Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy
(Penguin, 528 pages, $36)
Leadership is a somewhat vague concept. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s quip about obscenity, we know it when we see it. Henry Kissinger, now in his 99th year, has seen leadership, often close up, during his long career in academia, government, and business. And rather than attempting to define this vague term, Kissinger’s new book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, explores the different qualities of effective leadership by examining the public careers of six great leaders: German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, French President Charles de Gaulle, American President Richard Nixon (for whom Kissinger worked), Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In his introductory chapter, Kissinger explains that all six of these leaders were shaped to varying degrees by the upheavals resulting from the Second World War. Adenauer was an opponent of the Nazi regime who witnessed his country sink into the abyss of genocide and destruction. De Gaulle led Free French forces against the German occupiers of France and the traitorous Vichy regime. Nixon fought in the Pacific War. Sadat and Lee were colonial subjects during the war who yearned for independence. Thatcher as a teenager listened to Churchill’s spellbinding speeches during the Battle of Britain. “[A]ll six leaders,” Kissinger writes, “drew their own conclusions as to what led the world astray, alongside a vivid appreciation of the indispensability of bold — and aspirational — political leadership.”
Kissinger, too, was shaped by the war. He fought with the American army in Germany as a soldier in the 84th Division, worked in a counterintelligence unit at the end of the war, and earned a Bronze Star. He also lost more than a dozen family members to the Holocaust. And later in life he interacted to varying degrees with all of the leaders he writes about.
Kissinger makes clear that there is no one style of effective leadership. All of the book’s subjects exercised leadership under different political circumstances that required different strategies. What they had in common, he writes, was the achievement of two fundamental tasks: “to preserve their society by manipulating circumstances rather than being manipulated by them” and “to temper vision with wariness, entertaining a sense of limits.”
Germany’s Adenauer pursued a “strategy of humility” by acknowledging Germany’s past sins, earning the confidence of Germany’s new postwar allies, instituting democratic reforms, and folding Germany’s identity within a broader European framework. He initiated a special relationship with the old enemy France. Circumstances, especially Soviet aggressive moves in Eastern and Central Europe immediately after the war, helped Adenauer achieve those goals. Like all West German postwar leaders, Adenauer’s long-term goal was German unification, but he demonstrated the necessary patience and forbearance that his successors copied to enable unification to occur when the Berlin Wall fell.
Kissinger describes de Gaulle’s leadership as the “strategy of will.” De Gaulle was the embodiment of the French nation, insisting that France was still great and deserved a prominent place at the table of the world’s leaders in the postwar era despite France’s humiliating defeat at the outset of the Second World War. Here, de Gaulle’s will overcame circumstances that would have inhibited lesser men. As the self-proclaimed leader of Free French forces during the war who staunchly opposed the Vichy traitors, de Gaulle repeatedly infuriated Churchill and FDR, who nevertheless recognized that he was France’s man of destiny.
After the war, de Gaulle became the savior of his nation as it suffered defeats in Indochina and North Africa. As president of France, he ended the divisive Algerian conflict that was tearing France apart. He developed France’s independent nuclear deterrent in the face of resistance by the U.S. and other NATO allies. He strengthened the special relationship between Germany and France. Kissinger calls him a modern-day Cardinal Richelieu, whose devotion to raison d’état (reasons of state) helped France “become a central participant in a new European order.”
Perhaps no one understood and appreciated the greatness of Richard Nixon more than Kissinger.
Kissinger attributes de Gaulle’s unstinting will to his “unshakable faith in France and its history” and to his “commanding, aloof, passionate, committed, visionary, ineffably patriotic” personality and character. De Gaulle, Kissinger writes, created political reality “by sheer force of will.” “His life,” Kissinger explains, “is a case study in how great leaders can master circumstances and forge history.”
Perhaps no one understood and appreciated the greatness of Richard Nixon more than Kissinger, who served as Nixon’s top foreign policy adviser during his presidency. Nixon inherited circumstances that would have crippled a lesser man. Vietnam was tearing the country apart. Civil unrest caused by anti-war demonstrations, racial animosity, and political assassinations threatened an inglorious end to the American Century, as many of the nation’s elite lost confidence in American exceptionalism and some even embraced anti-Americanism. The Soviet Union had achieved strategic nuclear parity with the United States and was gaining influence in the Middle East and in Third World nations. Nixon responded to these circumstances with what Kissinger calls the “strategy of equilibrium,” which “reshaped a failing world order at the height of the Cold War.”
