Keeping it real: Kissinger in 1976 © Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

Making visions a reality

Henry Kissinger’s portraits of six leaders who changed the world—including his old boss Richard Nixon—show what it takes to make a difference
July 21, 2022
Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy
Henry Kissinger
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When I reviewed Henry Kissinger’s World Order in 2014, I speculated that it would be the 91-year-old’s last book. I was wrong. He brought out The Age of AI with others in 2021 and now, at 99, comes Leadership. I am not going to rule out another book from him past 100.

Kissinger’s reputation has enjoyed a remarkable recovery. Cast as Voldemort under Richard Nixon, he has been reborn as Yoda, the wise old adviser to every president from Clinton to Trump. Now he is re-inventing himself as Machiavelli. Although not a leader himself, he has for over 70 years observed leaders up close, like Machiavelli. One consistent thread is his commitment to Realpolitik. He received a storm of criticism at Davos in May by suggesting that Ukraine should give up Crimea and the Donbas to end the war and insisting we should not humiliate Putin. And that same Realpolitik infuses this book.

Kissinger chooses to analyse his subject by looking at six leaders: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. While each did remarkable things—from rebuilding postwar Germany to making peace with Israel—it is an idiosyncratic selection that leaves out Winston Churchill, JFK, Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev. The hardest to justify is the inclusion of Nixon, given what he did to embed cynicism in American politics. (See Colin Kidd on Watergate) Nor is it possible to judge leadership qualities solely by foreign policy, as Kissinger largely does, when most great leaders are marked out by how they change their own societies. And it is hard to see what they all have in common. But it soon becomes clear the real subtitle of this book should have been “leaders I have known”—and it is all the better for that, because it allows Kissinger to recount a string of personal anecdotes to illustrate his arguments.

His great leaders—all formed by what he calls the “Second Thirty Years’ War” from 1914-1945—combined the qualities of prophets and statesmen. Prophets have vision, while statesmen have analytic ability and diplomatic skills; for prophets compromise is a humiliation, while for statesmen it is merely a point on the way to the destination. In search of commonalities, these transformational leaders didn’t just manage the status quo, Kissinger says, but were proactive, believing that “what seems inevitable becomes so by human agency.” They challenged orthodoxy and took on vested interests. Crucially, they could intuit the future rather than being guided by focus groups, building on abiding national values and aspirations. Perhaps thinking of his own role, he says leaders can be magnified—or diminished—by those around them. Prophet-statesmen need a team to translate their vision into action.

In fact, the six were pretty different. Some were dividers, like Thatcher and Nixon, whereas others were uniters and nation-builders like Adenauer and Lee Kuan Yew. Kissinger is right to emphasise the boldness of each of them. But he also downplays the role of luck and political cunning each displayed. In the words of Machiavelli, leaders need the wiles of the fox as well as the courage of the lion.

Kissinger first met Adenauer in 1957 as a young academic. The West German chancellor was already a transformational leader, healing the soul of the nation after the war and anchoring the new democratic Germany in Europe. He was a visionary who decided to put submission to the US and participation in Nato ahead of German reunification, while focusing on rebuilding relations with France and the first steps towards creating the EU.

But Adenauer was lucky to be in the right place at the right time when he was chosen by the Allies, as well as being a calculating politician. He formed the CDU when everyone else was still recovering from the shock of defeat. He insisted the capital was Bonn, near his native village in the Rhineland, rather than Munich or Frankfurt. He knew how to neutralise his enemies. Kissinger describes being ushered into Adenauer’s office and seeing an opposition politician on the way out who had publicly trashed the chancellor. He was surprised that Adenauer treated him with particular friendliness. When the man had left, Adenauer said to Kissinger: “In politics it is important to retaliate in cold blood.”

Kissinger first met de Gaulle in Paris in 1969, during Nixon’s visit as president. No other 20th-century leader had greater gifts of intuition or was more rooted in his nation’s history: in the words of André Malraux, he was “a man of the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow.” The French leader saw the need not just to defeat Germany in the war but also to rebuild France and give it back its “grandeur.” De Gaulle wrapped himself in myths and spoke in riddles, always referring to himself in the third person, but had the most extraordinary courage: he refused to duck under sniper fire when liberating Paris in 1944 or during the assassination attempt against him in 1962. His chutzpah was unequalled, whether turning up in London in 1940 alone and declaring himself leader of France or standing up to the threat of a military coup over Algeria. 

But he too was a calculating politician who made sure he had crucial leaders on side before he craftily outmanoeuvred the communists after the war. He also had extraordinary luck. If he had not managed to attach himself to prime minister Paul Reynaud in 1940, he would have remained a visionary lieutenant colonel. When opportunities suddenly came up, he grabbed them with both hands. According to Kissinger, “For de Gaulle, politics was not the art of the possible but the art of the willed.” He started out with the vision and made the world conform. His legacy lives on in France’s place in Europe, its foreign policy and its relations with Germany.

