Setting aside Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, and Benjamin Netanyahu, each leading his country backward in different ways, the contemporary world does not offer examples of masterful, long-tenured political leadership. And so Henry Kissinger’s new book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, seems at first glance to be both timely and potentially valuable. Kissinger sets out to examine the ability of great leaders not just to deal successfully with the circumstances they face but to profoundly alter the history unfolding around them.

The leaders Kissinger chooses cover a broad swath of the history of the second half of the twentieth century. He shows Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, as a man humble enough to shoulder the moral burden of Hitler’s defeat; strong enough to give his divided country “the courage to start again,” this time with democracy firmly emplaced; and prescient enough to see the need for a federated Europe. The studies of Charles de Gaulle and Lee Kuan Yew, the architects of postwar France and modern Singapore, respectively, are fresh and full of interest. The chapter on U.S. President Richard Nixon and, to a lesser degree, the one on the Egyptian leader Anwar al-Sadat are largely devoted to retelling what Kissinger has written many times before about the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the opening to China, dealings with Russia, and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. Sadat’s story struggles at times to emerge from that of his powerful predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. It comes alive with the 1973 war with Israel and that conflict’s diplomatic aftermath, including the Camp David accords, which Kissinger reads as part of a broader (and ultimately failed) effort by Sadat to create a “new order in the Middle East.” The final study, of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom Kissinger credits with rescuing the United Kingdom from a spiral of mortal decline, is weakened by repeated descriptions of her warmth and “charm”—qualities that are hard to tally with a leader known, even to admirers, for extreme divisiveness and an inclination to bully.

If Leadership were a work of history or memoir, the volume would stand as an interesting treatment of six extraordinary individuals, though diminished by Kissinger’s need, even as he nears the age of 100, to keep himself in the spotlight, continually polishing his legacy and sanding the rough spots off his record in Washington from nearly a half century ago. But the book’s subtitle, “Six Studies in World Strategy,” advertises that readers will learn things relevant to solving present and future international challenges, especially those on a world scale. Here the book falls down, for it never convincingly leaves the two periods and places that have defined Kissinger throughout his life. One is Europe from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, from the Treaty of Westphalia to the outbreak of World War I, an era known for balance-of-power policy. Paraphrasing Napoleon, who remarked that to understand a man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20, it helps to recall that, as a young man, Kissinger wrote his doctoral dissertation on the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna, and his devotion to that era and its statecraft has never wavered. The other is the Cold War, the time of Kissinger’s service in government, which was defined by the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union and the small countries that became involuntary proxies in that conflict. He writes that his six subjects were “architects of the postwar . . . international order.” That may be true, but that order is over. Today’s disorder is profoundly different. These short biographies tell us little about the strategies that could work to tame it.

Mice And Men

Americans are likely to know Charles de Gaulle as the insufferably arrogant World War II ally whom President Franklin Roosevelt dismissed as having a Joan of Arc complex. Kissinger shows us a completely different man, possessed of great military insight and tremendous political gifts. In June 1940, de Gaulle was France’s most junior general, having served all of two weeks as undersecretary of defense. Yet as German forces closed in on Paris, he flew to London and, “with effectively nothing but his uniform and his voice,” invested himself as leader of the French resistance. There was more than mere chutzpah in this. He convinced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to recognize him “as leader of the Free French” and to give de Gaulle’s forces—which did not yet exist—the right to operate as autonomous units under their own officers. It was an astonishing performance by someone for whom, as Kissinger perfectly captures it, “politics was not the art of the possible but the art of the willed.”

