After a long week of studying, a select group of Yalies began their weekend by eagerly returning to the lecture hall. On Friday, Henry Kissinger addressed a crowd of several hundred students and professors at an invite-only event. Among attendees were students of Grand Strategy, EP&E, and Global Affairs. President Peter Salovey introduced Kissinger as a scholar who “requires no introduction.” Nonetheless, Salovey listed the most notable of Kissinger’s achievments: Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The theme of the event was “Europe at a Crossroads: the Future of Europe and its Role in the International System,” but Kissinger took the opportunity to expound on statecraft and decision-making in general. Students leaned in to hear each word of Kissinger’s slow and deliberate statements. Donald Kagan, President Levin, and dozens of other professors listened intently, eyes fixed on the preeminent statesman. John Gaddis, Yale’s Pulitzer Prize winning author and Grand Strategy professor, respected Kissinger’s insights on American foreign policy as nearly unquestionable law. When Kissinger asked if Gaddis agreed with a point he had made about the Cold War, Gaddis nodded. Turning to the audience, Gaddis gestured towards Kissinger and remarked, “What else could I say?” The crowd chuckled.

Adam Tooze, Director of International Security Studies at Yale, was also on stage with Gaddis. Together, the two engaged Kissinger in a discussion on foreign affairs. To share Kissinger’s comments with the broader Yale community, The Politic has transcribed and provided appropriate context for Kissinger’s most memorable remarks.

On values, morality, and realpolitik:

  • “There are correct policy decisions and incorrect decisions – you analyze sufficiently or not. The important decisions are 51-49. When a decision is that close, if you have no moral framework, it becomes impossible to keep operating. …States must have a value system in an approach to foreign policy.”

    • The Politic: Kissinger is responding to a question that implied he is a champion of realpolitik. He warns that realism alone cannot form the basis of effective foreign policy, and argues that statesmen who neglect moral considerations understand situations incompletely. Additionally, when realist considerations fail to generate clear answers, a moral system gives statesmen a clear guide on how to address difficult situations.

  • “What is the difference between statesmen and prophets? Prophets believe in absolute values and statesmen know values must be integrated in stages. Statesmen are willing to live with imperfection, but they keep enough conviction not to stay at any level of imperfection. It is my view that more people have been killed by prophets than statesmen. Others disagree.”

    • The Politic: Kissinger believes wise statesmen know that improvements must be gradual. The effective statesman is an arbiter between morality and realism.

  • “‘Machiavellian’ would be a wrong description of me, an inaccurate description of how I think. If you read my works, there is no reference to Machiavelli. He gives a great description of 15th century state politics… I think you should act according to principles. I’m more interested in Spinoza or Kant; Machiavelli never interested me that much. I think an emphasis on analyzing relationships is a Machiavellian description of how to think, but that is how you start thinking about foreign relations, not how you complete it.”
    • The Politic: Kissinger humorously commented that “I’d be indifferent” to a comparison of his political philosophy to that of Machiavelli.

Kissinger and Nixon

On U.S. Policy:

  • “With a 24/7 media and constant battering, it is very hard to conduct a serious foreign policy. Because you have to comment on fast-changing situations, you are driven into making comments not by the situation but by what the immediate public reaction is. But there is a need to develop a national concept of foreign policy – such as what the British had in the 19th century. It doesn’t need to be elaborate but… if it is not developed, our foreign policy will be driven by public reaction.”

    • The Politic:  Knee-jerk public reactions to events do not form the basis for thoughtful, long-term policymaking.

  • “As a general proposition, a president should not talk so much about tactical issues, because it puts him in a difficult position. To the degree you preach red lines, you put people in danger – I think it was a mistake to deliver any red line. All statements from the president should carry gravity and imply consequences or rewards. …In the cold war we were very vague about what we would do concretely. In the present world you should certainly know how far you would go in your own mind…”

    • The Politic:  Kissinger is alluding to President Obama’s infamous “red line” warning about chemical weapons in Syria.

On the Cold War:

  • “What problems bothered me most in office? What if the president says, ‘we are out of diplomatic options.’ Do I say, ‘go to the war plan,’ knowing that it will cause millions of deaths? I don’t know what I would have done. The fact is it was our duty to prevent that situation, and I never felt we were close to a war. …War means DEFCON 1, and if you looked at nuclear deployments, we were never at 1. Some nuclear forces were always at 2. Most were at 3. When you say, ‘we went to DEFCON 3,’ we were always there. What we never did was created a situation where the Soviets would think the next move was a nuclear attack.”

    • The Politic: DEFCON 1 refers to a situation of maximum readiness because nuclear war is imminent.  The United States has never been in a DEFCON 1 situation.  DEFCON 2 means that the US is on the verge on nuclear war, such as during the Cuban Missle Crisis. DEFCON 3 means that military readiness is above normal.


On Europe: 

  • “I haven’t met a Russian who doesn’t consider Ukraine part of Russia.”

    • The Politic: Kissinger stated that President Vladimir Putin considers the Soviet Union era a historically proud time for his nation.

  • On the The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: “Yeah, I think it’s a good idea.”

    • The Politic:  The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed comprehensive trade agreement that aims to eliminate tariffs on trade between the United States and the European Union. It is currently under negotiation.

  • “Bismark, Hitler, Merkel.”

    • The Politic: To address a question about intermittent German hegemony within Europe, Kissinger amusedly identifies former Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismark, Adolf Hitler, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as three leaders under whom Germany achieved dominance throughout history.

  • “Germany has been either too weak or too strong for the peace of Europe.”

    • The Politic: Kissinger articulated his hope that if Germany is to reclaim dominance within Europe, it will maintain a harmonious relationship with its neighbors.

At the reception after the event, a hundred Yalies crowded around Kissinger requesting pictures, autographs, or even just a handshake. President Salovey and other prominent figures within the Yale community were clearly a second favorite to the former Secretary of State. Kissinger took to the attention kindly and interacted with students for over an hour.

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