December 20, 2022
January 12, 2023
Kissinger in Washington, D.C.
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.
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.
He shows Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, as,
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,
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.
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."
These short biographies tell us little about the strategies that could work to tame it.
Kissinger shows us a completely different man, possessed of great military insight and tremendous political gifts.
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,
De Gaulle's friction with his wartime allies stemmed from divergent aims:
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,
...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:
Kissinger concedes that de Gaulle could be,
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.
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.
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 like,
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,
In turn, he warned China's rulers that it was vital that younger Chinese be,
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.
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,
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.
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
Kissinger claims that the pact transformed the conflict,
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.
Pakistan, he asserts, was,
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 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.)
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,
In these conversations, Indira Gandhi was "the witch" or "the old bitch."
The United States, Kissinger says at another point, cannot allow,
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
This previously unremarked episode now becomes "a turning point in the Cold War" because of China's potential involvement and, even more far-fetched,
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.
Answers are not to be
Goodbye to All That
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,
Kissinger intones that,
Looking back at history,
one can only conclude that they seldom did.
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.
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.
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,
This is a widely understood diagnosis.
Unfortunately, as he does
so often, Kissinger leaves the all-important "how" unaddressed.
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 ,
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,
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.
It is true that twenty-first century conditions are fundamentally different from those Kissinger knows best - 1814, 1950, or 1975:
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,