Henry Kissinger is the diplomat who has done the most to take advantage of the split between China and the Soviet Union, and is dismissed by some as an apologist for China. Still, his alarm about the risks of what is rapidly turning into a second cold war should be taken very seriously. The US-Soviet arms control veteran today warns of “unbridled competition” between the US and China that has “no precedent in history”.
Rather than negotiate threat reduction, as the US and USSR did after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, America and China are becoming increasingly ignorant of each other’s capabilities and intentions — the opposite of how the first cold war developed. “The [US-China] relationship has shifted from partnership, to cooperation, to uncertainty to near or actual confrontation,” Kissinger said in an interview with the Financial Times. “If there is no dialogue, the expectation that sensible decisions will be made on all sides is an act of confidence in the future that I will not accept.”
Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, said whoever was in charge in artificial intelligence would dominate the world. Kissinger, who co-authored a new book with Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, The Age of AI, says we have not yet begun to understand the impact it will have on future warfare and geopolitical stability. The FT recently reported that China had tested a hypersonic missile that would allow it to evade US missile defense systems. The Pentagon this week estimated that China plans to quadruple its nuclear arsenal by 2030. Nicolas Chaillan, the former head of AI at the Pentagon, told the FT he resigned because he couldn’t stand watching China catch up with the US. “It’s already over,” he said.
According to Kissinger, the photo could be worse than that. We don’t know enough about AI on either side, not even to determine if China is leading the way, or what it could do if it were. He compared the present time to the period before World War I, when Britain and Germany were so ill-informed about each other’s goals that a seemingly unrelated incident – the assassination of an Archduke in southeastern Europe – led to what was then the bloodiest. war in history.
The US and China show no appetite to bridge their own gulf of ignorance. “We need to learn about these AI capabilities while understanding that they create a level of uncertainty in the world where permanent peace is very difficult to maintain — probably impossible,” Kissinger said.
He pointed out the contrast between the current opacity of AI’s strategic impact and the intensive work on nuclear weapons during the first cold war. As a young professor, Kissinger belonged to a large group of scientists who studied nuclear doctrine. Their work eventually led to arms control treaties in which Moscow and Washington shared details about the accuracy and strength of their arsenals.
The US and China do not yet understand the power of each other’s AI and there are no plans to enter into a formal dialogue, he says. Thus, the likelihood of confusion and escalation is greater than during most of the Cold War. Still, the appetite among American scientists to work on it is significantly lower. “The philosophical ballast in many societies evaporates for the kind of dialogue [on nuclear weapons] from which I and my colleagues have learned so much,” Kissinger said.
It will be easy for many Americans left and right to ignore Kissinger’s warnings. The Left cannot forgive him for the Nixon government’s covert bombing of Cambodia, support for the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, and other covert actions. The right views him as unreliably appeasing about China. Yet Kissinger’s analysis must be separated from moral evaluations of his Cold War record.
At the age of 98, he is one of the few living figures to have played a leading role in the struggle with the existential threats of the last century. Each side eventually acquired a deep understanding of their nuclear capabilities and doctrines that may be impossible to match on AI, he argues. There are no spy planes that can take pictures of the Chinese AI. There is no clear way to deter attacks, or know where they come from.
“With nuclear weapons, it was possible to devise principles of deterrence in which there was some symmetry between the damage on each side,” he said. “Like an uninhibited [US-China] If the arms race goes from nuclear to AI, the dangers of a dramatic escalation would be very great.”