Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy Henry Kissinger Allen Lane, €30.99
In the opening pages of Leadership Dr Henry Kissinger recalls Germany’s humiliating status at the beginning of the Cold War. Divided east and west, the country was sandwiched between two global superpowers.
The German Democratic Republic was a satellite soviet state loyal to Moscow. The Federal Republic of Germany, meanwhile, looked west to Washington.
Today, Germany is Europe’s economic powerhouse. Kissinger, a German-born American academic, diplomat and political consultant, says that miraculous political comeback started with Konrad Adenauer, who became Chancellor of West Germany in 1949 and remained in office until 1963.
Adenauer always believed the division of Germany was a temporary measure that could be corrected with a little patience and persistence. History shows he was spot on. When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, communism collapsed across eastern and central Europe. Germany reunified a year later.
“Great leadership requires the capacity to inspire and to sustain vision over time,” Kissinger writes. Using that quote as a template for solid leadership, Kissinger then assesses the careers of five other heads of state who changed the course of 20th century history: Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher.
In personality, policy and style they differed. Nevertheless, three distinctive traits helped them all radically transform the societies they governed: long-term vision, dogged determination, and the ability to put the national interest ahead of short-term vainglorious political posturing.
Charles de Gaulle preached and practiced this philosophy throughout his political career. Aged 49, he left France for London to set up a political government in exile: the Free French.
They opposed the Vichy regime, who openly embraced their Nazi occupiers. De Gaulle returned to Paris in 1944 to witness the city’s liberation and became a national hero. The French wartime president borrowed many of his political beliefs from Dublin-born philosopher, British MP, and founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke.
Kissinger cites a number of European thinkers and political strategists as he goes – Niccolò Machiavelli is a personal favourite. But the book offers much more than abstract, armchair political theory.
Kissinger, after all, has decades of practical political experience. His own diplomatic career crossed paths many times with the six figures he writes about.
Most of that global political wheeling and dealing was done during the 1970s – when Kissinger served under the Nixon and Ford administrations, as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.
Under Nixon, Kissinger was instrumental in bringing about the policy of détente, which saw the United States developing cordial relations with the Soviet Union when an all-out nuclear war looked very likely. “Nixon and I developed a relationship which was like a partnership,” Kissinger explains, although he offers nothing on the less flattering moments of Nixon’s career, such as the secret bombing of Cambodia, and the Watergate scandal.
We do, however, get fascinating details regarding Kissinger’s own diplomatic achievements. They include the secret talks he held with Chinese diplomats, which led to Nixon and Mao Zedong’s historic meeting in 1972.
The secret negotiations Kissinger held with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam saw him being jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, although those diplomatic efforts failed to bring about a peaceful end to the Vietnam War.
Kissinger’s critics do not see him as pragmatic peacemaker, though. Many of them made their views known on social media in late May, following a controversial speech he gave on Ukraine at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Kissinger suggested that Kyiv should consider ceding territory to Moscow to help end the war. Kissinger later clarified he was simply suggesting Ukraine should retreat to its borders as they were prior to Russia’s invasion on February 24 – though not concede the Ukrainian territory Russia has seized after that date.
Kissinger claims that Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky also holds this view.
In the final chapter Kissinger addresses Vladimir Putin’s obsession with Ukraine. He claims it comes from a centuries-long tradition in Russian foreign policy that turns “mystical patriotism into imperial entitlement”.
But Kissinger says constant aggression which does not adhere to a rules-based international order is not a successful formula for any country with global ambitions.
“No society can remain great if it loses faith in itself or if it systematically [engages] in self-perception,” the master of Machiavellian diplomacy concludes.