It was only a short hour, but former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — who made his first journey to China more than four decades ago, led the landmark opening to that country, and is today a slow-moving but sharp-witted nonagenarian — offered observations on matters as diverse as the U.S. "pivot" to Asia, China's past and present leaders, the crisis in Ukraine, why he thinks he has lived so long, and why he doesn't use social media.
"I don't use Twitter or Facebook," Kissinger told a packed house at Asia Society. "That's not out of any moral superiority. I just don't care so much what others think. I want to know and better understand what I think."
Kissinger was on stage with Deputy Director of the International Monetary Fund Zhu Min, part of a program celebrating the launch of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Kissinger called the so-called "pivot" more "slogan" than "substance" and questioned how significant the change had actually been. Friends in Asia, he said, upon hearing about a "pivot to Asia," say to him, "We didn't know you ever left."
Kissinger chastised European governments for failing to recognize the consequences of its growing engagement with Ukraine, and suggested that Asian leaders may suffer for failing to grasp fundamental lessons of history — in particular, the long and bloody history of European conflicts. "Europe built institutions" to keep a post-World War II peace, Kissinger said; "in Asia, the use of force is not excluded" to resolve tensions because such policy architecture does not exist. High on his lists of Asian worries: China's maritime disputes with Japan and — despite ongoing U.S.-Iranian negotiations — the prospect of a nuclear Iran. A "superhuman" effort will be needed, Kissinger said, to reach a comprehensive deal between the two countries.
Video: "You couldn't have a Mao in every generation" (3 min., 11 sec.)
Not surprisingly, given Kissinger's long personal and professional engagement with China, the Asia Society conversation returned often to that country. Asked to handicap the Chinese leaders he has known, Kissinger said that for all the horrors of his rule, Mao Tse-Tung deserves the praise many Chinese lavish on their "Founding Father." "Mao unified his country," Kissinger said. He called Jiang Zemin a "greatly underestimated" leader who had led China back into the global fold after the violent crackdowns in Tiananmen Square. Both Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, he said, would be seen as authors of their own major changes in economic policies.
In terms of the U.S.-China relationship, Kissinger said the two nations ought to turn their collective attention to a range of issues — climate change, public health, the Korean peninsula — on which constructive engagement was possible. "We need to do certain things together," said Kissinger. "It's not enough to avoid conflict."
The IMF's Zhu Min finished with a lighter question, about the former Secretary of State's longevity, and "razor-sharp" mind. "What is your secret?"
"I was very smart in selecting my parents," Kissinger quipped. "Both of whom lived until the age of 98."
Video: Why Henry Kissinger is not on social media (1 min., 28 sec.)