Renowned diplomat Henry Kissinger spoke for more than an hour on Wednesday in Santa Barbara, touching on everything from chemical weapons to the role of the Internet for a small audience gathered for an elegant luncheon hosted by Westmont College at the Coral Casino.
The 90-year-old Kissinger, secretary of state from 1973 to 1977 and a Nobel Peace Laureate, spoke with college President Gayle Beebe in front of about 150 people gathered for the event.
Santa Barbara was a stop on Kissinger's busy schedule between Washington and Moscow, where he is headed next.
Kissinger was predictably encyclopedic on the diplomatic questions he was peppered with on Wednesday and is in the middle of working his newest book, which deals with world order and the role of culture.
He began the event by commenting on cooperation between the United States and Russia in Syria.
Americans and Russians view the situation in Syria completely differently, Kissinger said.
Americans view it as a contest between the ruler and the people, he said, but "it's a fight within the Syrians themselves, between the Alawite Minority and Sunni Majority, and other religious minorities that support the Alawites.
"This is a fight between these two groups, and it can't be settled by a coalition government or any formulas we use."
The Russians have felt all along that if government disintegrates, those groups will keep fighting and radical Islam will take over, he said.
When asked about the parts of foreign policy that are working, Kissinger said the United States has a "pretty coherent foreign policy," but that challenges with China remain as well as "the potential of conflict" with the country.
In the Middle East, "we have trouble answering the question of what we are trying to do," he said.
Kissinger was asked about the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and though he didn't speak favorably about former Libyan Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi, whom he called a "bizarre, unpleasant character."
Kissinger said he was afraid from the beginning it "would be hard to consolidate power and that the country would fragment if Gaddafi was overthrown, creating an overall chaotic situation."
Beebe and Kissinger also talked the concept of American exceptionalism, and Kissinger said it's important for the country to identify what things it will fight for, no matter how few countries support it.
"I came here as an immigrant from Germany of a certain minority, so of course I'm for human rights, but I also think that this country is a symbol around the world. … It has to keep that reputation," he said.
While Kissinger called the use of chemical weapons in Syria "absolutely wrong," he also expressed concern about the United States acting alone to deter their use.
"If nobody else supports you, why do we have a special obligation to do something? I don't understand that," he told Beebe.
Asked about the greatest threat to America's long-term security, Kissinger answered that it was the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
He was also asked whether the world's opinion of America is at an all-time low, and Kissinger said it would be easy to restore faith in the country.
"When you travel as an American, you don't see much anti-Americanism," he said, with the Middle East being an exception.
When asked about the country's immigration policies, Kissinger said he's sympathetic to the immigrant community being an immigrant himself, "but one has to recognize that a country has the right to protect its borders."
Where America will be in 20 years was the last question he was asked, and Kissinger reflected on the changes brought about by the Internet, as well as its free speech implications.
"I'm bothered by institutions like Google that have a monopoly on information. … We have to restore some concept of objective truth," he said. "On the other hand, we have created a range of knowledge we never even knew existed."
In general, Kissinger said he was optimistic about America's future because its population is dedicated.
"Almost all of the problems I've described here we can solve with our own efforts," he said. "Who else can say that?"