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“Explaining What You Are After Is The Secret Of Diplomacy”

July 2024
17min read

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

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?

When I was Security Adviser I frequently bypassed the State Department because I was afraid that its cumbersome machinery and its tendency to leak would thwart the negotiations in which I was engaged. On the other hand, when I became Secretary of State, it became rather clearer to me that one could not in the long run bypass the Department of State. You have fifty thousand people with assignments that they will carry out—either in ignorance or after being adequately briefed. Still, I do believe that the State Department will ultimately have to be transformed into a more policy-oriented apparatus.

In your most recent book, you said that you had become Secretary rather too late in the Nixon administration to make substantial changes. Would you explain that?

The trouble any Secretary of State has is that when he comes into the Department, he doesn’t understand it well enough, and by the time he understands it well enough, it is too late in his term to affect it. For me that problem was compounded by the fact that I was immediately faced with the Middle East War.

Could you say roughly—you must have thought about this when you took the office—what major changes you would have made if you had had the opportunity?

I had not, in fact, thought about how I would reorganize the State Department before I took the position because I quite frankly never thought that I would be appointed Secretary of State. And even to this day I haven’t fully thought through what I might do. I operated with a small inner Cabinet, so to speak, of top advisers through whom most papers were screened and with whom I met regularly to discuss long-term strategy. They then had the responsibility of imposing that on the various bureaus. I believe that some mechanism has to be found to break through the current procedure. Right now the State Department is a cable machine with every desk officer or country director forwarding his preferred policy in the form of a draft cable to the Secretary of State. Some of these cables don’t survive the relevant Assistant Secretary, but many do. Typically the Secretary of State faces, therefore, a daily sheaf of cables in which he’s asked to give instructions on very disparate situations. Even if he’s an expert, which not all Secretaries are, he would have great difficulty appreciating the real significance of each instruction in each area. So most Secretaries of State spend nine-tenths of their time on the tactical issues and too little on where we are trying to go.

Couldn’t some of these day-to-day tactical decisions be delegated? Don’t the Assistant Secretaries and the Undersecretaries meet with the Secretary of State on a regular basis, in order to make their contributions to policy?

Each Secretary of State has to operate according to his own personality. I had four or five, maybe as many as seven, very close advisers, among them the head of the Policy Planning Staff, Winston Lord; the present Undersecretary for Political Affairs, who was then Deputy Undersecretary for Management, Larry Eagleburger; the Soviet expert, Hal Sonnenfeldt; the Political Undersecretary, Joe Sisco; and later Phil Habib. Then we brought in the appropriate Assistant Secretary as the case required. That core group met more or less regularly in my office to discuss long-term strategy and also to discuss tactics in the light of the long-term strategy. But that was my own creation and didn’t survive my period. I’m not saying it should have, because it had no official status.

What do you see as the proper role for some of these other agencies that were not created for the purpose of making policy—like the ClA?

I don’t want the CIA to be involved in policy making at all. The CIA should be confined to making factual analyses of political situations and to giving its views about the likely consequences of proposed courses of action. Now that second role is admittedly close to the area of policy making, but I am extremely distrustful of getting the CIA involved in the policy process as a chief player, because there is the great danger that Intelligence will then tend to follow policy rather than guide it with objective information. I would think a major effort has to be made to keep Intelligence and policy making as far apart as possible.

Would you say that that has been achieved? Is that the relationship between the CIA and the Department?

No, I’m afraid it’s gone the other way. I shudder every time I see a CIA report published in order to support a policy, because that really means there is a subconscious pressure on the agency to write reports that fit in with official preconceptions. Furthermore, no CIA report should ever be declassified for any purpose until maybe ten years after the event. The CIA analysts should write their reports for the President of the United States, and the President should never use them in a public forum to support his position. He might use their information but he should not identify it as coming from the CIA.

Could you say whether this is the tack that you took with regard to the ClA? Say, in Latin America?

More or less. You know, when the CIA tells you that the consequence of a Communist government in Chile will be to upset the political equilibrium in neighboring countries, this is an implicit policy recommendation. That cannot be helped. But as a general proposition, I think separation of policy making and Intelligence is the tack that I took. If I did take another one from time to time, it was wrong.


