WARSAW, Poland – "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?"
Variations of that question have been attributed for decades to Henry Kissinger, but the former U.S. secretary of state says he doesn't think it originated with him.
The 89-year-old, who served as America's top diplomat under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1970s, said Wednesday that he thinks an Irish foreign minister first used the expression in describing a meeting between the two.
"I am not sure I actually said it," Kissinger told an audience that included diplomats and academics. He then drew laughs when he added, "But it's a good statement so why not take credit for it?"
Kissinger's remarks came during a public discussion held alongside Poland's Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.
The telephone number quip has been repeated often to describe the lack of a single foreign policy across a continent made up of nations with divergent interests.
Despite attempts at greater unity, including the creation of a foreign policy chief, a role now held by Catherine Ashton, European nations still struggle to find common ground on a range of issues. The key dilemma now is finding a way out of the financial crisis in the eurozone.
"Now we have a kind of telephone number, but it isn't really absolutely clear if America wants to deal with Europe who exactly the voice would be," Kissinger said, noting that in addition to Ashton there are other EU leaders speaking for the bloc as well as the foreign ministers of the 27 member-states.
"It's relatively easier now to get answers to technical questions. But I would say that even if a telephone exists and even if they answered it, the answer is not always very clear," Kissinger said.
"Europe has the capacity to be a superpower, but Europe has neither the organization, nor, so far, the concept, to be a superpower," he added. "And that, for the European idea, is a challenge."
For his part, Sikorski said he believes that the EU has actually achieved unity and influence on economic matters — but should now seek greater commonality on foreign policy and defense.
"On trade matters Europe really does speak with one voice, and there we are a superpower," Sikorski said. "We are the largest economy on earth, and when we regulate Microsoft, Gazprom, we really matter, because we speak with one voice."
The discussion took place in English, a language Sikorski mastered to near perfection after a period of exile and study in Britain during Poland's communist era.
The German-born Kissinger couldn't ignore the linguistic achievement.
"May I point out that my Polish hosts are carrying hospitality to considerable extremes by producing a foreign minister who speaks English better than I do?" he said.