In his 100th year, Henry Kissinger showed his continuing personal vitality and global relevance by sharing his wisdom and experience in an excellent book on the crucial issue of political leadership. For a man with much already said, there are still important insights to be had in this new project.
Henry Kissinger has had an extraordinary life. As a teenage Jewish refugee fleeing from Germany, he settled in the US with his family in 1938. Several years later, he returned to Germany as a member of the US army, seeing combat during the Battle of the Bulge. PhD studies in history led to an academic career at Harvard University. He went on to serve as national security advisor and then secretary of state under US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Kissinger is also the author of some 19 books on foreign policy and diplomacy, including most recently, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.
In many ways, Leadership is an insightful primer on 20th century political history, as Kissinger analyses the lives and work of six world leaders. He developed personal relationships with most of them, which endured beyond his life as an official. These leaders inherited “a world whose certainties had been dissolved by war,” and went on to redefine national purposes. In sum, they “transcended the circumstances they inherited.”
The first chapter deals with postwar German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who through a “strategy of humility,” “shepherded Germany past the lowest point of its history by abandoning its decades-long quest for domination of Europe, anchoring Germany in the Atlantic Alliance, and rebuilding it on a moral foundation.” Next, we read of former French president Charles de Gaulle, the self-appointed leader of the “Free French,” who employed a “strategy of will” to guide France’s historical transition from a defeated, divided, and overstretched empire to a stable, prosperous nation-state under a sound constitution.
During the Cold War, Nixon gave the US geostrategic advantage through employing a “strategy of equilibrium,” as he led the US out of the conflict in Vietnam, opened relations with China and began a peace process in the Middle East. Following the Middle East wars of 1967 and 1973, former president of Egypt Anwar Sadat worked to restore Egypt’s lost territories and self-confidence by securing long-elusive peace with Israel through a “strategy of transcendence.”
Surrounded by hostile neighbours, former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew managed to create a secure and prosperous multiethnic nation that did not previously exist through a “strategy of excellence.” Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher renewed a weary, former imperial power through a “strategy of conviction.”
While the leadership profiles cover much familiar territory, all of them contain fresh insights based on Kissinger’s personal contact with the leaders. Perhaps the most surprising profile is that of de Gaulle, someone who Franklin D. Roosevelt dismissed as having a Joan of Arc complex. Kissinger clearly admires de Gaulle’s extraordinary chutzpah in resuscitating a France that had lost faith in itself. In a recent interview, Kissinger even said that he thinks that the US “needs somebody like de Gaulle, who recalls it to its essence, even if the definition of that essence is somewhat romanticised, as de Gaulle’s was.”
The most problematic profile is that of his former boss, Nixon. Kissinger was correct when he told Nixon on the eve of the president’s resignation in August 1974, “history will treat you more kindly than your contemporaries have.” But there was more to Nixon’s dark side than the Watergate scandal – notably the indiscriminate bombing of Cambodia which facilitated the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime, as well as his support for Chilean coup leader and dictator Augusto Pinochet, and for Pakistan during its bloody suppression of Bangladesh’s independence movement.
In a book such as this, readers will always wonder why people like China’s Deng Xiaoping or Zhou Enlai, or South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, were not included. Kissinger has since remarked that he has included his views on Deng and Zhou in his book “On China.” But for readers of this book, what is missing is a profile of a strong but misguided leader, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his “strategy of contestation,” or India’s Narendra Modi and his “strategy of division.” A second edition could usefully include Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his “strategy of heroism.”
Perhaps the concluding chapter is the most interesting, as Kissinger sees “evolutionary decay” in the conditions which helped to produce the six leaders profiled in this book. While some of his ideas sound like the yearnings of a Cold Warrior for the “good old days,” he does offer much interesting food for thought.
For example, Kissinger sees the civic patriotism that once lent prestige to public service now being outflanked by an identity-based factionalism and a competing cosmopolitanism. He is also concerned that while secondary schools and universities remain excellent at educating activists and technicians, the humanistic education that shaped prior generations of leaders has fallen out of fashion. Kissinger recalls Winston Churchill’s advice for meeting the challenges of leadership – “study history. Study history…In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”
Kissinger also fears that with the Internet and its attendant technologies, a visual culture is taking over from the print-based age, with adverse consequences for “deep literacy.” Thus, he argues that today, reading a complex book carefully, and engaging with it critically, is becoming a counter-cultural act. He quotes the work of former diplomat Charles Hill on the significance of literature for statecraft.
Kissinger clearly sees a need for better and more enlightened leadership in managing the great power rivalry between the US and China. For the first time in its history, the US is contending with a geopolitical competitor whose resources are potentially comparable to its own. Moreover, each side thinks of itself as exceptional, but differently. The conundrum is whether two different concepts of national greatness can learn to coexist peacefully, and how. As to Russia, it must reconcile its own sense of insecurity with the desire of its former dominions, like Ukraine, for their own self-determination and security.
As the author of this book on the leadership roles of six leaders, Kissinger dares to ask whether individuals matter in history. His responce – “a contemporary of Caesar or Mohammed, Luther or Gandhi, Churchill or FDR would hardly think of posing such a question.” The subjects of this book “understood that what seems inevitable becomes so by human agency.”
In sum, Henry Kissinger’s new book on leadership offers an outstanding analysis of six pivotal figures of the 20th century, as well as fascinating insights into some of the leadership challenges of the 21st century. It should be required reading for anyone interested in international relations.
This is a review of Henry Kissinger, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy (Allen Lane, 2022). ISBN 9780593489444 (Hardback).
This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.