De Gaulle’s friction with his wartime allies stemmed from divergent aims: the United States and the United Kingdom sought to defeat Germany, whereas de Gaulle was focused on obliterating the Vichy government and quickly “restoring France’s faith in itself.” In late 1944, with the war not yet won, de Gaulle judged that France needed to reenter international diplomacy as an independent actor and undertook to meet with Joseph Stalin. Unable to safely reach Moscow directly on a French plane, de Gaulle took, as Kissinger recounts, a circuitous route “via Cairo and Teheran to Baku on the Caspian Sea, followed by a five-day journey in a special train,” managing to become the first Allied leader to discuss the postwar settlement with the Soviet leader. Later, as the head of the provisional French government, he pushed through a series of dramatic policies, including the establishment of universal suffrage. By 1946, however, disagreeing with the weak executive emerging in drafts of France’s new constitution, de Gaulle abruptly resigned, entering what would become a 12-year political exile. Kissinger traces the intricate maneuvers by which the general returned to power and established the Fifth Republic’s strong presidency. The chapter covers much more: his dealing with the agony of Algeria, the restoration of Franco-German relations, his nuclear and NATO policies, and his dexterous handling of the 1968 protests that threatened yet another governmental collapse but ended instead with “the first absolute majority for one political grouping in the entire history of the French Republics.”

Kissinger concedes that de Gaulle could be “haughty, cold, abrasive and petty,” but balancing that, “no twentieth-century leader demonstrated greater gifts of intuition”; these were matched by the courage to act on his beliefs no matter how divorced they were from popular opinion. More than half a century after his death, Kissinger notes, French foreign policy can still be called Gaullist. “He walks through history as a solitary figure—aloof, profound, courageous, disciplined, inspiring, infuriating, totally committed to his values and vision.”

Kissinger in Washington, D.C., February 2005
Kissinger in Washington, D.C., February 2005
Jonathan Ernst JME / Reuters

Kissinger is similarly admiring of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore. Like de Gaulle, Lee willed something into being: in his case, a successful, stable country. Through three decades in power, he transformed a tiny, poor island—home to a splintered population of Chinese, Indians, and Malays with no shared history, language, or culture—into a cohesive state with the highest per capita income in Asia. He was able to do so in part by quickly crushing his political opposition and then ruling unchallenged. He was extraordinarily innovative in his economic and social policies, as well as in his creation of a national ethos of “shared success,” establishing four official languages—Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English—and in his early years, spending an astonishing one-third of the national budget on education. He used racial and income quotas to eliminate segregation in housing and defied the economic wisdom of the time by actively recruiting multinational corporations. He fought off corruption, reduced pollution, planted trees, and received a weekly report on the cleanliness of the restrooms at the airport where foreign investors might form their first impressions of the country. He also built, in Kissinger’s judgment, the most capable armed forces in Southeast Asia. What Lee did not do was leave Singapore with a democracy. Sounding a note of caution, Kissinger concludes that economic growth may not be enough to sustain Singapore’s social cohesion. Someday, the country will have to find a better balance between “popular democracy and modified elitism.”

Lee’s foreign policy was also deft. He held off neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia and, confronting the looming threat of the great powers, referred to Singapore as a “mouse” among “elephants,” and then set himself to closely study the elephants’ habits. Eventually he became a respected adviser to both Beijing and Washington. He counseled the United States not to “treat China as an enemy from the outset,” lest it push Beijing to “develop a counterstrategy to demolish the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific.” In turn, he warned China’s rulers that it was vital that younger Chinese be “made aware of the mistakes China made as a result of hubris and excesses in ideology” and learn to “meet the future with humility and responsibility.” Earlier than most, Lee understood the dilemmas that China’s growth would present, especially for Washington, and exhorted leaders on both sides of the Pacific to prevent the inevitable contest from turning into war. It is difficult to read Lee’s warnings without wishing that someone of equal stature was being heard today.

A Massacre Revisited

Kissinger’s treatment of Nixon will be familiar to readers of his previous books. With few exceptions, the roles of the president and of Kissinger himself, who served as national security adviser and later as secretary of state, are indistinguishable. Much of the chapter is defensive. Regarding the prolonged withdrawal from Vietnam, he asserts that “the righteous idealism that had inspired and sustained the country’s post-Second World War assumption of international responsibilities was now . . . invoked in wholesale repudiation of America’s global role.” Neither then nor now can Kissinger acknowledge that public and elite opposition to the war was not just a product of woolly-headed idealism or bleeding-heart morality. As, for example, in the case of his realist colleague Hans Morgenthau, it also stemmed from reasoning as hardheaded as his own that the war was jeopardizing U.S. national security interests.