Let me go back a little bit in time on a different aspect of policy. Woodrow Wilson made it fashionable for a while to talk about “open covenants, openly arrived at,” but others have taken the view of Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State. He said it was his duty to “inaugurate new policies and bring them to maturity free from public scrutiny and pressure.” Is open diplomacy possible, and if not, how far can secrecy be carried in a democratic state?

Any amateur can make a proposal that is highly desirable from his own country’s point of view and has no features in it interesting to the other side.

I don’t believe the question permits a clear-cut answer. In a democracy the results of negotiations obviously have to be made available to the public. Except in the rarest of cases, secret agreements will not stand the test of crisis if the public has not been informed about them. So, clearly, the results of negotiations should be public. The process by which these results are achieved generally should have a private phase and then it may have a public phase. I believe that it is terribly important in a negotiation for one’s interlocutor to understand one’s real purpose. In fact, that is infinitely more important than the negotiating position, because the negotiating position you can simply telegraph to him, but explaining what you are after is the secret of diplomacy.

Could you give an example of “negotiating position” and “real purpose”?

Every negotiation begins with some formal proposal by one side, occasionally by both of them. But that position is frequently very formal. It may reflect a desire to feel out the interlocutor or a bureaucratic compromise. But finally diplomacy must seek a common position that can stand the test of time. This means that both sides must consider it in their interest. The amateur believes that a clever diplomat tells everybody a different story. But in diplomacy you meet the same person over and over again, and in the long term his confidence in you is more important than any minor advantage you can achieve by trickery. A diplomat must never forget that he can get away with duplicity only once. Secondly, the other side obviously will analyze any proposal put before it. And it will perhaps give you more credit than you deserve because it will try to find a rational, profound explanation. It is therefore essential to explain to the other side what it is you’re trying to achieve and why it is in the mutual interest. You have to do it in terms of mutual interest, because nobody will sign an agreement that is exclusively in the other party’s interest. Any amateur can make a proposal that is highly desirable from his own country’s point of view and has no features in it that are interesting to the other side.

In any public debate about negotiations, the critic can always score brilliantly against his country’s negotiator simply because any agreement must have elements benefiting the other side. Otherwise the other side wouldn’t have signed it. The issue is whether it also benefited our side. One’s opposite number may have the same sort of problems. I always spend my first few sessions in a negotiation explaining what I am trying to achieve. I believe that for this purpose secret negotiations are very important.

What can you say about the openness of diplomacy in the United Nations? Is that of any value?

In the United Nations you don’t have open diplomacy, you have open rhetoric. That isn’t diplomacy, it’s everybody stating his maximum position and playing to his own gallery. Most of those speeches are made for domestic consumption back home.

Is it useful at all to us?

The United Nations has some useful functions in the technical field. It’s also a convenient meeting place. I don’t think that it is of major utility for settling great power disputes.

You have been criticized in the past for going to great lengths to control “leaks.” Now if there is not in your view an excess of secrecy, why should there have to be leaks at all?

That depends on what you mean by an excess of secrecy. The period when I was most intensely concerned with controlling leaks was when we were trying to end the Vietnam War by secret negotiation; when we were making a new opening to China; and when we were beginning to feel our way toward some compromises with the Soviet Union. In each of those cases a premature disclosure would have made it impossible to proceed.

Aren’t the advantages of secrecy offset by a loss of credibility when the media do what they’re supposed to, which is to uncover the secrets?

In the abstract it is an unanswerable question. Secrecy carried beyond a certain point runs the risk of weakened credibility. On the other hand, openness carried beyond a certain point contains the danger of sterility and ineffectiveness. Secrecy is obviously not an end in itself. But if ideas become public before one has even thought them through in one’s own government, if fallback positions are made public, the whole negotiating process is undermined.

What is your feeling about the media on this score? Do they go further than you would like in getting and publishing information while negotiations are in progress?

