly speaking, was at risk or really mattered there, that Vietnamization would likely work, that a deal could be enforced.* Those things weren’t true.

One critique that’s been made of Kissinger is that in 1968, the Nixon campaign, with Kissinger’s help, undermined the talks that were going on between the Johnson administration and South Vietnam. Essentially Nixon communicated to the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal from the incoming Nixon administration by boycotting the talks. It seems that to give Kissinger credit for negotiating something in 1973, the events of 1968 should also be mentioned.

Well, you’ll find a reasonable discussion of exactly that point, and it is clear that the Nixon administration did in fact throw a wrench into the works. What’s also clear is, when you dig into Kissinger’s role, it’s essentially an article of faith that he was at least complicit, and possibly the direct actor in it. When you dig into that one, Neill Ferguson got into it, and then Todd Gitlin kind of looked over the evidence and pretty much solidly concluded that it was Nixon, not Kissinger. That doesn’t change the morality of the action; it does affect an assessment of Kissinger per se.

I get this a lot. I must say, I could reel off probably, because I’ve been into it so much, a bill of particulars, starting with Chile and Bangladesh, and secrecy in support of dictators and authoritarians and on and on. Then I can look on the other side, and again, it’s not a hands-off judgment, it’s simply saying that I think I have, and with my co-authors, we have a comparative advantage in saying what did he do as a negotiator, positive or negative?

I see what you mean. But the terms of ending the Vietnam War that were negotiated were probably something that could have been negotiated much earlier. And the number of American and Vietnamese deaths between 1968 and 1973 were very, very high. H.R. Haldeman’s notes say that Kissinger was alerting Nixon in 1968 to what was happening in the peace talks, which the Nixon campaign then undermined. Helping blow up negotiations should have some effect on his reputation as a negotiator.

I would not doubt that there’s more to it than what I found. I think we’re aligned in that doing that would be wrong and sort of immoral certainly in retrospect, and I would think at the time.

Did you have a chance to read much of the book?

I read the whole thing.

You did? That is amazing. I couldn’t read it in two days, and I mean that.

It’s my job.

I guess so. You’re a fast reader.

About Cambodia, you say, “Though we reviewed them with care, it is not our purpose to evaluate such broader claims and counter claims about Kissinger’s actions in terms of their effectiveness and ethics. Still, there is no doubt about the heavy cost, domestic and global, of opting for massive war as a tool of negotiation.” I understand you saying you don’t want to wade into the moral issues here, and you want to focus on the negotiation aspect, but the book is called Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level, with a foreword by Henry Kissinger. You are at least making some sort of judgment about that, no?

You know, that’s a tricky one. I say tricky in the sense that when Kissinger offered to write a foreword, what I hoped he would do, and what he actually did, was to say that we pretty accurately captured his approach to negotiation. I think he essentially said that because this was a study of a particular negotiator.

You didn’t ask him to write the foreword?

No, he offered to write the foreword. We had an interesting decision because if he did write the foreword, it was certainly from my academic colleagues’ point of view, many of them would say that greatly diminishes any potential objectivity that you might have had, and we really should keep an arm’s length from it and leave the critiques as they are. I felt it was important that if we were trying to capture the mind of the negotiator, if you will, that we understood his mind as he saw it, including places where he disagreed with us. I didn’t see us as putting a moral perimeter by studying him in this fashion. I see how difficult it is, and it’s a very fair and common question among people I respect a lot. “Really? You want to glorify Henry Kissinger?” The answer is no. Honestly, I want to learn from him.

Did he read the book before doing the foreword?

He read, if not the final draft, virtually the final draft—or said he did. There was plenty in the book that he was pretty exercised [about], especially about Vietnam, that he disagreed with. He nonetheless thought we were pretty accurate.

Just to get back to the book: During the negotiations with China, which I agree are a pretty substantive and hugely important thing in American foreign policy history, one of the outreaches to China was made via Pakistan. It was accompanied by American support, via Nixon and Kissinger, for a genocide in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. Again, you can recognize the skill of the China negotiation, but perhaps part of the reason that Kissinger was able to be so successful is because to get some of these negotiations, he was willing to violate norms and human rights to even get to a place where negotiations could occur. Is that a fair critique?

I could be mistaken, but my recollection is the kind of blind eye that the U.S. turned toward horrific bloodshed in what was then, as you say, East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, I believe occurred significantly after the opening to China in which Pakistan had been quite instrumental. Whether that was loyalty, I don’t really know. I would say if you were to put it to me slightly differently and say, “If the price of an opening to China were a blind eye to horrific bloodshed in what’s now Bangladesh,” I would find that deeply wrong.

I didn’t see that as a quid pro quo. In fact, you get into these other issues, the issues of the Vietnam War, for example, and there is the secret bombing and so forth. Those, I think, are open to significant moral as well as practical critique. Since the war and the negotiations were entwined implicitly, the negotiations, I think, have to be looked at ethically.

