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“Explaining What You Are After Is The Secret Of Diplomacy”
This century’s most powerful Secretary of State talks about the strengths and weaknesses of the Foreign Service, the role of the CIA, the rights of journalists, the contrast between meddlers and statesmen—and about the continuing struggle for a coherent foreign policy
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
THE CONDUCT of American foreign policy has changed radically since the days when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was essentially his own Secretary of State. AMERICAN HERITAGE believes it is a matter of importance to examine those changes through the eyes of an expert. Few people, we think, better qualify as such than Henry A. Kissinger, who not only had a hand in those changes but who probably exercised greater power than any Secretary of State in this century. Dr. Kissinger was interviewed in the New York office where he conducts a fraction of his still feverish schedule of activities. The understanding was that he would be questioned not on the substance of the foreign policies he carried out under Presidents Nixon and Ford but rather on the evolving ways of American diplomacy in the past few decades of this country’s history.
It is generally believed that strong Presidents are their own Secretaries of State. What persuaded you to take the post under a President as activist in foreign policy as Richard Nixon?
First of all, one does not turn down the position of Secretary of State. Secondly, I had been a principal adviser to President Nixon on foreign policy when I was in the White House, so for me it was not like coming in from the outside; I had worked with President Nixon, and I may say I worked well with him. Moving to the State Department simply gave me the institutional machinery to carry out a function that, to some extent, I was already exercising.
What about Secretary of State Rogers? Was he not exercising his function?
Yes, he was, with great dignity. But President Nixon had stated during the election campaign that he would run foreign policy from the White House. And he carried out his pledge.
Traditionally, historically, foreign policy has been made by the President and his Secretary of State. But now we have a National Security Council and a CIA and a Defense Department, as well as the Senate and even to some extent the House of Representatives, all taking a very active hand in the process. Are there too many cooks for the good of the broth?
Let’s make a distinction between the management of foreign policy in the executive branch and the management of foreign policy as between the executive and legislative branches. With respect to the executive branch, it is impossible today for any one man or one department to encompass all the disciplines and interests that have to be reflected in foreign policy. Inevitably, a President has to consider many aspects of a problem and also take into account advisers who reflect still other aspects that have not occurred to him. This process contains a twofold danger. First, in order to settle a problem, the President may accept the least common denominator by way of bureaucratic compromise. Secondly, each issue tends to be dealt with on its individual merits. There is not necessarily among the various contenders for presidential attention a representative speaking for the most important of all aspects of foreign policy: the relationship of various measures to each other over an extended period of time. A sense of nuance and of strategy is very difficult to develop in the modern government.
As between the Congress and the executive branch, there is no doubt, in my mind at least, that the Congress is asserting an excessive influence over the day-to-day tactical management of foreign policy. Congress is not organized to do this. The attempt is enormously time-consuming and undermines Congress’s own power of ultimate control, which should be directed toward fundamental purposes and overall strategy, not toward tactical decisions.
Are you thinking of things like Congress’s refusal to appropriate money for some Central American states unless they improve their human rights record?
I don’t want to go into which specific decisions would fall into this category, but I can mention one from the period I was in office—just to take the discussion away from immediate controversies. We were attempting to negotiate an agreement between Greece and Turkey on Cyprus. The Congress, in the middle of the negotiations, voted an embargo on arms to Turkey. The end result was that the negotiations stopped entirely, and to this day the Cyprus situation is totally stalemated. Now I can’t prove that those negotiations in 1974 would have succeeded, but with every passing month the position of those who occupied the territory became more firmly established. I also think that the attempt by the Congress to legislate criteria for emigration from the Soviet Union had the practical consequence of stopping the emigration and worsening our relationship with the Soviet Union for no practical achievement.
Most Secretaries of State spend nine-tenths of their time on the tactical issues and too little on where we are trying to go.
It has been said that the State Department is so large now and with so many layers of bureaucracy that it has to be bypassed in the very crises that it was meant to resolve. Can it be streamlined or will it become a white elephant, to be bypassed?