Henry Kissinger has just turned 99, but age has not slowed him one bit in the respect he can muster for an autocrat such as Vladimir Putin. Nothing else can explain why, addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, he advocated that the best road to peace in Ukraine is to officially cede Crimea to Moscow, which it seized in 2014, and give it de facto control of Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
None of this sat well with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who in effect reminded the former secretary of state that this kind of advice from a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust to him, a Jew who also lost family members in that horror, was not so much realpolitik as surrealpolitik.
I have come not to bury Henry Kissinger—war criminal or statesman, you decide—but to praise him as an uncommonly elegant writer. To say no U.S. secretary of state has been better with words is not as faint a compliment as you might think; Present at the Creation, by Dean Acheson, is a perceptive and memorable chronicle of the tumultuous Truman years.
But most books by others who have held the office quickly make it to the remainder bin, especially John Kerry’s 600-plus-page memoirs, Every Day Is Extra, much of which The New York Times advised be read with toothpicks, “so readers can use them to prop up their eyelids.”
Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy shows Kissinger at his best, since he focuses not on doctrine but on five men and one woman who by dint of their personality changed the world in which they found themselves. He has always had an eye for detail and motive, and as we know from the White House tape recordings of his conversations with Richard Nixon, he is blessed with an intuitive understanding of how to play to a person’s vanity.
Or, to put it less kindly, Kissinger is a first-class suck-up.
“Ordinary leaders,” Kissinger writes, “seek to manage the immediate; great ones attempt to raise their society to their visions.” Not for him is any theory of history that has us bobbing like corks on a sea made turbulent by forces beyond our control. The leaders in this book “mattered because they transcended the circumstances they inherited and thereby carried their societies to the frontiers of the possible.”
To put it less kindly, Kissinger is a first-class suck-up.
The fact that Kissinger happened to know the six he profiles is not name-dropping at its most egotistical, since it is his intimate observations that give the book its power.
Konrad Adenauer deserves his slot thanks to his ability to navigate Germany out of its postwar disgrace by anchoring it in the Atlantic alliance and rebuilding its moral foundation in line with his own deeply held Christian values. But what helped solidify his authority was “his face, left partly rigid by injuries sustained in an automobile accident during his early forties, and his demeanor, simultaneously courtly and aloof.” And once, when Kissinger saw how cordially he treated a visitor who had just attacked him in the press, the chancellor replied, “My dear Mr. Professor, in politics it is important to retaliate in cold blood.”
Charles de Gaulle had warmer feelings for Adenauer than for any other world leader, but never once did he doubt which country was most worthy to dominate Europe. Kissinger deftly depicts him as a first-class illusionist, able to persuade the Allies after France fell that he, with nothing more than high-flown oratory and a military uniform, could serve as the leader of the Free French.
Indeed, it was de Gaulle’s cultivated hauteur and the cloaking of himself in mystery that strengthened his leadership. Always searching for keys to a leader’s motivation, Kissinger ascribes de Gaulle’s sustained and austere sense of duty partly to the death of his only daughter, at age 20 in 1948. Every day until he died, in 1970, de Gaulle carried a framed picture of her in his breast pocket.
This implies that sentimentality has a place in leadership, as long as you are sentimental about the right traditions. Margaret Thatcher had no “nostalgia for lost imperial glories,” but she did believe her country’s best days were ahead of it if individual and not state control were paramount.
Her middle-class upbringing, so different from the backgrounds of most British prime ministers, instilled in her old-fashioned virtues of hard work, thrift, and discipline. That is where her nostalgia rested, and her transformation of the British economy is her singular achievement. And she, like de Gaulle, punched above her weight for her country’s sake; after all, she convinced Ronald Reagan to treat Britain as a superpower, which it most certainly was not.
Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore for decades, is clearly a favorite of Kissinger’s, mostly because, unlike the others in the book, he oversaw what had only recently been a poverty-clogged colonial outpost. He, like Anwar Sadat, had a bold vision for the future that he willed into being and thus created a financial powerhouse, but, unlike Sadat, he did not have the burden of representing an ancient civilization or of needing to achieve peace in order to become prosperous.
Kissinger makes the debatable point that both men are not remembered as much as they should be, but it is clear that Sadat as well as Lee embodied better than anyone else in the book what Lee defined as the quality of a great leader: “If you are just realistic, you become pedestrian, plebeian, you will fail. Therefore, you must be able to soar above the reality and say, ‘This is also possible.’”
And, finally, there is Richard Nixon, the man Kissinger served throughout his presidency and whose diplomatic legacy, most notably his opening to China, is debated to this day not so much for its impact as for who deserves the credit: the president disgraced by Watergate or the author. Nixon is not a new subject for Kissinger, to say the least, and his disdain for him as a person has been well documented. (“That madman” and “meatball mind” are two of his epithets—not mentioned in this book, of course.)
As befits a man who just turned 99 talking about a man dead since 1994 who made him famous, Kissinger is measured and surprisingly wise about Nixon, brilliantly placing him in the context of the turmoil he both inherited and stirred up.
Nixon hated confrontation, did not always expect his directives to be followed, and did not trust Kissinger and his courtship of the press. Shortly after Kissinger made his secret visit to China, in July 1971, and the announcement was made that Nixon would visit the following year, Nixon sent a memo to Kissinger asking him to stress to reporters how qualified he was for this mission, including the point that he was “a man who works without notes—in meetings with 73 heads of state and heads of government R.N. has had hours of conversation without any notes.” If there were a Nobel Prize for insecurity, the winner would be a toss-up: R.N. or D.T.
Kissinger’s assessment of his boss is a eulogy of sorts, praising his flexibility, his conviction, his grasp of “complex geopolitical trends,” and his “fortitude” in overcoming “his own latent sense of doom.”
None of these words will satisfy those who still believe Kissinger has hogged the spotlight for Nixon’s achievements, most notably his daughter Tricia Nixon Cox, who two decades ago spent most of a dinner honoring Time’s Persons of the Year (Nixon and Kissinger shared the title in 1972), detailing at great length to her seatmate how she would sit in her dad’s study reading and overhear him on the phone to Kissinger, dictating the conduct of negotiations.
I found this mildly endearing, primarily because only two tables away sat the author of this book.
Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, by Henry Kissinger, will be available beginning July 5
Jim Kelly, the former managing editor of Time Inc., is the Books Editor for Air Mail