He first visited China after a trip to Pakistan, which was in July 1971, which was when the civil war or genocide in East Pakistan was going on, with American support. Same time.

Yeah, I thought it was somewhat after, but I would defer to you on that because it’s been a while since I looked at that.

Do you think that Kissinger’s approach to these things, the moral question, is different than other people in American history, or do you think generally he’s in line with most statesman?

I think he’s very conscious of moral questions, at least in our interactions, in my meeting of him and about him. The trade-offs that he’s willing to make in national interest terms are much more of a realpolitik. I think Americans in general are deeply uncomfortable with that approach explicitly. At the same time, your question is hard to answer if I look at the arc of Kissinger’s foreign policy, I would have to say a driving force for him was lowering the risk of nuclear war by creating a more stable structure. I think Kissinger would regard that as the ultimate moral question. You are into the classic realist view. I think it can lead people to overlook what really are interests because values and interests blur a lot. Overtly neglecting values could be a big problem. You’ll find Kissinger very articulate on this point, and then you’ll find people saying that’s really hypocritical and so forth.

The book talks extensively about negotiations he made around 1976 in what was then Rhodesia, and is now Zimbabwe, in southern Africa. What do you think he was able to accomplish, and what do you think his key insights were?

I didn’t know anything about those negotiations before we started the process. Kissinger was not unmindful of the fact that a Republican administration acting to get rid of white-minority rule in South Africa was a nice thing relative to everything that he had been accused of. The single triumph of getting Ian Smith to accept the principle of black-majority rule within a couple of years was at the time tectonic in the region and in fact, globally. It’s kind of been forgotten, I think, partly overshadowed by all the controversies about Kissinger. More than that, that he himself didn’t complete the task: The British did at Lancaster House a couple years later. The first thing that the Zimbabwe people did was to elect Robert Mugabe, who initially was something of a hero and, of course, became a despot and trashed the place.

When we looked into it, you could see a really stark contrast between a fairly ineffective and moralistic approach that the British had, that nevertheless, characterized how a lot of people approach negotiation. Kissinger, seeing this initially through a Cold War lens, [said] “Gee, if we could get the countries of southern Africa, particularly what is thought of as the radical front line states, to renounce any foreign troops, whether Cuban and Soviet or others, if we can get them to do that in return for our persuading the Rhodesians to accept black majority rule, that’s worth doing.” Frankly, it was a virtuoso performance.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the “tar-baby option,” which was Nixon and Kissinger’s strategy of getting closer to racist white-minority regimes in southern Africa during the Nixon administration, which is before what you’re talking about.

Correct. Kissinger didn’t have to, but chose to make a big deal of renouncing that policy in the course of his negotiation, which was out of character enough that I think it got a number of people’s attention in the area and so forth. I think this criticism is: Kissinger paid almost no attention to southern Africa until later. That was other people’s feelings. Then once Nixon was out, and frankly the Soviet and Cuban incursion by the Cold War aspect is what got him interested in it, then as it progressed other things kicked in.

Right, he encouraged an incursion by white South African mercenaries in Angola, a country that also then had a Cuban incursion. I don’t want to discount what you’re saying, but it seems that, again, you can respect Kissinger’s skill with some of the Rhodesian negotiations later on in the 1970s, but it does feel like there’s a pattern: Kissinger cozied up to the apartheid regime and to white minority regimes in southern Africa, and as we were talking about with China or as we were talking about with Vietnam, that by laying the groundwork for worsening these situations, it lessens the amount of credit you want to give Kissinger.

I see what you’re saying. The South Africans certainly say they felt encouraged. Kissinger says that he didn’t. My guess is there were plenty of winks and nods involved in that. The “tar baby” policy is trickier because I just don’t think he paid a lot of attention. Then you’re right about the South African incursion and the effort at covert action with the French. I think the critique would be appropriate.

Pragmatically since that didn’t work, he then switched to this negotiation piece. I give him my interest, and that of my students at places like the business school and the Kennedy School and the law school. People really want to understand how they can be most effective. That presupposes that you’re doing good things effectively because a tool like really effective negotiation on behalf of evil purposes is deeply objectionable.

I’m resisting being drawn into the points that you’re laying out, but at the same time saying, “You know, one can acknowledge this, and should, but there’s an awful lot that’s positive that can be learned for people who want to be more effective.” These days diplomacy has such a low reputation for being able to pull things off.

We have the master negotiator in the White House now. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

I think maybe in a different conversation I should—[laughs]

Thanks for talking. I really appreciate it. I will type this up and send you a link.

Well, I appreciate it. I hope I don’t crucify myself in this thing.

*Correction, Aug. 15, 2018: This piece originally misspelled William Shawcross’ last name. Due to a transcription error, several words were mistakenly omitted from one of Sebenius’ answers.