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Henry Kissinger on a potential artificial intelligence arms race

Henry Kissinger at 100
Henry Kissinger at 100 11:02

That Henry Kissinger is still alive will come as news to some people. He's hard of hearing, blind in one eye, and has had multiple heart surgeries. Yet, he says, he works about 15 hours a day. And – incredibly – he remains relevant on a global scale.

Koppel asked, "If you had one of your aides here pick up the phone and call Beijing and say, 'Dr. Kissinger would like to speak with President Xi,' would he take your call?"

"There's a good chance that he'd take my call, yes," he replied.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin? "Probably, yes."

"If a president were to come to you and say, 'Henry, would you fly to Moscow and talk to Putin?'"

"I would be inclined to do it, yes," Kissinger said. "But I would be an advisor, not an active person."

"I wasn't thinking about reinstating you as Secretary of State," Koppel laughed. "Of course, you'd be an advisor."

"Yes, absolutely."

In anyone else, the arrogance would be staggering. But the nimbus of photographs surrounding Kissinger displaying former U.S. presidents (living and dead) whom he has served or advised is compelling, confirmation of the old adage, "If you can do it, it ain't braggin'."

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. CBS News

Kissinger believes that the current crisis in Ukraine may be approaching a turning point. "Now that China has entered the negotiation, it will come to a head, I think, by the end of the year," he said. "We will be talking about negotiating processes and even actual negotiations." 

You might think that, on the cusp of turning 100 years old, Kissinger is sympathetic to an 80-year-old or a 76-year-old running for president. He's skeptical. "It takes a certain capacity, physically," he said. "There's some advantages in maturity. There are dangers in exhaustion, and a limited capacity to work."

Kissinger has been at the center of things for longer than most Americans have been alive.  Back in July of 1958, a young Mike Wallace asked an even younger Harvard professor to explain why the threat of massive nuclear retaliation (which was then U.S. policy) made absolutely no sense: "It means that against almost any form of attack we base our policy on a threat that will involve the destruction of all mankind," Kissinger said then. "And this is too risky, and I think too expensive."

Today, Kissinger said, "One of the positive outcomes of the policy that was in fact pursued by every American administration of both parties was that nuclear weapons have not been used for 75 years, nor were they used by any adversary. So that, I think, is an accomplishment."

In 1971, on a secret mission, Kissinger set the stage for President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China the following year. Over the past 50 years, China has evolved to become a world power. Koppel asked, "As you look back now, is the world better off because of that opening? Or is it a more dangerous place now?"

"No, China's reentry into the international system would have happened," Kissinger replied. "You cannot exclude it from the international system."

Today, China seems poised to take Taiwan by military force, and President Biden has said that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense.

"So, we have a problem," said Kissinger, "which is that it could evolve into a general war between two high-tech countries. That's something that requires urgent attention."

"But it's a dangerous period?"

"From that point of view, it's a very dangerous period."

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger
President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office in Washington, October 16, 1973. John Duricka/AP

As secretary of state in 1973 and '74, Kissinger fashioned a new style of diplomacy, sometimes spending weeks flying between capitals. "Shuttle diplomacy," they called it. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was an early convert: "I like him as a man before everything. And then after that as a statesman. As a statesman, I admire him, really."

Kissinger laid the groundwork for an uneasy peace between Egypt and Israel that has lasted now for almost 50 years.

By 1974, Kissinger, the brilliant, all-but-anonymous Harvard academic, was hot stuff. This was how ABC News' Howard K. Smith introduced a special titled "Kissinger: An Action Biography": "He's been named the most admired American, [and] has won the Nobel Peace Prize. A constitutional amendment has been offered that would let him run for president. It won't pass, but what a tribute."

By the summer of 1974, however, the American presidency itself was in crisis. The country was obsessed by Watergate, and Kissinger was determined (as he told a very much younger Ted Koppel), that he and U.S. foreign policy be seen as separate and apart.

Koppel: "Mr. Secretary, if you ever felt that foreign policy was being manipulated for the sake of domestic political reasons, what would you do?"
Kissinger: "I would resign, and I would say so publicly. Foreign policy has to reflect the continuing values of the American people, and it cannot be the subject of partisan policy."

It would be Nixon who resigned. Kissinger stayed on as secretary of state.

What will history's judgment be? Kissinger's career has been one of extraordinary achievement, and relentless controversy. The bombing of Cambodia. The war in Vietnam. Argentina. Chile. Many of his critics were not even alive when the events they condemn occurred.

Koppel asked, "There are people at our broadcast who are questioning the legitimacy of even doing an interview with you. They feel that strongly about what they consider, I'll put it in language they would use, your criminality."

"That's a reflection of their ignorance," Kissinger replied. "It wasn't conceived that way. It wasn't conducted that way."

"There is no question, when you and President Nixon conceived of the bombing of Cambodia, you did it in order to interdict – "

"Come on. We have been bombing with drones and all kinds of weapons every guerilla unit that we were opposing," Kissinger said. "It's been the same in every administration that I've been part of."

"The consequences in Cambodia were particularly – "

"Come on now."

"No, no, no, were particularly – "

"This is a program you're doing because I'm gonna be 100 years old," Kissinger said. "And you're picking a topic of something that happened 60 years ago. You have to know that it was a necessary step. Now, the younger generation feels that if they can raise their emotions, they don't have to think. If they think, they won't ask that question."

Henry Kissinger and "Sunday Morning" senior contributor Ted Koppel. CBS News

Well beyond an age at which most people are unwilling or unable to learn about the latest technology, Kissinger became obsessed with the subject of artificial intelligence. He collaborated with two co-authors on a 2021 book, "The Age of AI and Our Human Future."

Koppel asked, "In theory, the United States has declared that it will always maintain and insist upon human control of artificial intelligence. From a practical point of view, it's impossible."

"Well, it's a highly desirable objective, but the speed with which artificial intelligence acts will make it problematical in crisis situations," Kissinger replied.

A wartime situation, for example, in which AI recommends a course of action that the President and his advisors consider horrifyingly unwise. "In relying on the answer, we cannot double-check it," said Kissinger, "because we cannot review all the knowledge that the machine has acquired. We are giving it that knowledge. But this will be one of the big debates. I am now trying to do what I did with respect to nuclear weapons, to call attention to the importance of the impact of this evolution."

"But you know there will also be an artificial intelligence arms race?"

"Yes, but it's going to be different. Because in the previous arms races, you could develop plausible theories about how you might prevail. It's a totally new problem intellectually."

Just the thing to engage Henry Kissinger at 100.

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Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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