Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy by Henry Kissinger - review by Piers Brendon

Piers Brendon

Margaret Thatcher As I Knew Her

Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy


Allen Lane 528pp £25

Nothing about this book is more remarkable than the fact that its author is in his hundredth year. Henry Kissinger is an extraordinary survivor. As a Jewish teenager he fled Nazi Germany, returning there with the US army during the war. He became a professor at Harvard but succumbed to the lure of Washington, where he gave counsel to an inexperienced President Kennedy. As an acolyte of Nelson Rockefeller, he warned that Richard Nixon was ‘the most dangerous of all men running to have as President’. Yet Kissinger served Nixon as national security adviser and secretary of state, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in ending the Vietnam War. Continuing in his post under Gerald Ford, he helped, by way of some shuttle diplomacy, to disengage the belligerents during the Yom Kippur War. Since then he has become a kind of global guru, public intellectual and consultant to the great. He is the ultimate geopolitical gerontocrat.

There is no denying his intellectual potency. Far from being the feeble maunderings that one might have expected from someone Kissinger’s age, this tome is a robust study of six leaders who, he asserts, ‘transcended the circumstances they inherited’. Konrad Adenauer restored legitimacy and dignity to a Germany crushed physically and disgraced morally during Hitler’s war. By sheer force of will, Charles de Gaulle revived France after defeat and occupation, shed the burden of Algeria and created the Fifth Republic. At the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon made peace in Vietnam, reached an arms control agreement with the USSR and achieved a rapprochement with China. Anwar Sadat not only realigned Egypt, turning it away from the Soviet Union and towards the United States, but also came to terms with Israel. Against the odds, Lee Kuan Yew created a flourishing, multiethnic city-state in Singapore. Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain by championing free-market economics and enhanced her country’s position on the international stage.

All six leaders came from relatively humble backgrounds, rose through talent rather than nepotism and faced a world in which old certainties had been dissolved by two world wars. After 1945 two mutually hostile superpowers emerged, polarising the planet. Empires disappeared, often after bloody conflicts. Economies were reshaped by the advent of globalisation. The six leaders showed their greatness, Kissinger maintains, by refusing to abdicate to vast impersonal forces and by contributing to the creation of new structures in a changing world. All were courageous and in some sense visionary, but each possessed specific qualities. Adenauer had ‘integrity and persistence’. By means of indomitable self-belief, de Gaulle summoned France’s national spirit. Nixon had an excellent grasp of the international situation and outstanding ‘strength in decision’. Sadat is singled out for his ‘spiritual elevation’, Lee for his imagination and Thatcher for her ‘principled leadership and tenacity’.

This is all very well, but what is missing from Kissinger’s book is any acknowledgement that these leaders were, to a greater or lesser extent, ruthless authoritarians. In this, of course, they resembled Kissinger himself, whose advocacy of realism in foreign policy covered a multitude of sins. Among them were the secret bombing of Cambodia, in which he played a key role, his support for the Pakistani government’s ‘selective genocide’ in what became Bangladesh, his involvement in the coup which replaced Allende with Pinochet in Chile and his giving the green light to the military junta’s ‘dirty war’ in Argentina. Kissinger has always been less concerned with morality than with defeating the insidious communist foe and securing America’s global supremacy. He frankly declares that pragmatism must trump principle: since the state is a fragile organisation, the statesman does not have the right ‘to risk its survival on ethical restraint’. By no means should the United States be a moral policeman. He told Nixon in 1973 (later apologising for the remark), ‘if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.’

In this book, Kissinger focuses on the political successes of his sextet and either underplays or ignores their illiberal tendencies. Nothing is said about Adenauer establishing a ‘Chancellor democracy’ or defending the presence of a war criminal, Theodor Oberländer, in his cabinet. De Gaulle’s use of torture as an instrument of policy goes unmentioned, as does Adenauer’s comment that the French president was a bit ‘Führer-like’. Watergate is described as a tragedy rather than a crime and, in an ecstasy of euphemism, Kissinger says that Nixon would sometimes ‘make statements that did not reflect the full scope of his designs’. Little is made of Sadat’s or Lee Kuan Yew’s repression of his political opponents. Kissinger records that a thousand police officers were injured during the British miners’ strike of 1984–5, but he omits any reference to the ‘police riot’ at the Orgreave coking works, let alone to the SAS’s shooting of three unarmed IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. In fact, Thatcher is the object of his almost unqualified admiration.

Here, perhaps, age does begin to show. Kissinger lauds Thatcher as the heir of Disraeli without noting that he was the proponent of ‘one nation’ Toryism whereas she was fundamentally divisive. Her policies of privatisation and deregulation are extolled without any assessment of the damage they did to the fabric of society. According to Kissinger, she laboured to ‘cast off the shackles that had limited her predecessors – particularly the nostalgia for lost imperial glories’. Yet in her triumphalist oration after the Falklands War, she said that victory had expunged her compatriots’ secret fears that ‘Britain was no longer the nation that built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world’. Other misapprehensions abound. But Kissinger does tell a piquant story about the Iron Lady’s attitude to the Iron Chancellor. Kissinger quoted Bismarck when paying tribute to her at the G7 summit in 1988, and she asked afterwards whether this was ‘Bismarck, the German’. Informed that it was, she said, ‘Time to go home.’

Kissinger’s anecdotage seems often designed to emphasise his propinquity to the powerful. In most cases, though, he had only sporadic contact with the leaders he discusses. Moreover, he frequently rehashes in this book material he has published elsewhere. His account of being fluently cursed by a moribund Eisenhower from the latter’s hospital bed, for example, is all too familiar. So are his lucubrations on leadership in general. Admittedly, he makes some shrewd comments about the way in which leaders operate today in an era dominated by social media and identity-based factionalism. For the likes of Trump and Johnson, concerned only with their own advancement, substance is almost entirely subordinate to image. As Lee Kuan Yew said, winning an election in an age of mass media is largely ‘a contest in packaging and advertising’.

Kissinger does not resolve the complexities of his subject, however. He says, for instance, that great leaders are direct and outspoken. Yet he admits that they cultivate constructive ambiguity, as de Gaulle did in June 1958 when he famously told a baying crowd of French settlers in Algiers, ‘Je vous ai compris.’ Kissinger’s own language is mealy-mouthed to a degree. It can also be inelegant and verbose. He does not write well, but, given his age, you are surprised that he writes at all.

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