Nixon’s foreign policy strengths, Kissinger explains, “resided at the two ends of geopolitical strategy: rigor in design and great boldness in execution.” Kissinger has always credited Nixon for framing the grand strategy that enabled the United States to end an unpopular war, exploit the Sino-Soviet split, reduce Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, increase America’s influence in South Asia, and create a global equilibrium that sustained America’s leading role in the democratic world. Kissinger shared Nixon’s worldview and brilliantly helped him execute that bold strategy.
Detente with the Soviet Union had its share of critics, including Ronald Reagan. Nixon’s approach to arms control met opposition among military leaders and political opponents such as Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Nixon’s opening to China infuriated conservative anticommunists. Nixon’s embrace of the Shah of Iran and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet upset “human rights” advocates. Yet the American electorate overwhelmingly approved, as evidenced by Nixon’s historic landslide victory in the 1972 election. Nixon’s second term promised even greater achievements, but a politically driven and media-saturated Watergate “scandal” drove Nixon from office. But even in the darkest days of the Watergate witch-hunt (my term, not Kissinger’s), Nixon managed to transform a war in the Middle East into a peace process that increased U.S. influence in the region while simultaneously diminishing Soviet influence there.
In the end, Kissinger writes, Nixon temporarily adjusted America’s role in the world “from faltering dominance to creative leadership.” He accomplished this because he understood “how different aspects of national power relate to one another” and was sensitive to “minute shifts in the global equilibrium” and knew how to “counterbalance them.” Nixon used American power wisely but also understood its limits.
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s most important partner in Middle East diplomacy was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser as president and used the 1973 Yom Kippur War to realign Egypt’s foreign policy toward better relations with the United States and Israel. In accomplishing this, Sadat practiced a “strategy of transcendence” that rejected pan-Arab nationalism and non-alignment (in reality, Soviet alignment) that was then “sweeping the Arab and Islamic world.”
Sadat’s strategy of transcendence led him to bold moves, including the expulsion of 20,000 Soviet advisers from Egypt, launching a war (in conjunction with Syria) against Israel, supporting Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” in the aftermath of the war, then astounding the world by traveling to Jerusalem to make peace with Israel, culminating in the Camp David Accords.
Sadat’s strategy of transcendence, however, could not extinguish centuries-old hatreds. Two years after formally making peace with Israel, Islamic fundamentalists within Egypt’s military assassinated Sadat as he stood on the reviewing stand at a commemoration of the 1973 war. Islamic fundamentalism since then has manifested its rejection of Sadat’s vision of peace. Kissinger laments the fact that Sadat’s vision has not endured, but Sadat’s leadership showed the world that it was possible to at least temporarily “transcend the pattern of … recent history.” In global politics, that is a worthy accomplishment.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and long-time prime minister of the city-state of Singapore, was, like Sadat, a colonial subject of Great Britain. Kissinger recounts his friendship with Lee, which continued long after the latter resigned as prime minister in 1990. Kissinger describes Lee’s leadership as the “strategy of excellence.” Lee demanded excellence from his government subordinates and promoted excellence among Singapore’s diverse but small population. In the process, Lee “transformed Singapore into one of the world’s most successful countries.”
As a small city-state at the tip of the Malay peninsula, Singapore did not have the luxury of experimenting with unlimited political freedom. Lee prized order over anarchy. Singapore was and is an authoritarian state, but it economically flourishes and, thanks to Lee, has played a much larger role in international politics than its size would indicate. Kissinger explains that Lee poured money into education and infrastructure and then encouraged international businesses to “exploit” Singapore’s educated workforce by “embracing free trade and capitalism.” The strategy of excellence worked. Kissinger notes that the country’s per capita gross domestic product rose from $517 in 1965 to $60,000 in 2020. He calls it “one of the most remarkable economic success stories of modern times.”
Singapore is situated near one of the world’s most important — arguably the most important — waterway, the Strait of Malacca, through which the trade between East Asia and the rest of the world travels. Lee understood that Singapore’s continued independence would depend on the regional and global balance of power. During the Cold War, Lee sided with the United States and drew upon Israeli expertise to construct an efficient security apparatus to maintain order at home and independence in the larger world.
All six leaders rose from humble origins to the pinnacles of power in their countries, and this reflected a shift in political leadership from the aristocratic class to the middle class largely as a result of the failure of the elites in the cataclysm of the First World War.
In the post–Cold War world, Lee observed a rising China challenge U.S. preeminence but did not believe that war between the U.S. and China was inevitable. He counseled America’s leaders to “engage” China as it rose but also to lay the groundwork for containing it by organizing a de facto alliance involving Japan, Australia, India, South Korea, New Zealand, the ASEAN nations, and, significantly, Russia. Lee appreciated the geopolitical value of the Nixon–Kissinger triangular diplomacy that successfully contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Kissinger’s final portrait of leadership is Margaret Thatcher, who served as Britain’s prime minister between 1979 and 1990. Thatcher, he writes, “defined the era in which she governed,” though one can argue that Ronald Reagan is more deserving of that encomium. Kissinger notes that Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister and “a rare conservative leader drawn from the middle class.” Both of those facts made her an “outsider” in British politics, a role that she relished playing.