I do not believe that it is the press’s job to discipline itself about what information it receives, or to reject information it can obtain, on the ground that it might harm a negotiation. The media are in no position to make such a judgment. Secondly, it is my experience that the media can be extremely helpful to public understanding if one gets them involved in the conceptual part of policy making. I spent a lot of time explaining to them what I was trying to do. I never gave them classified documents. However, by having me explain what we were trying to do, they could understand what a particular event probably meant, and they were very often right. I don’t consider that leaking. That sort of information is helpful to the public understanding and it permits a meaningful debate.

Would you object to publication of such material regardless of how it is obtained by the press?

If the press broke into a government office, I would think that highly improper. And I have contempt for individuals in government who turn over to the press classified documents in their trust. But I don’t have contempt for those in the press who receive it.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart has made the point that a journal or television channel that obtains stolen information may be liable to prosecution for that action but is perfectly free to use the information once it has it. Do you agree?

I would deplore its getting the information in that fashion. But I do not think the media should censor themselves with respect to information that has come their way, provided they did not commit the act of theft or get somebody else to steal a document. I would regret that, I think it would be wrong. But if somebody takes a document and gives it to them, however ill I think of the thief, it is not the media’s responsibility to police themselves in that regard.

In other words, it was OK for The New York Times and the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, but Daniel Ellsberg shouldn’t have made them available.

At the time I was outraged by the whole procedure, which seemed to me to threaten vital and delicate negotiations in which we were engaged. On sober reflection I would go along with the distinction I’ve just made.

What is the effect on the State Department when a President shortcircuits it by using personal envoys in times of crisis—or even just to break new ground—as Roosevelt did with Hopkins and Harriman, as Kennedy did with Bundy, and as Nixon did with you? Does that leave the Secretary of State out in the cold?

Well, it depends on whether the action occurs with the knowledge of the Secretary of State or behind his back. If it’s done behind his back, as occasionally occurred in the Nixon administration, I think it is very demoralizing for the Department, not really a good procedure. It may, in some emergencies, be necessary, but my present view is that if the President doesn’t trust his Secretary of State, he should replace him rather than go around him. On the other hand, it is occasionally desirable to send an emissary who is clearly identified with the President. This should be done with the approval of the Secretary of State—as for example Vice-President Bush’s recent disarmament mission to Europe.

Is it true that both Secretary Rogers and Defense Secretary Laird knew of but were opposed to the initial bombing of Cambodia?

The role of the ambassador in explaining the intangibles of his country to the country to which he is accredited is more important than ever.

Absolute nonsense. They knew of it in advance and approved it.

You know that charge has been made, of course.

Many untrue charges are made. The documents on this are incontrovertible. Rogers and Laird attended the meetings at which the decision was made, and they approved the decision.

The Foreign Service once had a reputation that rested on terms like “striped pants” and “cookie pushers.” Let me ask you if things have changed much in this regard since Roosevelt’s day. How much of a hand does the working Foreign Service have in actual policy making?

I have become a great admirer of the Foreign Service. It is the ablest group of men and women with whom I have ever been associated. Despite their reputation for leaking and self-willedness, I found them to be extremely loyal and, with proper leadership, extremely disciplined. Nor do I think such terms as “cookie pushers” and “striped pants” at all appropriate. If you go through the top echelon of the Foreign Service today, you find men like Phil Habib, who is of Lebanese extraction, and Joe Sisco, my Undersecretary for Political Affairs, who is of Italian extraction. Both reached the highest Foreign Service rank, so I think the kind of snobbery implied by those terms is no longer the problem.

I think the major problem in the Foreign Service is that its traditions were formed in a period when the primary objectives of the United States were economic. Rarely having had to think about grand strategy, the Foreign Service, by nature, and the State Department, by organization, were traditionally more geared to tactical than to strategic issues, more to the middlerange and short-range than to the long-range. But that has nothing to do with the social background of the Foreign Service officer. It has to do with the kind of people, with the kind of organization, that has grown up over the years.