It soon becomes clear the real subtitle of this book should have been “leaders I have known”

Kissinger tries to gloss over Nixon’s crimes, which he says are “dealt with elsewhere.” He claims to be shocked by the White House tapes and never himself heard Nixon swearing; the furthest he goes is to refer to the “Watergate tragedy.” He claims Nixon wanted peace with Vietnam from the beginning, but peace with honour—and that required bombing Laos and Cambodia. He contrasts Biden’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan unfavourably with what they did in Vietnam, and excuses Nixon by saying many of his oral instructions were not actually meant to be carried out. Kissinger recalls being instructed by the president one night to “bomb the airport of Damascus.” He drew up a plan, but never activated it. The plan was then quietly dropped. 

Kissinger praises Nixon’s analytic rigour and boldness in execution, but goes on to say that “negotiating detailed diplomatic settlements is a craft from which presidents would be well advised to refrain,” leaving it instead to their advisers. Tellingly, when Kissinger talks of their “partnership” in foreign policy he is really talking about himself rather than Nixon. Still, Kissinger does have breathtaking achievements to his name: setting up secret back channels with Lê c Th to negotiate peace in Vietnam; furtively meeting the Soviet ambassador in Washington to start the Salt nuclear arms treaty talks; and, above all, his secret visits to Zhou Enlai to split China from the Soviet Union and fundamentally change the world order. The vignettes from the 1972 China visit are fascinating and still relevant today—Mao told him he didn’t want Taiwan back for 100 years because it was full of counter-revolutionaries. 

Kissinger believes Nixon saved America from sinking back into another bout of isolationism. He had hoped to establish a lasting “school” of Realpolitik foreign policy, with an emphasis on national interests and the maintenance of global equilibrium through dialogue between great powers. This has been the constant theme in Kissinger’s life since his Harvard doctoral thesis on the Congress of Vienna. His great regret is that this didn’t happen because Nixon’s impeachment left the US to return to “fierce swings between reckless triumphalism and righteous abdication.”

Sadat figures in the book partly because of his great courage in flying to Israel to make peace in 1977, but also because it provides an opportunity for accounts of Kissinger’s own shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. Sadat had been expected to be a transitional leader after Gamal Abdel Nasser, but he surprised everyone by being transformative and—in spite of the obstructionism of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin—managed to secure peace at Camp David, before being assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981.

Kissinger’s treatment of Thatcher is less interesting, perhaps because she came to power after he had left office and so most of their meetings were social. He does, however, tell a story against himself. In the early days of her leadership of the Tories, he advised Gerald Ford that she would not last and would likely be replaced by Christopher Soames! Later, he congratulated her on Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, saying it showed she had moved the centre of political gravity in Britain. She was only partly pleased.

Kissinger is right to conclude that transformative leaders require courage and character. But what he misses is the role of luck

It is true that Thatcher meets Kissinger’s test of being a transformative leader, but mainly domestically. On the Falklands she was certainly bold, and was inspired in reaching out to Gorbachev. But on most of the major foreign policy issues she was wrong: in trying to cling on to sovereignty over Hong Kong for far too long, on opposing German reunification, and on being deeply critical of her own Anglo-Irish agreement. Of course, she was also the queen of Euroscepticism.

The inclusion of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew is at first sight surprising. He was a remarkable leader but, as Deng Xiaoping said in a classic put-down, he was so good he should really have been in charge of a much bigger country, maybe with 60m people. The reason soon becomes clear when Kissinger reveals he met Lee at Harvard in 1968, where he annoyed the liberal faculty members by defending the US intervention in Vietnam. What Lee did in building one of the most successful states in the world out of nothing is extraordinary. But there was a dark side to it. Lee was seen as a leftist when he came to power. (When he took over in the 1950s, my parents took me out of Singapore where we were living.) But he tended right and established an authoritarian and deeply conservative system. According to Kissinger, his justification was that he believed democracy—or at least the first-past-the-post system—was incompatible with a multi-ethnic state. 

Kissinger is right to conclude that transformative leaders require courage and character. Courage is manifested by making hard choices and doing so at speed because events move too quickly to allow precise calculations. Leaders have to act early, or it will be too late because the scope for action will have constricted—he rightly refers to the failures of leadership in tackling coronavirus, particularly relevant here in the UK. Great leaders must be prepared to make bold gambles without having all the facts. But what Kissinger misses is the role of Fortuna or luck, which Machiavelli says makes up 50 per cent of a leader’s success. Each of his six was presented with a huge opportunity at a crucial moment, and each seized it.

Kissinger laments the lack of transformative leaders today, finally citing Machiavelli by name on the penultimate page of this book alongside his view that social lassitude is induced by long periods of tranquillity. He blames social media, the failure to study history and the lack of civic patriotism in a world split between populism and cosmopolitanism. Quoting Adenauer, he asks: “Are any leaders still able to conduct a genuine long-range policy? Is true leadership still possible today?”

While this smacks of observing that policemen seem to be getting younger these days, Kissinger has a point. Few of today’s leaders would fit into these pages. As we enter what is going to be a dangerous transition facing the world—the threat of nuclear war, the rise of AI and possibly the end of globalisation—this is a period when we desperately need transformative leaders. Let us hope and pray that someone with “character, intellect and hardiness” appears soon to fill the vacuum.