He labels Thatcher’s style of leadership the “strategy of conviction,” a description that would also apply to Reagan. Both leaders were conservatives who read widely, especially about the free-market concepts of Hayek and Friedman. Both rose to power at times of economic woes in their countries, and in many ways because of those struggles. Both were fierce anticommunists who believed in “peace through strength” but who later recognized in Mikhail Gorbachev a leader who they, in Thatcher’s words, “could do business with.”
Thatcher’s domestic reforms imposed harsh medicine on a British economy weakened by decades of socialist policies that dated back to the end of the Second World War. Conservative prime ministers prior to Thatcher had lacked the political courage to reverse the statist measures adopted by the British Labor Party. Thatcher raised interest rates to battle inflation. She cut income taxes but raised consumption taxes. She imposed limits on public expenditures. And she successfully fought striking labor unions. Britain’s economy roared back, and Thatcher led the conservatives to electoral victories throughout the 1980s.
In foreign policy, Thatcher aligned Britain closer to the United States than to Europe, though, as Kissinger notes, Anglo-American friction developed over Britain’s Falkland Islands War and America’s invasion of Grenada. Kissinger credits Thatcher for her steely resolve in the Falklands crisis, though in hindsight the war was more about British prestige and confidence than geopolitical interests. And the same “Iron Lady” who on principle preserved British control over the lightly populated islands in the South Atlantic ceded British control over the dynamic, heavily populated island of Hong Kong to communist China. As Kissinger notes, “principle” in foreign affairs only goes so far. Thatcher understood that Britain had no realistic way to defend Hong Kong if China sought to forcibly annex it.
Kissinger notes that all six leaders rose from humble origins to the pinnacles of power in their countries, and this reflected a shift in political leadership from the aristocratic class to the middle class largely as a result of the failure of the elites in the cataclysm of the First World War. That war — which George Kennan called the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century — “eroded trust in the political elite,” explains Kissinger. It produced totalitarian parties and leaders, the Second World War, and the Cold War. And it was those products of the First World War that shaped the circumstances of the world in which Adenauer, de Gaulle, Nixon, Sadat, Lee, and Thatcher assumed leadership roles. They all rose to the occasion.
Kissinger’s book reveals many insights, including that circumstances shape leadership, principles are often sacrificed to practicalities, grand schemes devolve to narrow solutions, ideals give way to realities, academic theories do not survive real-world diplomacy, yesterday’s rival can become today’s ally and tomorrow’s adversary, and the ends of policy sometimes justify the means used to achieve those ends. Leaders should always remember the wise words of Otto von Bismarck: “Man cannot control the current of events, he can only float with them and steer.” (READ MORE from Francis P. Sempa: Henry Kissinger’s Lessons for Our Crisis of Legitimacy)
In the book’s concluding chapter, Kissinger expresses concern that in the West “there are signs that the conditions which helped to produce the six leaders profiled in this book face their own evolutionary decay.” Civic patriotism, he writes, has been replaced by “identity-based factionalism and a competing cosmopolitanism.” Today’s leadership class is increasingly viewed with hostility and suspicion by much of the public — and the feeling is mutual among the elite. Our universities, Kissinger laments, have “wandered from their mission of forming citizens.” The internet, the entertainment industry, social media, and artificial intelligence have fostered what Kissinger calls “corrosive habits of mind.” Reading the printed word has become passé for all too many young people, while social media all too often promotes “immediacy, intensity, polarity, and conformity.” These are not the incubators of successful global leaders.
What is central to the formation of great leadership, Kissinger writes, is “character,” by which he means “virtue” as defined by James Q. Wilson — those “habits of moderate action … acting with due restraint on one’s impulses, due regard for the rights of others, and reasonable concern for distant consequences.” Character and virtue are often shaped by circumstances of hardship or challenge — what Arnold J. Toynbee called the interaction of challenges and responses. Affluence, idleness, and social lassitude, Machiavelli believed, often produce what Kissinger calls “the slow corruption of standards” that seldom produces great leaders.
And with all the scholarship about the effect of impersonal factors upon history, Kissinger insists that individual leaders matter. The leaders Kissinger writes about in this book mattered, he concludes, “because they transcended the circumstances they inherited and thereby carried their societies to the frontiers of the possible.”
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