There was considerable evidence in World War II days that, whatever President Roosevelt said about bringing victims of Hitler out of Germany, many of our officials certainly did not do their best to bring them out. There’s a good deal of evidence piling up that they fought against such a rescue policy.

I have never studied that particular subject, therefore I cannot comment on whether the Foreign Service sabotaged some Roosevelt policies or has been used as the fall guy. It is certainly the case that Foreign Service officers, having spent their careers in foreign affairs, are occasionally very self-willed with respect to their expertise. They occasionally interpret orders in the way that is most compatible with their preconceptions, and they have been known to try going around their superiors. That is still true today to some extent; it depends on leadership. The Foreign Service is oriented to the Secretary of State more than to the President—he is their Chief of Staff. If the Secretary of State makes it clear and insists on a policy, he can get it, and I wonder whether in World War II it was clearly understood that Roosevelt, in fact, wanted to do more for Nazi victims. In my experience it may take some doing, but if you can convince Foreign Service officers that you mean business, they will take orders.

Given the speed of technology and the ease with which you can confer instantly with people anywhere in the world, are ambassadors and the whole panoply of diplomacy really becoming obsolete?

They play a different role now than they used to. In most parts of the world, it is possible technically to give instructions in such detail that, for day-to-day negotiations, ambassadors are less important. On the other hand, the political leaders’ understanding of each other is infinitely less today than it used to be when leadership groups were more homogeneous and foreign policy was confined to a smaller area. So the role of the ambassador in explaining the intangibles of his country to the country to which he is accredited and vice versa is more important than ever. The conceptual function of the ambassador is really quite fundamental.

The ambassador carries on where the. more or less understood details of day-to-day diplomacy leave off?

He ought to try to provide a broader understanding of what the telegraph is communicating in terms of specific proposals and specific ideas. The complexities of the culture and the politics of most countries will not be understood by the policy makers’ countries. They will not have a framework. In the nineteenth century foreign ministers understood the domestic structure of the countries they had to deal with because they came from the same social background as their counterparts. But the cultural gaps today are so great—and the people who come to high office have so focused on getting there rather than on the substance of what they will have to do in office—that they need a lot more assistance than before in understanding the problems.

Why, then, do the Department and the Service keep changing their representatives just when they have attained a good understanding of the country they’re accredited to?

It’s a great mistake. They shouldn’t. There are, of course, some career considerations. To move somebody every four or five years does not seem to me wrong. But to change people every twelve or eighteen months, which frequently happens, is crazy.

As a scholar in this field, as you were long before you took public office, whom do you consider the great Secretaries of State? Who would be—or were—your models?

Acheson was a great Secretary of State. It’s difficult to go back to the earliest periods because foreign policy problems were so different. Certainly Jefferson was a great man and almost certainly a great Secretary of State. More recently, I think Stimson was a considerable man.

Would you include General Marshall?

Marshall, yes. Acheson, Marshall, Stimson. Dulles was a strong Secretary of State but very single-minded and didn’t really use the institution very well. I guess those would be the leading Secretaries in this century.

Would you, under any circumstances, want to return to that office?

Not really. I suppose that in a crisis one has a duty to accede to a President’s request, but for normal times public life is now behind me. I consider myself an elder statesman who is willing to advise. I have enormous admiration for the current Secretary and I’m helping him in any way I can from the outside.

Just considering the Department as an institution, what are some of the major problems a Secretary faces today?

There’s a certain historic snobbishness that has left a residue even though the social background of personnel has broadened, as I mentioned before. There is still a certain lack of discipline. When you consider the Secretaries of State who didn’t know anything about foreign policy when they were appointed, or very little, and add to it the frequency of change, it is not surprising that there have been relatively few consecutive periods in which strong Secretaries of State could impose a coherent way of thinking on the Department. This has made for a tendency toward self-will. It doesn’t always make it easy to carry out a coherent policy.

I take it that since you admire the present Secretary, you believe he will be able to improve the Department in this regard.

I have no doubt that he will succeed, if he stays in the job long enough.

And the President will let him?

I am confident the President will let him, but we have another election in ’84, and if there should be a change, that means somebody else will have to start again from scratch.




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