What is new is a lengthy discussion of the 1971 crisis in what were then the separated parts of East and West Pakistan. This once forgotten episode, in which the U.S.-backed armed forces of West Pakistan massacred an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 East Pakistanis and drove some ten million refugees into India, became more widely known after the Princeton political scientist Gary Bass published The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide in 2013. The crisis arose when voters in East Pakistan chose a leader who called for the region’s autonomy from Pakistan, and that country’s military dictator, General Yahya Khan, ordered his military to crush the newly elected regional government. The United States did not object publicly or privately, and Nixon and Kissinger continued to secretly supply Pakistan with weapons, including F-104 fighter jets, ammunition, and spare parts, despite warnings from State Department and Pentagon lawyers and White House staff that the transfers were illegal.

Kissinger insists that Nixon’s approach to Bangladesh had nothing to do with “insensitivity.”

Eventually, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided that the only way to stop the flood of refugees was to end the killing. India invaded East Pakistan and crushed the Pakistani army, eventually leading to the founding of an independent Bangladesh. But despite its nonaligned status, India had recently concluded a friendship and military assistance pact with the Soviet Union. Kissinger claims that the pact transformed the conflict “from a regional and humanitarian challenge into a crisis of global strategic dimensions.” Indeed, during the invasion, Nixon dispatched ships from the U.S. Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal and urged China to threaten India by moving troops to the two countries’ shared border.

Kissinger attributes the passionate opposition to Nixon’s policy by U.S. diplomats in East Pakistan and others in Washington to “human-rights advocates” arguing for “largely symbolic gestures.” Pakistan, he asserts, was “already amply armed,” and U.S. disapproval would do nothing except “diminish American leverage.” But he also admits, in so many words, that what actually determined the U.S. stance was that Yahya Khan was serving as the key intermediary in the administration’s efforts to open relations with Mao Zedong’s China. Unfortunately, Kissinger writes, “the tragedy unfolding in East Pakistan coincided with and complicated our communications over the date and agenda of my impending secret trip to Beijing.” The administration would not take any action that held even the remotest chance of jeopardizing that process. (Kissinger does not make clear that that first crucial trip took place in July 1971, a timing that might account for the White House’s policy before that but that is less satisfactory in explaining its continued silence in the months that followed.)

A vicious, bigoted anti-Indian sentiment was also at work. Drawing on the once secret Nixon tapes, Bass shows that Nixon and Kissinger inflamed each other. The president said that what India really needed was a “mass famine” and that he couldn’t understand “why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country.” In these conversations, Indira Gandhi was “the witch” or “the old bitch.” The United States, Kissinger says at another point, cannot allow “Indian-Soviet collusion, raping a friend of ours.” Obviously, attitude affected policy, notwithstanding Kissinger’s insistence that the administration’s approach to the crisis had nothing to do with what he calls “insensitivity.” (He further belittles that term by adding that some conversations “did not reflect moral elevation.”)

What is most striking are the conclusions that Kissinger now draws from the tragic affair. This previously unremarked episode now becomes “a turning point in the Cold War” because of China’s potential involvement and, even more far-fetched, “the first crisis over the shape of the first genuinely global order in world history.” Raising the bar still higher, Kissinger even posits that a “global war over Bangladesh” was “possible.” Few would dispute that Nixon and Kissinger were juggling critical U.S. relations with both China and the Soviet Union or that the opening of relations with China held far greater strategic value in 1971 than did autonomy for East Pakistan. But serious questions remain. Did pursuing that opening require the stance Washington took? When policy in a democracy requires secrecy because of widespread opposition, how often does it produce a beneficial result in the long run? Do illegal acts—in this case arms transfers—by the government lower the threshold for bad behavior, leading others, in and out of government, to break the law? Is there a better balance to be found than obtained here between a realist concern for the national interest and a decent respect for human life, including brown, non-Christian life? Answers are not to be found here.

Goodbye to All That

In his closing chapter, Kissinger suggests that the subjects of his study lived in a golden time when the aristocratic system that had produced earlier generations of leaders was merging with a new, middle-class meritocracy. Aristocratic statesmen, recognizing that they had not earned their stations, felt a duty to public service. Leaders from different countries, belonging to the same social class, “shared a sensibility transcending national boundaries.” Kissinger intones that “to the extent that an aristocracy lived up to its values of restraint and disinterested public service, its leaders would tend to reject the arbitrariness of personal rule, governing through status and moral suasion instead.” Looking back at history, one can only conclude that they seldom did.

By contrast, the meritocratic leadership that arose after World War I made intelligence, education, and effort the path to success. When the two eras overlapped, individuals got the best of both worlds. But now the meritocracy, as Kissinger sees it, is faltering. Society pays too little attention to character, and education in high school and college shortchanges the humanities, producing “activists and technicians” but not citizens, including potential statesmen. It is true that the study of the humanities is out of fashion among students, but the criticism is badly overdrawn. Kissinger’s claim that “few universities offer an education in statecraft” ignores the great proliferation of schools of public policy in recent decades devoted to providing exactly that.

Further, he laments, today’s elites “speak less of obligation than of self-expression or their own advancement.” This seems to assume that social obligation can be expressed only in government service. How then can one account for the explosive growth in the number, size, and ambition of nongovernmental organizations—charities; aid, medical, and humanitarian groups; environmental organizations; think tanks; community development groups; and others—since the 1960s? Such groups are mostly staffed by people expressing their individual sense of social obligation. No one can quarrel with the importance of character, but there is too much rosy-hued nostalgia in Kissinger’s view of the past and not enough attention to the realities of the present.

Kissinger believes Russia will remain influential for decades.

Kissinger is on more solid ground when he steps away from the nature of leadership and turns to relations between China, Russia, and the United States. On the deepening rivalry between Washington and Beijing, he observes that China expects that its ancient civilization and recent economic advance should command deference, while the United States assumes that its own values are universal and should be adopted everywhere. Each is impinging “partly by momentum, importantly by design” on what the other considers its core interests. Given these collisions and incompatible world-views, the two powers will have to learn “to combine inevitable strategic rivalry with a concept and practice of coexistence.” This is a widely understood diagnosis. Unfortunately, as he does so often, Kissinger leaves the all-important “how” unaddressed.

Turning to Russia, Kissinger believes that the former superpower will remain influential for decades, notwithstanding its declining population and narrow economic base. He cautions that because of its vast territory and lack of geographic defenses, Russia suffers from “an abiding perception of insecurity” deeply rooted in its history. This is true. Catherine the Great captured this idiosyncratic fear in her remark that “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.” If Ukraine were to join NATO, Kissinger points out, the alliance’s border would be “within 300 miles of Moscow,” eliminating the strategic depth that Russia has always counted on. He has suggested elsewhere that the solution to the current conflict must therefore be a neutral Ukraine, but he does not explain how the country’s security as a neutral buffer state could be guaranteed. Russia, after all, has twice pledged to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, once when Kyiv was assigned an independent seat at the United Nations on the breakup of the Soviet Union and again in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum when Ukraine acceded to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Russia, with the United Kingdom and the United States, formally committed itself “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

Having been a close observer of U.S. foreign policy for longer than many current officials have been alive, Kissinger has as deep a knowledge as anyone of international affairs and of the beliefs and foibles of today’s leading international actors. He has an unparalleled—almost inhuman—memory. He knows how international deals get made and why they may fail. It is true that twenty-first century conditions are fundamentally different from those Kissinger knows best—1814, 1950, or 1975. National borders are infinitely more porous; crucial assets now lie outside nation-states; the influence of nongovernmental actors, from CARE to criminals, is immensely larger; the Cold War is over; nuclear arsenals, cheap cyberweapons, and a disrupted climate all pose existential threats; and the relative power of the United States is far less than it was when Kissinger served in government. Moreover, electorates all over the world are drastically changed from those of the Cold War and before, making the twentieth-century models Kissinger portrays of dubious relevance to today’s struggling leaders. For all that, if Kissinger could just allow the past to be past and put what he knows to work on the conditions of today and tomorrow, he could surely offer so much more.

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  • JESSICA T. MATHEWS is a Distinguished Fellow and former President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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